Does Dysregulation Build Empathy? A Different Look At Re-Org.

Re-organization. In our Board, it’s a reality at this time of the year. I’ve been through re-organization numerous times in the past 19 years: from the teacher that had to leave a school due to seniority to the teacher that lost or gained students due to a shuffle in class size. After forming relationships with kids and developing routines, the thought of change can feel overwhelming. Recently, we found out that we had to re-organize some of our school. These changes had a big impact on the kindergarten classes, as I shared in this post of mine from the other day.

Paula and I wanted to try and reduce some of our stress with this re-org, by using some time on our recent PA Day to move materials.

We were feeling good about the classroom environment … until Thursday. When Carey and I brought our class back inside from our outdoor playtime, I noticed a huge number of boxes on the countertops and the shelves. Where did these come from? It turns out that Paula and I didn’t move everything the week before, and as the domino-effect of classroom moves started to happen, more items came our way.

I appreciate the time that this other classroom teacher put into the packing process, but as I stared at the pile of boxes, I was taken back to weeks before when Carey and I began to unpack. We managed to get all the boxed up materials organized and into cupboards, and now it looked like everything was out again.

I knew that I wouldn’t have time to touch the boxes until my prep at the end of the day, and yet, these piles of materials were all I could focus on.

  • What was inside the boxes?
  • Where was everything going to go?
  • Where would I put the materials that we didn’t need?

At this point, I realized that kindergarten students would be slowly integrated into their new classrooms the next day, and we couldn’t have boxes everywhere. Poor Paula though was off sick with strep throat, so now I needed to rely on my visual spatial skills — or lack there of — to get everything unpacked. 

I realized then the impact that biological stressors can have on a person’s ability to self-regulate. The visual noise overwhelmed me. The minute I could dig into those boxes, I did, and I finally felt as though I could breathe again the moment that they were all gone.

I thought a lot about this experience yesterday, as classes merged and Paula and I began to teach together again. While we’re not new to working together, there was a lot of “new” yesterday.

  • Since Paula was away sick for most of the week, I finished organizing materials in the classroom. She’s still figuring out where everything is, and we’re still figuring out — with the help of the kids — if the locations of items meet their needs and ours. 
  • Our very routine schedule was different yesterday due to The Terry Fox Run. Couple this change with a change in rooms and classmates, and some students were working through this additional stress. 
  • With Paula’s absence, there was a supply in her classroom for most of the week. It takes time to build relationships with kids, which means that their “normal” was slightly off, and now we were changing things again with re-org. 

Considering all of these factors, it was a very successful first day together.

But maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that LEGO and sensory play were as busy as they were, for Self-Reg may have been an even bigger consideration than on other days.

As Paula and I were reflecting on this very point after school yesterday, I began to wonder: does experiencing our own dysregulation help us empathize and view the behaviour of kids differently? I began to think about our kids yesterday, and if my own unpacking woes on Thursday, helped me remember to use some soft eyes when they might be needed the most. What do you think? Maybe those overwhelming stacks of boxes served a purpose after all.


8 thoughts on “Does Dysregulation Build Empathy? A Different Look At Re-Org.

  1. Oh, Aviva.
    Thank you. I identified for the first time this year that the last week of school and the week before school starts are unbelievably dysregulating for me. And weirdly, it’s not about change in routines. It’s about the spatial stuff.

    Where will I put everything away? How will the room flow best? Where should the two drum kits go? (My classroom is also the music room) . I enlisted my own teenagers to come help in August this year, and then had to send them home because I was on the edge of a meltdown. It’s so, so hard for me. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to name it.

    Last year, I had 6 kids with SEA equipment. This year, I have 1. Realizing what a difference that makes to the sense of space on our side counter is huge. I had my custodian install an old cupboard from another room in my space. Now there’s no bin of ukuleles on the floor. Small steps, but they make such a difference.

    And yes, part of my work on decluttering is realizing that my clutter dysregulates some of my Grade 7’s, and my colleague who comes in to teach French. She now has a space that is just for her, and I am not permitted (the kids remind me) to put anything there.

    Realizing the impact of the space on me and on others has been huge.

    Thanks again for this. I totally felt your anxiety!

    • Thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing your experiences! I could totally feel your anxiety here too, and I love how you got your kids to help you out (when you needed it). This spatial piece is very dysregulating for me too, and it’s one of many reasons why I love working with a partner in kindergarten. Before I can even unpack boxes, I need the furniture set-up. I need to feel the flow of the room and the space. That said, seeing items out in the open or stacked on top of things causes me extreme stress. I would almost rather balance items precariously in a cupboard that deal with the opposite. At least nobody else then can see the mess … and neither can I! Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. 🙂

      Your comment makes me wonder about how much we share these feelings of dysregulation with our students. Would doing so, make us feel better as well as them? The other day, I mentioned to a child that I “felt stressed,” and he gave me a hug. Kindness. Compassion. Empathy. And maybe it makes us just a little more human.


      • I was recently thinking about how lucky I was 3 years ago to have a group of colleagues that I totally knew understood some of my spatial shortcomings. I had people who were okay with me putting my head down on my arms and crying at the end of the day, because everything was overwhelming, and who wouldn’t let me be alone with that. I have realized what a gift that is. I try to offer it to others when I can. We need to help our colleagues as well as our kids.

        • Thanks for sharing this, Lisa! What a great point. I wonder if the more we help each other, and reduce each other’s stress, the better that we can each be for our kids. You’re reminding me about the need to be stress detectives, not just for kids, but also, for adults.


          • It’s really hard, and you have to build spaces and relationships in which it can happen. But I really believe that it filters from board to admin to staff to kids. I’m convinced that regulated school communities are created with deliberate action at all levels.

          • Lisa, now you really have me thinking. I know that Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins always say that Self-Reg starts with relationships. This would be as true for adults as for kids. So now I’m wondering what’s done at different levels to cement these strong relationships. If school communities are dysregulated, why is that, and what’s needed to inspire a change? Your comments are reminding me how discussion can sometimes make a blog post much better. Thanks for a good conversation!


  2. Just read the comments between you and Lisa and this has helped me to further understand my dysregulation I am experiencing at my new school. I asked for a transfer to change from a very high needs school where my well-being was jeopardized daily and wasn’t supported by admin. Now at a new school with more regulated kids and a great admin. I literally feel like I have more brain space and my teaching is better. However, I have one or two days a week where I am really sad. I miss my friends and colleagues from my old school so much that I am really having a hard time adjusting to a new school culture where I am struggling to connect with like-minded people. It does start with relationships and that’s why I am struggling! On Thursday I was sad and later in the day when I had 4 boys snuggled beside me while we read about bugs, I felt better! They shared their calm with me!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Laura! These positive connections are so important to our well-being, I think. I love how some students could lend you their calm when you needed it most. I’m curious what others do to connect with colleagues and try to form these new friendships. Your comment reminds me that making friends can be a challenge at any age, and yet, these relationships matter so much!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *