Walk into a 3rd-grade classroom and see children negotiating an obstacle course: desks, chairs and boxes create tunnels through which the students are crawling. A whistle blows and the students freeze in place; when a bell sounds, the kids once again negotiate their makeshift maze.
Now enter a 1st-grade classroom. The legs of the desks and chairs at which students work are padded with tennis balls. Loud play is sequestered in one side of the room. Just as noisy distractions are controlled, so are visual ones: there's little clutter, and the bulletin boards are spare rather than jumbled with bright colors. When children feel especially restless, they sit on "calming cushions" and use the set of worry beads they created in class.
What's going on? According to Canadian child-development expert Stuart Shanker of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative at York University, teachers and students in classrooms like these are working together to enhance the students' self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to a state of calm focus. When, through guidance by adults toward sensory awareness and impulse control, students gain greater self-regulation, their readiness for learning increases.
In his book Calm, Alert, and Learning, Shanker discusses how educators and parents may work with kids on self-regulation in the classroom, on the playground, and at home. (Note: Shanker is a colleague and friend of mine; we have published together and he cites my work in his book.)
Shanker's model is rooted in child-development science and knowledge of the nervous system, and is comprehensive across five domains: biological, emotional, cognitive, social and prosocial. For me, its key take-home message is this: what happens around the child in a critical moment — when calmness has fled and success at some task seems out of reach — makes all the difference because the child's behavior is part of a surrounding dynamic system.
Shanker speaks in systems terms when he talks about the importance of "reframing" a child's behavior. Here's what he told me this past Sunday:
So often we are annoyed or impatient when a child isn't paying attention, is easily distracted, impulsive, withdrawn, oppositional. And our message to the child, delivered verbally and/or non-verbally, is that he had better apply himself, exercise self-control, make a greater effort. Or else we try to get him to stop what he's doing or to do what we want with punishments or rewards, even though this really doesn't work and often makes things worse.
[Instead] we can work with the child to reduce his stressors and help the child learn how to do this for himself. There is no such thing as a bad child, or a lazy child, or a stupid child. These are just children. But if we do the wrong things, if we neglect them or are too hard on them, we can turn them into a bad, lazy or stupid child.
I'm not claiming that these ideas for helping kids are totally new, nor would Shanker. Stanley Greenspan (1941- 2010) is credited frequently in the book, to take only one example. What I find fresh and promising about Shanker's perspective is its refusal to heap blame — or too much praise — on a child.
Rather, Shanker and his team tap into the child's own ability for self-mastery. They invite educators, parents and anyone who cares about kids to bring abstract ideas about self-regulation into a place of concrete ideas and strategies. They go beyond the learning of skills like English and mathematics to boost the learning of empathy by children for other children and for animals.
All of us can, I believe, learn more effectively how to help children help themselves in combating the bombardment of stresses in today's world.
You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape