Looking At Classroom Management Through A Self-Regulation Lens

Sixteen years ago, I was in the Faculty of Education and doing some of my first teaching placements. In each of my placements, I still remember the importance placed on “classroom management.” What did a well-managed class look like and sound like?

  • Everyone looked at and listened to the teacher.
  • All students sat properly and quietly on the carpet.
  • Nobody spoke out.
  • The volume in the classroom was never too loud.
  • Children never wiggled in their spot or moved off of the carpet without permission.
  • When the teacher gave an instruction, it was always followed right away.

I always tried to have strong classroom management skills. I heard that many first year teachers struggle with classroom management (I’ve been involved in the New Teacher Induction Program (Mentorship) for many years, and I still hear that), and I was determined not to be one of those teachers. I’m not so sure that I met that goal, but I definitely improved in classroom management over the years.

Then, in the past couple of years, I started learning more about self-regulation. I read Stuart Shanker‘s book and Ross Greene‘s book, and this new learning eventually led to me taking the Foundations Self-Regulation Course through The Mehrit Centre. I just started Foundations 2. These courses are making me think differently about classroom management.

I am not suggesting that a classroom should be chaotic. In fact, I believe strongly in the benefits of a calm learning environment, but I think that how students get to that calm level may vary child to child. For example, in the past month or so, I notice that as we regroup on the carpet at the end of the day, one of my students often gets up, walks away from the full group, and goes to sit on a chair in our Book Nook. He quietly flips through a book or two, and then joins the full class as we get packed up for home. The first time that this child moved away from the full group, I told him to come back to the carpet. The second time, I did so again. But the third time, I let him stay. I watched him. He’ll often join in with our songs and phonemic awareness games, but he does so with a book in his hand. He can’t quite tell you yet that he’s self-regulating, but this is exactly what he’s doing.

There is another child that comes in every morning, and often starts her day at our Free Flow Snack Table. She spends a long time there. She opens up many of her containers, eats some of the food, has a big drink, and talks quietly with the students that sit down. Usually then, after about 30 minutes, she packs up, walks away, and finds a place to learn. For a long time, I tried to get her to clean up earlier. I encouraged her not to open her entire lunch. I even tried to get her to avoid the snack table in the morning, with the hope that she would join a group sooner. But just like in my first example, I think that this snack table time is actually an opportunity for her to self-regulate. She comes in, almost every morning, very down-regulated. The food gives her energy. The small group discussions also help. She’s getting herself ready to learn.

My classroom management learning from the past has me doing a lot of thinking recently.

  • In a “well-managed class,” would a child leave the carpet area, without permission, and make another choice?
  • In a “well-managed class,” would a child continue to sit there and eat if the teacher asked her to pack up long ago?
  • What about in a self-regulated class? What would happen then? 

There is a part of me that wonders what educators and administrators would think if they came into our classroom. Would they understand? Would they support these kinds of decisions? I wonder though, as we gain a new understanding of self-regulation, do we need to start shifting our thinking? What might this shift look like? As an educator, administrator, and/or parent, how do you feel about this kind of shift? Let’s start this very important discussion.


12 thoughts on “Looking At Classroom Management Through A Self-Regulation Lens

  1. Your comments about the environment needing to be calm, and not chaotic is helpful. I wonder if it’s the tone of interactions that are important. I found myself chatting with students today about this. Do good manners come into play? I imagine that visitors attuned to current trends in education will not find it surprising to see students making considered choices that work for them, as long these don’t negatively impact the learning environment for others. Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ruth! I’m thinking about the idea of “good manners.” What would you, or others, hope that students do before making these kinds of choices? In both cases that I shared, the students tend to make these choices without much of an interaction with me. I’m okay with this, as if the children started talking to me about “leaving the carpet” or “going to eat,” I think that the disruptions might impact more on the learning of others. Other students may also choose to follow suit, but not necessarily with the same positive results.

      As for visitors, I really wonder how they would react. While in theory, we all know about self-regulation, what about in practice? How many classroom environments have truly changed based on this research? What might it take for more change to happen? I’d be curious to know what you and others think!


      • Your point about the potential disruption of a child’s talking to you, and its ripple effect is so true. Reminds me of your discussion some weeks back on fidget toys, and colouring. Actually, when I was thinking of good manners, it was really that a child who has moved away, or who has not joined a group, should be in a position to respect the right of others to engage in a different way to themselves. I wasn’t thinking of verbal interaction as such. I find it is a tricky call in a physically small classroom, where there are not as many spaces where a child could quietly separate themselves, without it being a potential issue for others. Also, there is a fine line between students who recognize their own self-regulation needs, and who make choices that make it possible for them to be engaged learners, and others who remove themselves and create alternative power structures that impinge on everyone’s learning. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of children who need so much more support to become self-regulated learners, and I find myself stretched in too many ways in the moment. They need a way to stay safe, and at the same time I have a responsibility to be present for all my students. What you say about outside perceptions of classrooms, is true. People are quick to make snap judgments about situations, without necessarily understanding the complex dynamics of a classroom community. Thinking about your phrase, “classroom management” as opposed to “self-regulated” learning, it’s interesting that learning responsibility really shifts to students with the change. Are we managers or co-creators of the classroom environment and space, so that students can develop the skills to be effective learners? You’ve given me lots to ponder on. Thanks.

        • Thanks for the reply, Ruth! I’m thinking about the struggling students that you described. What’s causing them to disrupt in this way? What might help change this behaviour? Maybe co-regulation is where some students are at. Could any needs be grouped in order to help with this co-regulation? I like your point about the shift from teachers (classroom management) to students (self-regulation). How do we get to this point? If we’re looking at inquiry and student voice and choice in the classroom, is this another factor that aligns that we need to consider? I’m starting to see some overlap. I’m curious to hear what others think.


          • Thanks for your reply, Aviva. I think that these issues are all connected. Regarding the students who regularly experience significant challenges, it is hard to pinpoint any single stressor. The combination of personalities in the class is part of it, as well as a plethora of special needs. I am lucky to have a supportive administrator and SERT, as well as 2 full-time EA’s. We have clustered students with similar needs, and are seeing some progress. I think what makes it hard is the unpredictability of many of the behaviours, and this heightens the anxiety for all.

          • Thanks for the reply, Ruth! It sounds like you have a very challenging class, and I’m glad that the SERT is also there to support you. Have you read Dr. Ross Greene’s, LOST AT SCHOOL? In it, the author looks at how to really focus in on those different “behaviours” (which is not how he refers to them) and how to go about addressing them. His ideas are a mind shift for many, but they make a lot of sense, and would maybe help you address the “unpredictability of students.” It turns out that kids are actually quite predictable. This would actually make a great Book Club Book if others in your school want to read it. He also provides resources that you can use. I’d love to know what you think if you do read the book and try the approach. Does it help?

            Good luck!

  2. Thank you for your reflections on classroom management through the lens of self-regulation! It is something that I think about quite often. (I have just started reading Stuart Shanker’s book). Your description of your time at the faculty of Ed. rang true for me, as well.

    As a daily OT I am a visitor in classrooms (albeit as a teacher). From my perspective I think that classroom dynamics are changing. There has/is a move towards self regulation. In many classrooms that I “visit” the Tribes Agreements are a common thread. I believe that using these Agreements helps in promoting good manners, as well as, self regulation. Perhaps students should use them (the Agreements) as a check list/success criteria. Also, of course, self regulation looks different at different ages. I wonder, should we have times/situations where expectations for behaviour are non-negotiable? We could explicitly teach ways to self regulate during those times. Would this better prepare students for the ‘real world’? I’m not sure that there isan easy answer. We (students, teachers and parents) need to respect both the individual and the group.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kim! I think that you’ll love Shanker’s book. I definitely learned a lot from it, and am learning even more from the courses.

      I actually don’t know a lot about Tribes, nor have I seen it used much in the classroom. I wonder if this varies Board by Board or just school by school. I’ll have to find out more. I’m not sure how I feel about the non-negotiables. Maybe the students can’t leave, per se, but I think that we still need to explore self-regulation options. I even think about myself as an adult. I take minutes in staff meetings because it helps me stay focused and calm. If not, my mind wanders, I keep thinking about everything that’s being share, my eyes focus on the clock, and I can feel myself getting more up-regulated (something that I didn’t really think about until I started writing this reply to you). My admin have always been supportive of my need to type and take minutes versus writing quietly or just watching without saying anything. Even in an adult world, is there room for “differentiation” and “self-regulation?” As students grow up, will some of their practices also change based on their changing skills and abilities to self-regulate in different ways? I’m curious to hear what you and others think.


      • Hi Aviva,

        You posed some good questions! They helped me to extend my thinking.

        In my previous reply I was picturing times when ‘relocating’ is not a possibility. For example, in a school assembly, or perhaps also, in a place of worship, moving to a different spot can easily disturb others. In regards to this, your idea of exploring self-regulation options is a good point. A while ago I was supplying in a Student Support Centre and when it was time for a whole group lesson many of the students grabbed a ‘fidget’ (which was a small wire covered with a plastic coating that could be twisted into various forms). I noticed that even though a student had a fidget, they were still focused and participating in a positive manner. (Underscore “participating” and “positive”)

        I agree with both the need for differentiation and that students’ practices change based on their changing skills and abilities. I also liked the point that Ruth made about being co-creators of the classroom environment. It all ties together in nurturing and guiding students in their journeys in self-regulation.


        • Thanks Kim! I really appreciate you sharing this example from a few years ago. I think that something like a fidget toy can work really well for some students, and the key when it comes to self-regulation is for the child (or adult) to figure out what works for him/her. It’s rarely ever the same. In fact, as I’m learning through the course, what up-regulates one child can down-regulate another one. Again, it comes back to differentiation. It’s been interesting how through the comments, I can see the link between classroom management, self-regulation, and co-creating the learning environment. It’s amazing how everything connects. I’m very curious to hear what others have to say about this.


  3. I really enjoyed reading your post! I visit many schools and classrooms and frequently find myself in awe at the amount of time and energy teachers spend trying to ‘get their students ready to pay attention’. It is like herding cats! But, what I see again and again is that when these students are allowed to move, eat, stretch, fidget etc., they are able to ready themselves! In addition, the teacher’s stress level is drastically deminished, allowing her/him to more eagerly and calmly engage and teach!

    • Thanks for the comment, Vicki! Your last sentence really struck a chord with me. I think about what Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins have discussed before. Often our stress level as adults can impact on kids. If we are calmer, our students are also calmer. I know that I have definitely felt calmer by re-thinking classroom management and really giving students what they need and/or listening to them when they show/tell us what they need.


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