They’re not always sure they know what it means, let alone what to do about it, but there is a widespread awareness that self-regulation is one of those scientific breakthroughs that heralds a turning point in how we see and help children.
In the simplest terms, self-regulation refers to the neural processes that control the energy expended to deal with a stressor and then recover. When a child’s stress levels are too high, various systems for thinking and metabolic recovery are compromised. The signs of this happening show up in the child’s behaviour, or mood, or attention, or for that matter, physical well-being. And judging from the growing numbers of problems that we’re seeing in kids in these areas, it would seem that Canadian children are dealing with far too much stress today.
With all the reports coming in on the high stress levels our children are under, I began to investigate what some of the common culprits might be and was surprised by what I found. For example, noise has become a major problem: not just in terms of volume, but also reverberation and the presence of low-frequency sounds. Another big problem is something known as ‘visual noise’: how much clutter or visual distraction there is. The typical school classroom turns out to have high levels of both of these kinds of stressors and efforts to reduce auditory and visual noise are resulting in significant improvements in children’s behaviour and attention.
We are only at the early stages of understanding what all these stressors might be, but we are already beginning to understand that things that we may not think twice about – e.g., kids’ sleep, eating, exercise and leisure activities, or their environment – might be adding considerably to their stress load. When we can identify and reduce the stressors in children’s lives, we find that many of the problems they were demonstrating start to diminish and they become much more receptive to adult assistance.
That is the key to this revolution: a shift from thinking in terms of controlling to regulating a child. The assumption underlying the ‘stern discipline’ approach to dealing with such problems is that a child is capable of acting differently and only a lesson in the consequences of a poor choice will drive home the importance of self-control. The problem is, one of the key systems that shuts down under excessive stress is the very one needed for exercising self-control.
Over the long term, the effect of punishing or harshly chastising children who are overstressed is to exacerbate their problems in self-control. To be sure, if you make the punishment harsh enough, the child is likely to become quiet and perhaps compliant. But far from signifying that your message has ‘finally gotten through’, in too many cases all that has happened is that the child has gone into a state that is known as ‘freeze’: quiet on the outside, but if you could peer inside their brain you’d see that their alarm system is on high alert. In this state, they’re not actually processing a word of what you’re saying: they’re just marshalling the energy to escape at the first opportunity.
In our work with parents and teachers, we have identified five key goals to enhancing self-regulation in children:
- Learn how to read the signs of when a child is over-stressed.
- Identify the stressors.
- Reduce the stressors.
- Help the child learn to identify what it feels like to be calm and what it feels like to be agitated.
- Help children learn strategies for returning to being calm when they become agitated.
If you suspect your child’s stress levels are too high, there are different kinds of strategies you can try. One of the most effective is unscripted free play. It’s no surprise that so many children seize this opportunity to build forts: this gives them a chance to feel safe and secure. Some children find sports really calming and some get this effect from music. Many children love yoga, or doing art, reading, cooking or taking care of animals. Every child is different and you may have to experiment a little to find the activities that your child finds calming, but when you do, you’ll know from the smile on his or her face and the relaxed look of their body.
There is never an age at which it’s too late to work on self-regulation with your child; and never an age at which you can stop working on these goals. The result is that your child will develop the skills they’ll need to deal with the stressors they are going to encounter in the 21st century: stressors that, as this winter has taught us, we can’t even begin to imagine!
Dr. Stuart Shanker (D.Phil) is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology, the CEO of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd., and founder and Science Director of the Self-Regulation Institute.