Thursday, March 15, 2018


Since the fall, I have been taking the Foundations Course with the MEHRIT Centre, based at Trent University, with Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Calm, Alert and Learning and Self-Reg.  What I have learned has had a profound effect on my practice as an educator.  I have learned that the bond between baby and mother affects the baby’s brain development, even before birth.  I have learned that when exposed to repeated excessive stress a child can develop a negative bias, a habit of thinking that threats are everywhere, and a hypervigilance that interferes with relationships, learning and overall wellness.  I have also learned about some helpful and effective ways to respond to children whose anxiety or sensitivity leads them to behave in unexpected ways.

Shanker strongly believes that children want to do well, but sometimes have maladaptive responses to stress, the sources of which may be hidden.  He believes there are five domains of stressors:  biological, emotional, cognitive, social and pro-social.  The job of a caring adult is to help children co-regulate in response to stress.  We can do this by reframing the behavior as a stress response rather than misbehavior.  We can then try to determine what is the source of the stress, and seek to reduce or remove it by soothing the child.  Reflecting on this process and developing self-awareness can then help a child develop strategies for responding to stress and restoring equilibrium, returning to a state of calm.
Now when I see children through the lens of self-regulation, I am less likely to feel annoyance or impatience.  I feel very curious about what the stressors might be, and I look for ways to alleviate the anxiety that is causing the behaviour.

Recently, I have been thinking about how stressful some children must find recess and lunch outdoor playtime.  Even though we know that outdoor play is really beneficial for children, it is unstructured and has the potential for a lot of discomfort in each of the domains.  One idea I have is to equip each class with not just balls and Frisbees and skipping ropes, but also playing cards, jacks, marbles, sidewalk chalk, dexterity toys and other things to choose from.  I think these kits might help those students who find the length of time and unpredictability of the recess stressful.  We shall see.
I am very proud of my teachers who have been creating flexible learning spaces in their classrooms.  These micro-environments held students build stamina for learning.  When kids are comfortable and able to stand, sit, or kneel, they will far more likely persevere at tasks.  When the lighting is soft, the colours and visuals not overly stimulating, students are more calm and able to focus.  We have noticed a big difference.  For example, this year very few students have been sent to the office for misbehavior.  Three years ago, this took up most of my time.  It also helps that this year class sizes are significantly smaller in the intermediate grades, giving teachers more time to deal with less serious infractions.  Teachers are more willing to do hands-on learning activities when they do not have as many students to manage.  This boosts interest, engagement, and academic success.
Learning through the Foundations course has given me a renewed sense of responsibility toward the learners in my school, child and adult alike.  People need to feel safe, secure, cared-for, and calm in order to do their best at anything.  We, the adults, have the privilege and responsibility of co-regulating, of helping younger brains develop, of being half of the dyad for each school day.  I did not know that my brain was so fundamentally important in this process. Now that I do, I feel a stronger sense of belonging and purpose.  Thank you, Dr. Shanker!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

School Expectations for Parents

When I was asked by a Brighouse Public librarian to present to parents new to Canada on the topic of School Expectations, I had to stop and think:  What do we expect of our students' parents?  At the most basic level, we expect that parents will send their children to school having had proper nutrition, play, and sleep.  If they can read at home, even better.  This would have made a very short presentation, but an important one, as some of our students do come to school with fishy crackers and sugary drinks for lunch, they fall asleep at their desks, and are bored by any activity that does not involve a screen.  Apologies!  We know everyone is doing their best, but even when one of these three factors is true for a student, it is really hard for them to learn.  It breaks our hearts. "If only they had some protein in that lunch, and a vegetable!" we moan.  And then we wonder, how can we help?

I thought about the many questions parents pose to me when they are upset or just curious. These are a few.

When can my child use the bathroom?
Will they be safe on the playground at recess?
Why do you have combined classrooms?
How did you make those classes anyway?
How can I help my child with homework (especially math)?
How will you discipline the child who was mean to mine?
Is my child getting all of the attention he needs?
What is the new curriculum all about?
How can I communicate effectively with my childs teacher?

So I added slides to my PowerPoint, not with answers to all of these questions, but with suggestions and language to use with teachers, to try to bridge the communication gap between home and school.

I think that the most important slide had these three suggestions:

       Normalize and support your child’s struggles – model a growth mindset rather than a fixed one.
       Put students in charge of homework when possible – help create routines and structure, but do not make it a power struggle.
       Support a child with challenging peer interactions.  Help them know that your trust them to make good choices.

The first is the most important, as it informs the other two.  When a child can be comfortable with uncertainty, resilient in the face of disappointment, and show grit and determination when challenged physically or intellectually, they will be much better prepared for school then with times-tables memorized.  It is no wonder that the books by Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough are so popular.  We are desperate to help children become thinkers – creative, critical and empathetic thinkers.

If we had one wish, it would be that students would come to school with curiosity.  Hunger and thirst for knowledge can be fed and watered!

For a copy of the PowerPoint, or to ask me any questions, please contact me through