Self-regulation technique helps students focus in class

Self-regulation, a philosophy of education that is moving into public schools in British Columbia and other parts of the country, helps students reduce stress that can prevent them from focusing and behaving properly in class.

Teachers try new approach to improving students' behaviour

Celine Feazel takes her Grade 6/7 class at MJ Shannon school out for a run every morning to shake out the lethargy and reduce stress. By the end of the day, when the kids are slowing down again mentally, they can leave a note on their desk, pick a buddy and head out for a run by themselves. (Karin Wells/CBC)

At Cindrich elementary school in Surrey, B.C., 10-year-old boys are putting themselves to bed earlier, an enthusiastic girl in Grade 6 takes herself for a run when she’s feeling hyper, and a diminutive boy who is still learning English tells his teacher he will do better work if he sits on a special cushion.

It is all part of self-regulation, a philosophy of education that is moving into public schools in British Columbia.

The Surrey School district is the largest of six districts in B.C. that has taken it on, almost out of self-defence.

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“I just saw kids coming into my classroom and me getting frustrated at their behaviour,” says Lianne McBride, a Grade 5 teacher at Cindrich. 

McBride says she became one of what Surrey is calling its first wave of self-regulation teachers because she realized, “I love my job, but … there’s got to be a different way to reach kids, for them to reach themselves, because what I’m doing isn’t working.”

Self-regulation ultimately hands the job of taking charge of their learning and their behaviour back to the kids.

Teachers look for what is stressing a child and making them unable to  pay attention, lethargic, or hyper sometimes to the point where they are out of control. It might be too much noise in the classroom, too little sleep or too much junk food in their lunch.

Then the teachers help the child recognize what they need to do to make themselves calm and productive in class.

Remembering what calm means

Stuart Shanker, a distinguished research professor of philosophy and psychology at York University, is the pied piper of self-regulation in the schools. He maintains that Canadian kids do not know what it is to feel calm any more. There is too much stimulation in their lives.

Shanker worked with the late Fraser Mustard, a respected figure in childhood education in Canada.

Stuart Shanker, a professor of philosophy and psychology at York University, says Canadian children do not know what it is to feel calm any more because there is too much stimulation in their lives. (Courtesy Stuart Sjhanker)

Eight years ago, they began tracking the escalating numbers of anxiety disorders, depression, and behaviour problems - not to mention the seemingly endless cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“There is more public and physician awareness,” he says, “and we are being too liberal in our diagnoses.” But he adds that no matter how you cut it, “there is something going on out there. We have never seen numbers like this”

Shanker and Mustard concluded that children are dealing with an overwhelming amount of stress, defined as anything that makes the brain burn excess energy.

That idea isn’t new. What is new is the neuroscience supporting it.

There has been a growing body of work showing that when a child’s brain is overloaded, the thinking part of the brain shuts off. The more ancient part of the brain lights up, and the child moves into the more instinctual mode of fight-or-flight.

When a parent or a teacher – anyone – tries to reason with the child when they're in this state, “that child literally cannot hear you,” Shanker says. 

The trick, Shanker and others say, is to "de-escalate" - calm the child down and get them thinking again. 

Learning self-regulation

Long term, the child needs to learn what it is that is stressing them out and what to do about it.

That’s where teachers come in.

B.C. teacher Celine Feazel has a sign in her Grade 6/7 classroom that reads "How is your engine running?" to remind students to do something to calm themselves if they're stressed and not focusing well. (Karin Wells/CBC)

Self-regulation has long been a tool of therapists, but Mustard and Shanker concluded that there just weren’t enough medical professionals in the country to deal with the growing number of children with problems. There were also more than enough children on medication to modify their behaviour.

The solution, Mustard and Shanker decided, lay in training teachers to train children.

In February 2012, George Abbott – the minister of education in B.C. at the time - invited Shanker to do a workshop for school superintendents explaining the neuroscience and going through some of the things that have worked in pilot programs.

One principal in West Vancouver had an unusual number of children who were sensitive to noise, for example. Noisy classrooms and hallways are an old problem, and the realization that this was a tipping point for some children was the eureka moment.

“The principal in West Vancouver brought in headphones, the kind you use with chainsaws to block out sound,” Shanker says. “The kids who needed them put them on, then asked if they could keep them for the day. Academic performance skyrocketed because they were paying attention for longer periods of time

It’s common now to see three or four pairs of sound-blocking ear protectors hanging on the wall in most self-regulation classrooms.

Physical activity is also important in self-regulation, and yoga balls were another innovation. One teacher in a northern B.C. district had her children rolling down the ramp between the library and the classroom to wake up their bodies.

Celine Feazel takes her Grade 6/7 class at MJ Shannon School out for a run every morning.  The run shakes out the lethargy. This is not Phys Ed, it’s an “engine break.”

Student Simran Banghu wins awards for her academic achievement, and says going for a run during school hours helps her stay calm and focus on her work. (Karin Wells/CBC)

She has a large chart on the side wall with "How does your engine run" written across the top, a question she asks of her class every day.

And the kids understand what it does.

“Other than getting angry or hyper really quickly, I will take engine breaks," says 11 year old Simran Banghu. “I will use self-regulation, take a run to calm myself down.”

Banghu wins awards for her academic achievement. “She saw it as a chance to do even better,” Feazel says.

After a few months of the teacher asking about engine breaks, students began to ask it  themselves. By the end of the year, when a child finds themselves, for example, slowing down in the afternoon, they will leave a note on their desk, pick a buddy and head out for a run by themselves.

Calmer kids

Calm, alert and focused is the mantra of self-regulation.

Kids are kids … there will be moments.- Mike McKay, superintendent of the Surrey District

Calmer kids does not mean a classroom of Buddhist monks. “Kids are kids … there will be moments,” says Mike McKay, the superintendent of the Surrey District.

But there has been an outbreak of self-discipline. McKay was struck so deeply by the change, he is taking early retirement to work full time on Shanker’s venture.

Surrey’s 10 First Wave teachers who began the program last year also meet regularly to talk things through. 

“I had a little guy yesterday who was under his desk," says Norene Campion, a Grade 3 teacher.  "He couldn’t sit in his chair. I just said 'go and get your lunch' … I didn’t even talk to him about his behaviour, it was about his lunch. I never would have done that last year. We are looking at children differently.”

And interest in self-regulation is growing. When Shanker gave a workshop in the summer of 2012, 250 teachers signed up. This year it was 800.

Thirty-four more elementary schools in Surrey have asked if they can take part. Every school in Yukon is moving towards self-regulation, and a growing number of school districts in Ontario are coming on board.

While self-regulation is aimed at relaxing kids and improving classroom behaviour, the question remains: Does it improve grades?

There are anecdotal examples, like the positive experience with sound-blocking headphones in the West Vancouver school, but the next step is to formally study the impact on every aspect of  children .

“It’s all moved so fast,” says Shanker, “we haven’t had time to do the science. We will do that now – look at emotion, behaviour as well as academic outcomes.”

[Listen to the full audio documentary about self-regulation, titled "How does your engine run," in the link at the top-left of this story or on The Sunday Edition's website.]