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!

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