Earlier this year, I had the privilege of working with a group of parents of young people with mental health issues. They are part of an organization called F.O.R.C.E. and I was honoured to speak at their spring conference and share the self-regulation framework and its potential application to their children and the challenges they face. The session went well; people were engaged with the self-reg story, saw the links to their lived experiences, appreciated the neuroscience research behind self-regulation and its application at the individual, family, classroom, and community levels. It was clear that the conditions that promote or inhibit good mental health are equally evident at home, school and in the community and that a tie-in to the self-regulation framework is helpful.
Since that event, I have thought a great deal about what I learned from those parents and the stories they shared: the challenges, the necessary courage and the unwavering love and commitment they have for their children. Subsequent discussions with resource people from F.O.R.C.E. have deepened my awareness of the journey these kids and their parents are engaged in, sometimes with and sometimes without the system alignment, support and understanding they need. Think about a highly anxious and “dysregulated” child whose parents have worked hard to establish the best possible conditions at home. They have been tireless in their efforts to create a place where the child feels safe and nurtured, where she feels confident and competent to take risks, move out of a comfort zone and then activate strategies to return* to a “set point” of calmness and focus. *Remember that self-regulation is the capacity to expend energy in dealing with stressors and then replenish/restore energy to be ready for the next of life’s daily challenges. For that child, think about what happens when that she ventures out to the neighbourhood school and its community. When things go well, it is often because of the school staff’s professional capacity, founded in a culture of kindness and understanding, and a non-judgmental commitment that supports the young person’s journey. We don’t blame the dysregulated and overstressed/overwhelmed child; we get curious as to the conditions that led to such a state and we work with the child and family to alter some of the variables. Together, we are learning detectives. Thanks to teamwork and a positive home-school connection, we develop strategies to support self-regulation and, as necessary particularly for younger and more dependent children, to encourage co-regulation. That’s a good news story about highly committed supportive systems.
On the other hand, there can be a troubling version of the same story, one where the system rolls on, overwhelming the child with inflexible approaches, using louder and harder exhortations and increasingly anxiety-inducing reward and punishment. That approach is from a different era and we now know that overwhelming a child who is already anxious and off-balance doesn’t make things better. Which approach works? Ask the parent, the child and the teacher – there’s no doubt that building understanding, compassion and greater sophistication in strategies (in a post-behaviourist world), changes that youngster’s life chances dramatically.
The query “When will what we know change what we do?” is not the same as “When will what is known change what is done.” The former exhorts us to engage, to learn and to apply that learning. It requires new curiosity over old certainty. The latter gives us a free pass; we can wait for someone else to take charge and create an answer.
There are no free passes and there is no time to wait for someone else to solve this issue. Every day, we see and hear about examples of youth mental health crises and we know the range of stressors visiting themselves upon kids is exponentially greater than what was experienced in past generations. Kids with extreme anxiety, depression, social disconnection and other vulnerabilities are here now, in numbers greater than ever before. As our systems are asked to adapt to the emerging realities of the people they serve – especially the most vulnerable – the voices I heard at the F.O.R.C.E. session said “Thank you” to those who are on this journey with them, and “Please Hurry” to all of us as we turn our attention to their children’s needs. There is great work being done by experts in this field, and their discoveries have to become our promising practices. It is a powerful calling, with no time like the present.
It is fascinating to be immersed in another culture and to have begun to understand its education and human services systems. We see our own realities with fresh eyes and learn from colleagues on the same journey as they seek out promising practices to build capacity…one child at a time.
Stuart Shanker and I were in Perth, Western Australia for two weeks engaging with school and early childhood educators, social service agencies, Aboriginal and other community leaders. We were there at the invitation of a remarkable organization, Western Australia Council of Social Service (WACOSS). Their work is to develop an aligned, sustainable and coherent voice and action plan for the many agencies whose mission is to support those who have the greatest needs and whose voices are often most distant from places of influence. WACOSS is in the early stages of activating self-regulation theory (see www.self-regulation.ca) as a common framework for their programs and initiatives. Our visit involved teaching, learning and hearing others’ stories, many of which are remarkably similar to our own in BC and across Canada. Here are three compass points in our common ground:
1) The better the start, the better the trajectory…Western Australia is increasingly paying attention to how they construct their early childhood initiatives, parent support programs and effective transition from home to school. In some of the places we visited, accessibility and flow of programs and services was beautifully clear to the clients. That’s the key and we can learn from the best of what our Australian friends are doing. They have gone beyond the fairly typical program design, one that makes most sense to those who built it. In WA, it was encouraging to see the goodness of fit for the parent and the child, especially those who already deal with multiple barriers as they navigate systems. In BC, our StrongStart Centres are a big step in the right direction, but there is more to achieve. Every step we take to be warm and welcoming, caring and compassionate is another support for the anxious family toward feeling safe and secure and beginning to see hope;
2) Smarter together rather than harder alone…In the human services sector in Western Australia, various agencies are aligning efforts to maximize the cumulative impact of their resources, ensuring a positive difference for their most vulnerable populations. That was apparent in many meetings and presentations where was excitement about activating self-regulation theory as a common touchstone for their programs. It was clear that this wasn’t the first time these people had played well together in the same sandbox. They are embracing emerging science around the human condition as they strive to make the biggest possible difference to the people and communities they serve. An essential element of their commitment is the voice of the Aboriginal community in the collaborative planning. There is a clear understanding that reconciliation includes acknowledging the past and building a shared future; and,
3) Evidence over ideology…In difficult times for social agency resourcing (both government and non-government), staff are engaged in reviews around the currency and research-based validity of their programs. They are taking another look at “old school” reward and punishment norms that used to be part of institutional culture. Caring, quality programs don’t extinguish hope by excluding those who struggle. There are better ways to support individual growth, hence the WA interest in self-regulation.
Our experience in Western Australia was tremendously engaging, every day filled with exciting learning and great promise. There are so many people doing fine work there, as is true of their contemporaries at home. North and south, these professionals are more curious than certain. They work scientifically, artfully and always with good heart to understand the human condition and to reframe individual and system responses to dysregulated kids and families. Shame and blame don’t build capacity. There is a better way.
As part of my role in support of various self-regulation projects, I often receive notes and updates from places where the initiative is developing. Almost always, those notes reinforce for me an essential truth about education: it is not the elegance, complexity or perfection of any innovation’s design that leads to its success; rather, it is the spirit of collaboration, flexibility and hopefulness that moves the dial. It is curiosity over certainty, and it embraces the notion that lifelong learning is for the adults too. Whether we are talking about self-regulation, project-based learning, quality classroom assessment practices, incorporating the arts across the curriculum, addressing youth mental health…or any of the other complex and vital work being done in schools everywhere, the secret sauce of successful innovation is teamwork, trust and willingness to take risks.
Following is an example celebrating the work of collaborative, hopeful and flexible people, those curious and determined educators who commit to doing the right thing and doing it well. The writer shares her comments (edited for brevity) in an update on the expansion of her district’s self-regulation work over the past 18 months from a small initial elementary school “First Wave” to an expansion that includes more elementary schools and the launch of a secondary school initiative. She wrote:
The secondary cohort met last week. The buzz in the room grows stronger each time this group comes together. Collectively, they continue to be highly reflective, connecting the principles of self-regulation to the needs of their students, the kids they see every day. One of the district staff’s Helping Teachers has become a “regular” at the sessions, linking research, highlighting classroom applications, providing rich learning experiences for all. It is clear that S-R has become an essential part of who they are as educators. There is no turning back for this group.
The original group (which started their project last year) is meeting next week. I am not sure that any of the participants have experienced a professional learning journey that could rival the self-regulation odyssey. As expected, they continue to take the lead in building capacity at their respective sites. Several have received requests from neighbouring schools and a couple have been asked to provide in-service at schools that have not been involved in self-reg to date. These teacher-leaders are powerful, authentic voices.
The new cohort will be attending the fourth session of the year within the next couple of weeks. In the interim, they continue to receive support through regular site visits and informal networking opportunities. The feedback, insights and themes that have emerged from these site visits will most certainly frame the work moving forward. We have learned (and reminded ourselves) that differentiation is key. Some schools are flying; in those places the school-based S-R group continues to grow and there is a comprehensive understanding of the principles, a recognition that direct teaching is essential, deep reflection of practice, and intentional exploration of data collection. At these schools the principal is actively involved in the work, group members self-identified and teachers are leading the charge. We also recognize that there are some situations where more time is needed to develop the understandings and apply the principles to classroom practice. These schools are well on their way. Regardless of where schools fall along this continuum, it is universally understood that the work is more than simply “doing self-reg”, using some of the tools, some of the strategies and some of the language. In the absence of a deeper understanding, any implementation would appear to be the pursuit of the quick fix.
An appreciation for the self-regulation framework and way of thinking never leaves you…I was at an in-service on differentiated instruction and the facilitator showed a clip of Captain Sully, the pilot who landed in the Hudson River. He was being interviewed by Katie Couric (CBS at the time). Take a look…it is all about the power and importance of self-regulation. While the presenters were making a case for differentiated learning opportunities within a classroom, they were also highlighting the imperative around S-R. Talk about calm, focused and alert!!
Good people doing good work…together. It’s life long learning any way you look at it.
Over the past few years and more and more frequently now, I have been fortunate to work with Dr. Stuart Shanker on a national and international self-regulation initiative (see www.self-regulation.ca). In sessions across various jurisdictions, we engage with groups in a learning journey that takes people and school systems to new understandings of how people function – from surviving to thriving – all based on the neuroscience foundations of self-regulation. In exploring and engaging in self-regulation learning (a post-behaviourist construct), we begin to challenge long-held assumptions about learning, teaching and interacting, allowing us to apply what we have begun to understand in new ways, both personal and professional. Of course, none of this process is linear. It’s the same for all kinds of significant learning. Think of it as a spiral of discovery.
Stuart and I were recently working with a group on a large, system-wide self-regulation project. We were discussing the self-reg framework we use to explain the 5 domains that make up our personal architecture and the six levels of energy/arousal that describe the expenditure and replenishment of energy.
I won’t unpack the framework in this blog post. It has been referenced in previous blog posts and you can check on the self-reg website for a range of resources that will help with understanding both its complexity and its simplicity.
During the recent presentation, I began to think about the science of self-regulation as it applies to system health as well as to individuals. The framework isn’t new to me. I know it well as one of the key resources as Stuart and I use and we often reference specific cases to illustrate various states, their causes and impacts. But I had always considered it in the context of our individual neurophysiology. What became apparent to me was that this same framework can be equally descriptive and helpful to us in considering organizational health and efficacy. Think about it.
System architecture has the same 5 domains we use to describe individual human make up: “Biological, Emotional, Cognitive, Social and Pro-Social.” In systems work, we might think about labels like Human Resources/Talent, Culture, Skill, Teamwork, and Social Responsibility as equivalent (not perfect but adequate) to the five individual domains. There is even a better match between individuals and systems when we look along the vertical axis at the self-regulation energy levels: Asleep, Drowsy, Hypo-alert, Calm/Focused/Alert, Hyper-alert and Flooded.
Systems behave in many of the same ways individuals do when it comes to the ability to “self-regulate.” That is, they have a range of capacities allowing them to respond to and recover from stressors. Like individuals who are dysregulated, there are consequences and costs to system functionality and health as a result of dysregulation. And just like individuals, it is possible to get stuck in an unhealthy state – an unproductive and unsustainable “set point” – one is more and more difficult from which to recover.
In successful systems, appropriate resources are activated in response to stressors. This occurs multiple times per day, to allow the system/organization to return to a healthier and more productive state; one that is calm, focused and alert. Success in dealing with stressors begets further success. Conversely, organizations that are routinely over-stressed (hyper-alert or flooded) or under-energized (hypo-alert or drowsy) find it difficult to return to a balanced state in expending and restoring energy to function positively and productively. Just as success begets success, it is equally true that “dysfunction begets dysfunction” and systems can end up stuck in that self-fulfilling reality.
Self-regulation for individuals and for systems: it’s an interesting parallel and when we raised it briefly with session participants, there were a number of people for whom the connection made a great deal of sense. They talked about having worked in systems that were “flooded” and therefore unable to deal thoughtfully, rationally, calmly and productively with emergent issues. Those places were constantly in crisis and basic survival became the priority. There was no energy for much else. Others referenced experiences where there was an “under-response” to matters of significance. Their workplace/organization was sluggish and poorly attuned to signals requiring attention and action. Those places have a feeling of lassitude and sense of resignation and hopelessness. Of course, many others validated their workplace as an environment where there was skilful activation of strategies to promote a return to a positive set point in a timely manner.
None of us can avoid stressors and the related energy expenditure, either personally or in our organizations. The good news is that we do have the potential and the knowledge (what we know influencing what we do) to respond to those stressors effectively. Take another look at the self-regulation framework. It makes sense from many angles.
In the weeks leading up to this Christmas season, I enjoyed several last visits to schools prior to my retirement at the end of December. I was looking for something and, as often happens, we find what we are looking for… In this case, it was gratifying to engage in positive dialogue that highlighted the remarkable work of teachers, administrators, education assistants and other school staff – all the professionals who make the difference for kids every day. These people reminded me how fully we now “get” what the secret sauce is for great schools: they are the places that manage to create the right mix of hope and skill, both of which are essential and neither of which is sufficient on its own.
In those school visits – and in your schools and mine – hope was evident in the clearly shared belief that each of our kids has the necessary curiosity, abilities and talents, either active or latent, to allow him or her to engage, to learn and to be successful. It wasn’t generalized or unfocused hope, though. Colleagues shared stories of their efforts several layers beyond the obvious and the relentless positive energy and skill they commit to connecting with their most resistant students. Our conversation included attention to establishing and maintaining social/emotional learning environments that are productive for kids and for adults. We all work better in positive, safe and hopeful places and we know that where cynicism, anxiety or defeatism reign, failure isn’t far behind. The people I talked to aren’t willing to allow that toxin to invade their space. They understand the life-changing role that education has for every student: for some it supports a move from good to great; for others it reinforces the importance of hard work/resilience/grit as crucial for success; and for another cohort, quality education takes a youngster from surviving to thriving. These professionals “hope” for a better future for all children and they work together to deliver it.
Skill was also front and center as a theme in the visits. It is the other ingredient in the secret sauce. Within a framework of hope and a positive school culture, educators are embracing and adopting the evolving art and science of good teaching, individualized learning and appropriate scaffolding of experiences so kids experience the right blend of high expectations and specific support. A growing interest in neuroscience and all of the uptake of the self-regulation framework are indicators of professional practice that is constantly being refined. Engagement in thoughtful dialogue around the EdPlan indicates that we are now well along the transition from a time when facts and factoids formed curricular essentials and memorization ruled the day. Developing key competencies for life keeps learners (we are all learners) nimble. Essential in combination with the curriculum transformation is our quest for better and more authentic ways to assess learning – light years beyond the old report card reward & punishment retrospective that served to archive for what was rather than to influence what could be. Skilful educators are like professionals everywhere, constantly reviewing and refining their work and connecting with others to share emerging quality practice.
As I left the last of those schools, it was reassuring and energizing to see the best of our education communities and to anticipate what lies ahead for learning and for learners. We get it right when hope and skill mix, resulting in the activation of all the art and science that are foundational to our profession. Exciting times ahead! Wonderful places to be.