‘No such thing as a bad kid’, says self reg expert

Why does self-regulation matter more than self-control? Professor Stuart Shanker shares his views on this and much more, including how educators can learn the signs and respond to children’s stress cycles. Young children make ‘dramatic advances’ when the adults in their lives—educators, teachers and family members—develop their own self-regulation, according to Professor Shanker. He spoke with ECA, ahead of his international keynote address at the 2018 ECA National Conference in Sydney (19–22 September), about his high hopes for the conference and three principles he will explore with conference delegates.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA): In your work you have identified what other commentators have noted: that society is experiencing a huge growth in the ‘problem of anxiety in today’s children’. You take it a step further to suggest that this is a symptom of the problem, that anxiety may be a sign of problems with self-regulation across different domains of a child’s functioning. Can you explain how this works, perhaps with an example for a particular child?

Professor Stuart Shanker: The child is in what in Self-Reg is referred to as a state of ‘neuroceptive overdrive’: that is, the limbic system is constantly scanning the environment (both physical and social) for potential threats. In cases of severe anxiety, the child’s perceptions of safety versus danger are distorted, leading to a stress response in countless (unwarranted) situations. The child is caught in a ‘stress cycle’, where stresses from multiple domains impact and exacerbate the others. The big question is, of course, why this has happened.

The short answer is that the child or teen is over-stressed. An excessive stress-load lowers the threshold for the Amygdala ‘limbic alarm’. One may have to be a bit of a ‘stress detective’ to discover the relevant stressors, looking at biological, emotional, cognitive, social and prosocial stresses, and bearing in mind that stresses can vary according to both mood/physical state and changing developmental patterns. But certain themes do seem to recur: a combination of too much exposure to ‘hook’ products and activities (which stimulate the release of dopamine) and not enough restoration.

What is particularly worrying is that we are seeing these stress responses occurring in younger and younger children.

You asked for an example that might be somewhat representative. Self-Reg draws a fundamental distinction between robust and fragile secure attachment—a distinction that is of the utmost importance for early childhood educators. I have so many examples to illustrate this point, but the story of Aiden exemplifies why the work of the early childhood educator is so important in this regard.

Aiden was five years old when he came to the clinic—a school referral because he was having so much trouble getting along with the other children. An episode in which he bit another child on the playground rather hard is the reason why he had been sent to see us.

The temptation in such a case is to assume that this little boy was suffering from an attachment disorder; but it was immediately clear that this was not the case. On the contrary, the little boy was securely attached to his mum—extremely so.

His problem was that he had a number of biological hypersensitivities that mum had become an expert at reading, and had tailored her interactions with him accordingly. She knew well in advance of a meltdown what the warning signs were and how to reduce his stresses.

The problems that occurred at school were twofold: first, a sudden jump in stressors (especially physical and social); and second, mum had not shared any of the information she had acquired over the years about her son’s hypersensitivities and how she calmed him.

The result was that this little boy suddenly became avoidant and resistant in this new environment. I suspect there were several reasons why mum had been reluctant to share what she knew about her son’s needs. But over a cup of coffee—even instant seems to do the trick!—she opened up with the early childhood educator, who was warm and receptive.

But it was the next step that was the critical one: helping Aiden to learn all this for himself. For so many of the ‘fragile’ children, this first step to optimal self-regulation makes all the difference between academic success or failure—including social and emotional!

ECA: When we think of ‘stress management’ it often conjures the idea of controlling or suppressing something, or it is seen as simply a matter of ‘acquiring certain skills and personality traits’. Yet you think we too often conflate the concepts of self-regulation and self-control. Can you explain for ECA readers the difference between self-regulation and self-control and why this changes our ideas of stress management?

Shanker: Self-control refers to the deliberate effort that is made to suppress or inhibit an impulse; self-regulation seeks to address and thereby mitigate the causes of those impulses. The term self-regulation was originally introduced (by physiologists) to refer to the manner in which we manage the stresses in our lives. The two most common patterns of self-regulation that we see in children and teens that are over-stressed are that they become hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused. In the former state, the child may try to restore ‘homeostatic balance’ by moving around a lot, soliciting attention, even by provoking confrontations. In the latter state, the child may try to flee from the stress, shut down interactions, and numb the emotions they find stressful. Both of these kinds of responses are said to be ‘maladaptive’ insofar as they impede development. Self-Reg is designed to help children acquire strategies for dealing with stress that enable them to stay calm, socially engaged and able to learn.

ECA: You are a strong advocate of self-regulation for all ages and stages of life. In one of your papers last year on ‘Stress management as a distributed social phenomenon’ you observe that in soothing agitated babies, adults often use behaviours that soothe themselves—rocking, stroking, jiggling and murmuring. Why do you think it matters that we think about supporting and looking after ourselves when we are supporting and educating young children?

Shanker: We first learned this lesson at the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI). In the beginning, we were so focused on the needs of the children that we were working with, that we completely overlooked the needs of the parents. We were not seeing the sorts of gains that we were expecting in the children until we suddenly recognised that parents who were over-stressed could not possibly engage in the sort of ‘reframing’ we were asking of them—distinguishing, for example, between misbehaviour and stress-behaviour, recognising ‘limbic behaviours’ for what they were—until they themselves were calm. Moreover, their own anxiety, irritation and even anger, would ‘leak out’ despite their best efforts to ‘control’ their behaviour. By practising self-regulation for themselves, they were able to enter into the sort of sensitive interactions that their child needed in order to feel genuinely safe and secure. It was at that point that we saw the children make dramatic advances.

Exactly the same pattern has played out in our Self-Reg initiatives with early educators and teachers. In fact, we now spend as much time on their self-regulation as we do on learning how to read and respond to over-stressed students. The big lesson here is that we are really looking at two sides of the same coin.

I might just add that the explosion that we have seen in Self-Reg parenting and school initiatives across Canada, and now around the world, has been entirely self-driven—a truly ‘grass roots phenomenon’. The reason, we believe, is because of the dramatic drop in stress that Self-Reg affords.

ECA: We re-posted your lovely blog on ‘fort building’ (thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/self-reg-view-overcoming-barriers ), where you make the point that we continue to build psychological and physical ‘forts’ in response to life situations, even as adults. Do you think self-regulating behaviours are a continuum through the lifespan, or do you think we use different skills and approaches at different points in our life?

Shanker: This is a very interesting question. We see a couple of things: one, that the stresses are, of course, constantly changing; but another is that the activities that we find restorative may also change. I will use myself as an example. All my life I have run, and I continue to do so to this day (although my family insists that what I do can in no sense of the word be described as ‘running’). But in other ways, I have made big changes. When I was younger I played a great deal of tennis, which I found enormously restorative; I no longer play at all now, and in its place I meditate several times a day.

I should also mention here that the ‘psychological forts’ that individuals build around themselves, which once served them well, can become counter-productive—a source of stress in fact—due to changing life circumstances; to dramatic changes in one’s stress-load; or to becoming ensnared in a dysregulated stress-cycle (such as occurs, for example, in cases of depression or obesity).

The one constant is that there is no point in the lifespan when working on one’s self-regulation does not result in significant emotional and indeed physical benefits.

ECA: Why are relationships central to self-regulation? Do you think the educator has a unique role to play in the young child’s development of self-regulation?

Shanker: The answer to the first question is that social engagement constitutes the brain’s first response to dealing with excessive stress or threats. When social engagement is not available, or not functional, the brain resorts to a more primitive mechanism (fight-or-flight), which impairs all sorts of ‘higher’ processes (e.g. self-awareness, thinking, empathy). If the threat still continues, the brain may shift to an even more primitive mechanism: parasympathetic flooding, or freezing. All too often we have worked with adults who have misconstrued freeze as compliance. And finally, if even freeze should fail, the individual can be pushed into tonic immobility or dissociation—a condition that we have also seen increasing among teens.

The second question is complex, and perhaps something I can speak about when I am with you at the conference. The educator has both a unique and an essential role to play in children’s development of self-regulation. The stresses that the child encounters at preschool or school are considerably different from the home environment (e.g. social and emotional stresses). So children who have been fairly calm may suddenly find themselves overwhelmed in this new environment. But there is an even deeper point I have made here.

I have seen educators literally change the trajectory of a child who has experienced an attachment disorder by helping them to learn how to self-regulate more effectively and productively. But the same point can apply to children who were, in fact, securely attached, but become resistant or avoidant when they start school (because of the increase in stress-load). What I have seen is a difference between ‘robust’ and ‘fragile’ secure attachment. That is, the child who feels safe and secure in the home environment, but due to physical, emotional, social, cognitive and prosocial stresses, becomes insecure in a school environment. An educator who has studied Self-Reg can make the most amazing difference in a child’s—in any child’s—lifelong ability to enjoy optimal self-regulation.

ECA: Anxiety in children may lead to behaviours that are a problem for the child or for those around them, or both. What can the sensitive educator do to recognise when there is anxiety underlying the surface (externalising) behaviour and how can they respond effectively to the anxiety rather than this externalising behaviour?

Shanker: This is one of the areas that we concentrate on in all of our Self-Reg school initiatives. In essence, what we have found is that externalising behaviours can be graphed in terms of an inverted-V curve, with stress on one axis and arousal on the other. Externalising behaviours occur once the child has passed the ‘peak’ of the curve. Once this happens, the child has a very limited ability to process any sort of lesson about their action.

The key, then, is for the educator to identify the signs of when the child is approaching a peak, and at that point, institute calming measures (that that child, it goes without saying, finds calming!). We spend a great deal of time in our Foundation courses covering the various sorts of signs that, once they become aware of them, become second nature to the educator. For example, changes in pitch or prosody, facial complexion, gestures, posture, movement. And, of course, every child will have his/her own idiosyncratic signs. Interestingly, we have consistently found in the master classes that we hold on to this topic that the educator was always aware of worrying signs long before the behaviour occurred, but that this awareness was more intuitive than explicit.

The next step is to help children learn themselves when they are approaching a ‘peak’. For younger children, it is generally most effective to work on physical signs (e.g. in their stomach, chest, head, arms and legs). Interestingly, we have found the same approach is often an effective way to begin with older children and even teens.

For any child, they must first learn what it feels like to be calm (in a state of ‘homeostatic balance’). For many children, this may, in fact, be the first time they experience calmness.

ECA: Finally, what are your ‘high hopes’ for your keynote address and workshop at the conference? That is, what would you most want participants to take away from your sessions at the ECA conference?

Shanker: I want them to truly absorb the three principles that guide all the work I do:

  1. There is no such thing as a bad kid.
  2. There is no such thing as a kid who cannot learn to self-regulate in a manner that promotes growth in all its multi-faceted aspects.
  3. There is no such thing as a trajectory that cannot be changed; all worrying trajectories can be changed, if only we have the right tools.
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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

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