Self-regulation seen as key to early learning

Heather Latter

Local schools and service providers will work to enhance students’ self-regulation after learning of strategies at an early-learning symposium hosted by the Rainy River District “Best Start Network” at the Townshend Theatre here Friday.
“It was really great to hear the theory behind it,” said Ann Anderson, who chaired the symposium’s organizing committee.
“It’s not that some children are bad,” she noted. “It’s just that they need to learn these skills and educators play a big role in that.”
About 375 people attended the symposium, with participants hailing not only from Rainy River District but also the Kenora and Thunder Bay districts.
As well, a variety of professionals were in attendance, including educators, health-care providers, and other service providers, along with parents and caregivers.
The introductory address was offered by Dr. Charles Pascal, who provided an update on early learning in Ontario, while Dr. Stuart Shanker, a distinguished research professor of philosophy and psychology at York University, discussed the nature of self-regulation, the experiences that promote the development of self-regulation, and the factors that can impede its development.
Dr. Shanker said self-regulation is the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviours, and attention in ways that are socially-acceptable and help achieve positive goals, such as maintaining good relationships, learning, and maintaining well-being.
“Self-regulation is not self-control. Self-regulation makes self-control possible,” he stressed, explaining self-regulation is being able to deal effectively and efficiently with stressors, such as noise, light, and movement, that can result in a chronic state of energy-depletion.
Dr. Shanker added children need to master the ability to find the appropriate level of arousal for the situation they are experiencing, and used the analogy of driving a car.
“Learning to accelerate, brake, and change gears smoothly takes time and practice,” he remarked, noting this is similar to children learning to self-regulate.
“Some children are always pushing too hard on the accelerator while others jump between gears quickly and some are slow to accelerate.”
For instance, a child who is hyper-alert may have difficulties sitting on the mat and listening to a story. But a child who has this difficulty can be helped, if he is understood, indicated Dr. Shanker.
“You have to look at it child by child,” noted Anderson. “A strategy that would work with one child that presented with the same problem might not work with another child.”
Dr. Shanker provided the theory behind self-regulation, then offered some case studies showcasing some strategies.
Robert Moore School principal Dianne Thompson was impressed with his presentation.
“It certainly was something that anyone who has anything to do with children should be part of,” she said. “They should have the knowledge and
understanding of what self-regulation means in terms of helping students as they grow and develop.
“The information that Stewart Shanker was able to share in a very straight-forward and engaging manner was phenomenal,” Thompson added, noting she was happy the school’s entire early learning team was on hand for it.
“You can see how self-regulation plays into the difficulties that [some students] are having,” she said.
“That says to us there are ways for us to help support the students to develop their self-regulation and then be able to augment their learning and relationships.”
Thompson learned of four methods that can help students de-stress, which will open things up for learning.
“One is involvement in music, any form of music, whether it’s singing in choirs, listening to music, or playing an instrument,” she indicated.
“At a school level, that is doable in many ways.”
Exercise is the second strategy.
“We’ve been talking about daily exercise, not only in terms of physical fitness but it’s critical to the release of the proper chemicals to be able to get the brain ready to de-stress,” Thompson noted.
The other two activities to help self-regulation are non-competitive martial arts and yoga.
“We’ve always known how critical exercise, movement, and music were for students,” said Thompson.
“But it really brought it down to this is why it’s important—this is what it does for the brain and therefore for the decisions that the person is able to do, whether it’s a student or an adult.”
Thompson said she hopes some of these strategies will bring about changes at the school.
“There are some who can be managed quite quickly, and we’re going to be meeting with staff and taking a look at what we can do to bring that out for all of our kids,” she remarked, citing Dr. Shanker’s presentation as being extremely beneficial.
“All the times that we’re bringing the kids out for their swimming lessons, hockey, and those involved in martial arts, we’re doing the right thing,” Thompson stressed.
“Now we take a look at how we can help those children who don’t have those opportunities.”
Dr. Shanker also noted educators and parents can try to figure out what the child’s stressors are, what helps the child stay calm and alert, and what leaves a child hypo- or hyper-aroused.
They also can use mindfulness principles to help children identify their own arousal states so they can learn how they can get to “just right” on their own.
For more on self-regulation, visit