Have you ever wondered what really goes on in a school to support a student who struggles with self-regulation? Aviva (as classroom educator) and Kristi (as school administrator) team up to offer their perspectives on how they would approach a specific situation. Changing a student’s ability to self-regulate takes a lot of work and time. Here’s a glimpse at the what it might look like.
You are in a busy Kindergarten class with 30 JK/SK students and two educators. You have a mix of student-chosen activities and school/class-imposed activities throughout the day. You use an inquiry-based approach to learning; allowing students to dive into play in a variety of settings. These settings are enhanced by teacher-established provocations and facilitation. But, despite all of this, you still have some students who frequently have problems engaging in learning safely in a way that enhances their learning. Marsha, for example, is a student who sometimes has difficulty engaging in play. Instead, she regularly demonstrates: yelling and whining, wandering around the room, hitting of students and staff, throwing of toys or classroom items, running from the room. Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! What are we going to do with you?
Educator Right Now Supports:
In the short-term, I need to develop some solutions that will keep Marsha and the rest of the students safe first. It’s the hitting of students and staff, throwing of toys and classroom items, and running from the room that are my three biggest concerns. I want to try and give Marsha some space in the room, so that she can throw things without hurting anyone else, and even lash out without injuring a student or a staff member. I want to try to empty some shelves in this space, so that there’s less to throw, but still an area for her to move. I also want to try to position myself near the door, with likely the door closed, so that it’s harder for her to leave the room. Classroom doors are often heavy for Kindergarten students, so it will likely take a little time for her to open it, and in that time, I can always call the office for additional support if needed. I can’t easily leave the classroom because of the other students (even with my teaching partner being there), and if leaving the classroom could also result in leaving the school, then I’m going to need some administrator support.
As for the yelling/whining, I need to really monitor how loud it is. Sometimes a quiet response from me can help with quieting a child. Sometimes directing to a preferred activity, or a more sensory option (e.g., water or playdough) can also make a difference. If Marsha is really loud, I may also need to contact the office, and explore another space for her to go to quiet down. Her volume may also impact on the volume of the rest of the children in the classroom, which then just increases the stress for many other children … and the adults in the room. It’s a vicious cycle!
The wandering would probably be the least of my concerns. I might be able to intercept this wandering with a redirection to a preferred activity or a sensory option (e.g., the water or playdough), which could help. That said, Marsha’s not a safety risk if she’s wandering in the classroom, and sometimes the physical movement can actually calm a child. I would likely be more apt to monitor this wandering, and see if she eventually settles. All of this being said, these “right now supports” are largely band-aid solutions. They might solve the problem at the time, but will they help prevent future problems, or help us better understand what’s causing Marsha to respond in these ways? This is where the long-term supports, and Self-Reg, really make a difference!
Principal Right Now Supports:
No matter how many students you have in a school, a good principal gets to know all of his/her Marshas as early as possible. So, I will have had some conversations with the educators in the room and have done some observation of my own before trying to help Marsha – and the rest of the class – in this moment.
Safety is always my first concern. So I’m going to see how I can immediately support to increase safety for Marsha, for the other students, and for the educators in the room. However, barging in and immediately taking charge can backfire and escalate a situation.
First I would scan for any immediate safety threat – if Marsha is throwing something, am I more helpful helping relocate other students, removing possible throwing objects or relieving an educator from shadowing Marsha so that he/she can support other students? If Marsha is hitting someone, can she be distracted by me (sometimes a new voice and face can deescalate a situation but sometimes not) either with my voice, my presence, or an object I can provide? Can I prevent hits by moving the person being hit away and giving Marsha some physical space? If Marsha is making a run for it, can I predict her most likely route from past experience and determine if it is likely a safety risk (i.e. is she running down the hall and stopping to hide under the stairwell or is she running out the door and into traffic?). If she needs an escape from the room but is likely to pick something relatively safe, like the stairwell, I will follow at a distance and try to alert back up support, in case she changes paths. If she is heading out the door, I am quickly eliciting help and following her out the door. If this is the normal course of events, we probably have a fine-tuned plan for how we all react (e.g. I follow on foot with my phone, teacher alerts office to advise whether to contact family and police, resource teacher is alerted to follow as well). If it is a first time event, I follow on foot with my trusty phone and call the office to relay information and get support put in place. (Side note: what did Principals do before cell phones???)
If the behaviour isn’t about safety, I may be in to observe since Marsha is one of the mystery students I want to help support the educators in figuring out. I may watch to see patterns of wandering, timing of whining or content of whining. I trust my educators to have some thoughts about why we are seeing these behaviours. We’ll talk about these later.
Educator Long Term Supports:
The more that I’ve read about Self-Reg, the more that I’ve learned that there’s almost always a bigger reason behind the behaviours that we see. Is this misbehaviour or is it stress behaviour? This is when I have to slow down and ask myself the question that Stuart Shanker often asks: “Why this child, and why now?” We see the Marshas of the world that are yelling, wandering, hitting, throwing, and running, but if we stop and look for the reasons behind this behaviour, we often see a lot more.
For me, it often comes down to determining the stressors. What is triggering this child? There’s a very comprehensive list of stressors in this Self-Reg Toolkit, and I’ve found that it’s often a combination of different things that are leading to the behaviour that we’re seeing. If we know the stressors, we can also look at making changes to reduce them. This may be about changing classroom design, lighting, sensory experiences, noise levels, academic demands or expectations, transitions (frequency and time), and social opportunities. I’ve found that while some of our classroom changes may be made with Marsha in mind, Billy, Bob, Sue, and Joe, will all still benefit. When Marsha’s calmer, the whole room feels calmer!
We also need to consider our own Self-Reg. How are we feeling at the time that we’re seeing Marsha’s behaviour? How do we respond to Marsha? If we’re feeling stressed, this often compounds a child’s stress. And sometimes, we think that we’re hiding it well, but kids hear it in our voices and see it in our actions. If I find that the room …
- is getting louder,
- a child is acting out,
- somebody’s running,
- screaming is about to start,
the very best thing that I can often do at the time is stop … and breathe. I need to make sure that I’m self-regulated, so that I can make those small actions. Get down lower. Be quieter. Speak and move from a distance. Kristi mentioned something similar in her principal supports, and this is equally important for educators. For Marsha to self-regulate, Marsha’s educators need to feel just as calm.
Principal Long Term Supports:
For a Principal, my long term supports are more about the educators than Marsha, actually. Educators are at close range, in the moment, all of the time while I can closely experience the situation at times, but I also can step back, view the bigger picture and offer supports that go beyond the moment.
My first job is to encourage. Educators work tirelessly with very little praise. Boosting teacher confidence by acknowledging specific things they are doing that are supporting Marsha and the other students is of paramount importance to helping them maintain their calm and self efficacy.
Next, I question and facilitate educator reflection. Helping educators prioritize concerns and streamline next steps helps decide what supports to try. If I read Aviva’s account, I get the sense our first priority is the hitting. I would help educators reflect on any patterns they see to the hitting (is it always at the end of the day? Or just before lunch? Is it in reaction to certain children or certain toys/activities that are not available when Marsha wants?). This allows us, as a team, to meaningfully make changes to the environment, routine or support. Changing everything at once rarely turns out well. Slow and steady is what we aim for to support progress. Reassurance and celebrating those small victories will hopefully help them to see the progress and abate the frustration of not having quick fixes.
The third role I try to fill is as advocate. I try to access the resources and supports that will promote change, safety and learning in the classroom. Since some resources, like Educational Assistants, are a very finite resource (and worth their weight in gold!), this usually means getting creative and being an active participant in that change. If you ever came to my office, you would notice it’s distinct lack of decor. I have bare, beige walls, two student work tables, a variety of calming manipulatives (kinetic sand, building toys, games, puzzles, a student rocking chair, stuffed animals, books) and my desk shoved in the corner as far back as I could manage. My office is rarely without students working on regaining self-control and developing better self-regulation. I often have to make important phone calls from the supply room or meet parents or staff on hallway walks, but in my school, there isn’t another space that is suitable for use as a calming area. That is how I am creatively making space to support students. Advocating for, and communicating with, various teams and outreach supports within the school, board and community will also bring in different perspectives and supports for Marsha and her educators. Multidisciplinary collaboration results in educator/parent/student, and most definitely principal, learning.
With Marsha, I would probably bring her down to visit my office at a time when she is well regulated and in good self-control so we can start to determine favourite calming resources and to familiarize her with me and the space. Building rapport with her in the calm times will make things less challenging for her (and me!) in the not so calm times.
I often think of that old photo of JFK working in the oval office with his young son playing under his desk when I think about modern day principals. We still have a whole lot of business and paperwork and reporting to deal with, but we are also juggling a whole lot more constant student contact to help meet the growing student – and staff – needs of well-being. My hope is that being there to help staff maintain their well being, feel they are not alone, and offer support and encouragement in a variety of ways will ultimately play a small role in helping Marsha develop self-regulation skills.
Where Does This Lead?
In a school, educators and administrators don’t need to work in isolation. Marsha needs support. We’re there together to support her: with both short-term and long-term solutions. Self-regulation helps us view Marsha’s behaviour differently, and hopefully determine what’s leading to the yelling, wandering, hitting, throwing, and running that we’re noticing in the classroom.
Whose voice is missing here though? How can they support Marsha’s self-regulation? As an educator or administrator, what might you do to support your Marshas? We’re providing two sides to this blog post, but would welcome any additional sides.