Self-Regulation: The Impact of the Environment


“The ability to self-regulate, or to set limits for oneself, allows a child to develop the emotional well-being and the habits of mind, such as persistence and curiosity, that are essential for early learning and that set the stage for lifelong learning. Self-regulation involves attention skills, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – qualities that provide the underpinning for essential skills needs throughout life, such as planning and problem-solving skills.”  (VVG, Edugains, pg 3)


So let’s recap…we have moved our understanding of self-regulation away from seeing it as self-control and compliance, to the understanding that it is about a child’s ability “to manage (their) own energy states, emotions, behaviours and attention, in ways that are socially acceptable and help achieve positive goals, such as maintaining good relationships, learning and maintaining wellbeing” (Shanker,  We also know that it is the foundation for student engagement and motivation.  It is a factor that educators at all levels must be knowledgeable about and consider.

As an educator and a mother, I am becoming increasingly aware of how the children (and adults) around me are able to deal “effectively and efficiently” (as Shanker describes) with stressors. When I speak with educators about children struggling to be able to engage in learning (due to lack of attention, motivation, energy), I am finding myself wondering what types of stressors the environment (and I use this term broadly to include not just the physical environment but the social environment, the academic, the home environment, etc.) is inadvertently placing on and negatively impacting the child’s ability to learn (Conditions for Learning).

This really began to make sense to me when I heard Shanker speak in 2011.  He described children’s struggle to deal effectively and efficiently with stressors – for example, noise, light, and movement, too much sugar, lack of exercise (the importance of not taking away recess or gym class for some students!), lack of sleep, or frightening experiences during infancy and childhood – that can result in a chronic state of energy-depletion.  He spoke about children moving through six “arousal states” – asleep, drowsy, hypoalert, calmly focused and alert (which is where optimal learning happens), hyperalert and flooded.  “When children are calmly focused and alert, they are best able to modulate their emotions; pay attention; ignore distractions; inhibit impulses; assess the consequences of an action; understand what others are thinking and feeling, and the effects of their own behaviours; or feel empathy for others” (Think, Feel, Act, Shanker, 2014).

From my own study of self-regulation, I am now beginning to understand this – some children have to work really hard to cope with their environment.  This hard work depletes their energy state, which, if not replenished (by food, rest, choice, exercise, a hug from a caregiver, or some other type of intervention that has shown to help the child to recharge), will result in a “no energy left in the tank” situation; thus the child may not be able to control their responses to the environment. “Whatever a child is actively doing demands fuel, and the size of that cost will vary according to the activity, the situation, and most importantly, the child. In other words, two children might have to expend very different amounts of energy – be at very different points on the arousal continuum – in order to engage in the same activity”  (Shanker, Makes me think about how school depletes the “bank account” for some of our learners…and how we, throughout the course of the school day, must “replenish all of those withdrawals”!

It also reminds me of the Learning For All Pyramid of Intervention which helps us to think about the levels of support that each child in our care requires in order to achieve success.


How are we ensuring that we not only provide level one/primary support to all children (which is critical), but also provide  support which is specific and targeted interventions (level 2/secondary) to those children who require it in order to achieve success?  Sometimes I wonder if we need to consider our Conditions for Learning in terms of what is good for all and necessary for some?  Maybe our Things to Consider need some further attention?

Until next week…when I continue to shorten up my reflections!

8 responses

  1. Great post Nicki

    Your thoughts have me thinking very much about the difference between equity and equality. I recently had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Jean Clinton speak about meeting the needs of our learners who might struggle with mental health. She spoke very carefully about the notion of equity not being confused with equality. Equity is ensuring that each student gets what is needed for them to learn and it is not about having the same as the next individual. I truly believe that our conditions for learning speak to equity and not equality.


  2. Nicki, your post made me think about how important exercise is for children (and adults for that matter) and the impact it has on our overall state – including self-regulation. I often think about how the amount of ‘screen-time’ is increasing for so many kids, and small communities not having ‘organized’ sports for kids to participate in and how this is having a detrimental effect on our youth. It makes me wonder about how we could be organizing our day to ensure that our learners are able to engage in exercise to help them to refuel their body and mind…how important those brain/body breaks throughout the day are!


  3. You hint in your post that self regulation is applicable to children young and old. I do want to underscore the point that the strategies Stuart Shanker outlines in Calm, Alert and Learning are as applicable to adolescents as they are to children and may even have a broader application. Studies have shown that the brain continues to develop well into the 20’s. Wiring in the brain is about 80% complete by the age of 18 (Jensen, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientists Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, 2014). In fact the last area to be hooked up is the pre-frontal cortex, which controls insight, judgment, self-awareness and empathy – the brain’s so called “executive” functions. At the same time that teens brains are still forming these connections puberty has triggered to release hormones that are acting on the brains emotional center. The combination of heightened emotions and an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex explains why teens are often prone to emotional outbursts and why they seek out more emotionally charged situations – the drama! For this reason it is as important for our secondary teachers to know about self-regulation as it is for our elementary teachers.


  4. Absolutely essential for secondary staff to understand and to help teach. Self-regulation not only allows our children to learn, think about how it can help them in the future…in high school, at college and in the workplace. People who are unable to cope with their environment will struggle throughout life. We have these ‘little learners” here and we can help them to develop coping skills now, something that may not be provided to them later in life!
    Dave – the stats that you have quoted on brain development are alarming, given the impact of alcohol and drug use and the average age that children are engaging in these activities.
    Kathleen – what worries me as much as a lack of organized sports scares me so too are the alternatives that are available to these kids. I guess we know why the government is really pushing Healthy Kids initiatives! And I am thankful that SGDSB supports where we can!


  5. This was a topic of discussion yesterday as some of the teachers and I were going over report card comments and evaluations of student’s self-regulation along with the other learning skills. One area of focus for us was when we are evaluating a student as “E” in self-regulation, is it that they are really excellent in their ability to self regulate or is it that they are being compliant? With some of the students the teacher did say, “You know what, I think they are just one of those students who are compliant. They are students who come by learning easily and like to please. I’m not sure if they were faced with a problem or a difficult situation how they would self-regulate.” This was really thought provoking for us. We continued to go through some of the other student who had been given an “E” in this area, and the same educator said, “I think these ones do deserve an E.” When I asked why she thought this she responded: “This student does have difficulty focusing and is distracted by the noise in the classroom. When he is finding he is distracted he independently goes and gets the headphones and puts them on. He will move to an area where he can focus without teacher intervention or prompting.” For the other student she referred to the fact that when he is at the carpet he will regularly get up and move to another area if he is finding he is distracted by the students he is sitting beside. He will also do this during independent work time. Similar to the other student, he requires no teacher prompting to make these decisions. All of these strategies are ones that the teacher presents to the students and that they try out. For some, they don’t respond independently. Even when they are reminded to use the headphones or go to a quiet area they choose not to and then continue in their aroused state. For these students however, she was able to provide evidence that she has collected through observation that they are self-regulating. They have taken the strategies learned in class, made the connection that they help them to focus, and are now applying them on their own. With many of our other students who are displaying difficulties with self-regulation and the other learning skills as identified in their report cards….this is now our teaching focus with these students. We know that we are responsible for teaching and supporting them in the development of the learning skills. This is the “how,” which is the work! Together as a staff we will endeavor to dig into some practical strategies we could put in place to help our students develop these skills. A lot of the time as educators we don’t want to take the time to “teach” the learning skills as we want to use every minute of our time on the content areas of the curriculum. But, as per one of our other discussions, if we don’t take the time to teach and release these skills to our students right from JK they may not develop to their full potential.


  6. WOW! Thank you for the many thought provoking comments and insights into our roles, the essential nature of supporting the development of self-regulation and the thinking about the environmental conditions that need to be in place. Again, this is yet another reason that supports why we need to truly know our students. For report cards, we also have to remember that self-regulation includes goal setting, monitoring their progress towards achieving the goals and identifying strategies to reach those goals, seeking clarification, managing emotions, and persevering when encountering challenges. Self-regulatory behaviour exhibits itself in many ways as learners get older.


  7. Working Definition:
    “Self-regulation refers to how students think about their thinking and their learning (metacognition), how they take strategic action to learn (self-assessment) and how they engage socially and emotionally in learning (engagement).” Ministry of Education


  8. George D. just heard Shanker speak last week and was raving about him and his thoughts on self regulation. He was talking about the child who is stressed and not hearing instruction (or choices) due to his stress – behaviours can escalate when one misunderstands what’s actually happening. I also really appreciate Kellie’s comment about compliance and whether that shows self regulation or not.


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