One School’s Story
from Chaos to Calm
by Jenny Williams, SCSBC Director of Educational Support Services ◊
The story of this transformed school seemed almost too good to be true. I sat in a principal’s office a couple of months ago, leaning forward on the edge of my seat as the principal described the journey of their school over the past three years from a school on the brink of chaos, to the exemplary school I saw that day. This particular public school had an unusually high number of students with complex needs; high anxiety and frequent meltdowns were the daily norm. So what was the turning point for this school? There is no doubt that it started with a unified team and a visionary leader committed to making a change, but it also involved working together with a Christian independent school as well as a local church. The school began by conducting a 360 degree review that was self-reflective of their practices. They took the results to help move forward and embarked on their journey with the teachers reviewing Stuart Shanker’s Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation¹. I’ll come back to the school in a moment, but first let’s take a closer glimpse at what we mean by self-regulation.
What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to control our own thoughts, emotions and behaviour to meet the demands of the situation. In foundational research presented in Baumeister and Vohs’ Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory and Applications², it describes several processes involved in self-regulation, including the ability to:
- regulate physically
- regulate emotionally
- regulate behaviourally
- regulate socially
- regulate cognitively
- regulate morally
Why is self-regulation important?
Self-regulation is a powerful set of skills that have a significant impact on children throughout their lives. Greater academic achievement is only one of the positive outcomes and self-regulation is seen as an even stronger predictor of academic success than IQ³. Other positive outcomes of self-regulation include increased problem-solving skills, better interactions with peers, increased intrinsic motivation, higher self-worth, improved moral conduct, fewer behaviour problems as well as a decrease in mental illness.4 Self-control is also one of the most important factors that helps us to live together peaceably and serve one rather than to primarily focus on helping oneself.
How is self-regulation developed?
Children can vary considerably in their capacity to self-regulate; it is a very complex behaviour that requires a number of underlying cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills. Self-regulation has roots in our biological makeup and temperament6. These biological links do not mean that self-regulation is completely innate. Environmental factors have a strong influence as well, such as attachment with significant adults, external controls and organization put on by others, as well as being taught strategies of how to regulate behaviour and emotions. Developing self-regulation takes time – about twenty years for most people – but it also takes the consistent support of parents and other adults as well as through the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is a Christian view of self-regulation?
From a Christian view, self-regulation is not something we simply do in our own strength, but by His Spirit, as Galatians 5:22-23 says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. When the Holy Spirit is an active presence in our daily lives, He helps us to control our fleshly desires by directing us to the things that please God and serve others. Titus 2:11-12 instructs, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age”. In order to work towards a loving community with God and others, individuals must be able to use self-restraint and make choices that are good for others as well as for oneself and develop other-centred social behavior that is often at odds with self-centred interests.
Back to the school visit … as the principal conducted my tour throughout the school, she pointed out some of the important landmarks in their journey towards transformation:
Significant changes were made in the physical environment of the school to address physical/biological regulation and reduce auditory and visual sensory overload. Deep breathing practices were introduced after recess, lunch and PE to help with changes in energy levels during transitions. The classrooms looked and sounded more like areas we might see in our own homes with softer lighting, plants, soothing paint colours and soft background music. Self-regulation tools such as earphones and mini-trampoline became tools that were available to all students as needed. Nutritional needs were addressed from an outside source through local churches who brought in volunteers and funding to support a healthy breakfast and lunch program for students.
The behavioural environment was also addressed through the introduction of a school-wide emphasis on positive behaviour. This helped students learn and develop appropriate behaviour in every area of the school and all the staff used the same language across the school. When problems occurred there was a focus on learning the correct procedures rather than punishing non-compliant behaviour. The use of visuals and the positive and consistent reinforcement was key to some individuals with low language ability learning appropriate behaviour.
Emotional and Social Regulation
Emotional regulation training was introduced by Jennifer Kolari7 who used the Calm program as a means of working with students whose lives were touched by trauma, giving them valuable tools for supporting the emotional development of all students in the school. All the staff, including the office secretary, worked on relationship-based practices, connecting with students at a very personal level. Self-regulation in the context of social relationships can be learned, even for those with limited skills. Every class started with a brief morning check in and curriculum was introduced that systematically taught and supported the students’ emotional and social growth, and included such skills as sharing, compromising and negotiating. Students were taught how to play together and to solve problems as they arose in every setting of the school, including non-structured environments such as the playground.
Teachers changed their model of instruction in several ways to accommodate effective brain-based learning strategies. Learning targets were listed as “I can” statements and students reflected on their own progress towards the targets. Whole brain teaching involving movement were introduced; as language is better understood when connected with actions8. Whole group lessons were short, followed by flexible smaller groups working together productively. Students were taught classroom processes; even in Grade 2, the students knew all the procedures for the language arts program using the Daily 5 Café. Support from a nearby Christian school came in the form of Grade 8 students reading every week with younger students in the public elementary school. Students accepted that they all learn differently and need support at different times. Children learned to identify the tools they needed to help them regulate better cognitively.
In conclusion, the use of this holistic approach to self-regulation led to significant gains for all the students academically, socially and emotionally. The atmosphere of the school was transformed from one of chaos to one of calm. Everyone appreciated the outreach and support from the Christian school and churches working together with
the public school in their community. Staff disclosed that the programs, collaboration, team-work and support had a profound influence on their teaching and job satisfaction; they had been equipped with tools for teaching the diverse needs of all their students so that all their students were really learning and growing.
- Shanker, Stuart. Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation. Pearson Canada, 2013.
- Baumeister, Roy & Vohs, Kathleen. Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory and Applications, 2nd edition, 2013. The Guildford Press, New York.
- Duckworth, Angela & Seligma, Martin. 2005. Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 12, 939-944.
- Cook, J.L. & Cook, G. 2009 edition. Child Development Principles and Perspectives (p. 352-355). Allyn & Bacon
- Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda & Monica Rodriguez, “Delay of Gratification in Children”, Science, May 26, 1989; 224, 4907.
- Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000. “Effortful Control in Early Childhood: Continuity and Change, antecedents and implications for social development.” Developmental Psychology. 200 March, 36 (2): 220-32.
- Kolari, Jennifer. YouTube video “Jennifer Kolari: The CALM Technique and Child Brain Development”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q28IrZq14hk
- Beilock, Sian L. “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveals about Getting it Right When You Have to”. Free Press, New York. 2010