Book Review: Calm, Alert and Learning

Something innovative is happening in Canadian schools – particularly in British Columbia, Ontario and Saskatchewan. It all has to do with self-regulation: the ability to remain calm, alert and ready to learn.

The Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative is a project based on the research of Dr. Stuart Shanker of York University.  The goal is to to coordinate and share the best work being done through self-regulation programs and practices from across Canada.  This project is the second part of a project that began with a study on the effectiveness of a DIR/Floortime approach to early intervention for children with autism (see the video on our “Research” page).

As the second part of the project, Dr. Shanker has written a book for educators about helping all children with self-regulation.

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What’s The Problem?

Calm, Alert and Learning is based on the idea that traditional or behaviouristic approaches to discipline are ineffective with growing numbers of children.  The author proposes that this is because there has been an increase in students who have a delay in their development: specifically, the ability to regulate themselves.  Self-regulation is the basis for learning and connecting with other people, and includes “paying attention, ignoring distractors, inhibiting his impulses, modulating his emotions, and overall, maintaining a state of being calmly focused and alert” (Shanker, 2013).  Various factors, ranging from family stress to neurological disorders, can interfere with this ability.

According to Dr. Shanker, self-regulation develops in five areas.  The areas are interconnected, each building on the others, and so to have a difficulty in one area will increase problems in the others.  These areas include:

  • Biological
    This area  is about physiology.  It includes maintaining the right energy level to be able to focus on activities – neither hyperactive or sleepy. The author also discusses how stress affects the body and the mind.  It’s important to note that different children respond to sensory input in different ways – a classroom might be too noisy, too cluttered, or too bright, distracting students from their lessons.  Most children also have a need for regular physical activity.   Dr. Shanker suggests several ways to adjust a classroom to accommodate these needs which vary from student to student.
  • Emotional
    The emotional region refers to a person’s ability to recognize and describe his or her own emotions, as well as being able to appropriately express and respond to them.  It is important for children to feel valued in their communities, to recognize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and to feel that they and each of their classmates have something of value to contribute.  Emotional literacy programs and a recognition of multiple learning styles are among the recommended strategies.
  • Cognitive
    Self-regulation includes activities such as sequencing thoughts, focusing attention, and recognizing one’s own learning process. These are all part of the cognitive region.  Metacognition (thinking about thinking) is a part of cognitive regulation.  Dr. Shanker also includes the importance of play-based learning in this section, noting that all kinds of foundational thinking skills (imagination, problem-solving, observation, sequencing) are learned in play.
  • Social
    The social area is about observing and understanding nonverbal and verbal communication.  It involves skill at co-regulation (the ability to adjust interactions in response to a partner).  Dr. Shanker recommends using collaborative learning and social/emotional learning programs as a resource.
  • Pro-social
    The pro-social area builds on the social, going beyond understanding to acting on empathy and concern for others.  It’s about character development.

The Solution

The essence of Calm, Alert and Learning is to recognize and work on the root causes of learning difficulties.  We do this by helping children to understand their own needs and best strategies – sensory, emotional, learning and social, and then supporting the growth of self-management and communication skills.  In doing this we move along a continuum from adults regulating children, to children and adolescents knowing how to regulate themselves.

There are a variety of ways to do this.  In the biological area, we reduce distractions and provide activity breaks.  In the emotional area, we teach students to recognize and appropriately release their emotions.  In the cognitive area, we help students find ways to organize their thoughts.  In the social and prosocial area, we make use of opportunities to teach collaborative skills and empathy.

The areas listed above are not isolated: to work on one, we work on all, as a thread running through the school day.  The author provides references to a variety of resources to work on each part in various ways.  Many more exist, and an innovative teacher will adapt strategies to fit his or her class.

Classroom management is a proactive endeavor – by recognizing the obstacles to self- regulation and teaching students how to regulate themselves, many problems will be avoided and students will be better able to focus on their learning tasks.

Putting it Into Practice

The strategies described in this book are proactive.  Although Dr. Shanker includes several case studies with teachers looking for support with challenging classes, the solutions described indicate a gradual change of classroom environment and teaching styles.  There are no quick fixes, or suggestions for dealing with behavior in the moment.  Teachers will also need to find resources to carry out the principles in the book – many are listed, but as the author concludes, the discussion in the book is a starting point.

Although we often just tell a child to control himself in some way, or create classroom environments that reward and encourage appropriate behaviour, my teaching experience tells me that neither is a very effective strategy, especially in the long term.  When we don’t engage children in their own learning and self-understanding, we mostly teach them to stop communicating anything that we might not want to hear.

One of my favorite reminders as a teacher has been to “never assume.”  Children have many barriers to learning.  When they enter our classroom, we really don’t know them very well.  We don’t know what they have learned, what their emotional or social difficulties are, or what skills they have yet to learn.  It is best to discover and address them rather than expecting behaviour or skills they have not yet learned.

Calm, Alert and Learning is a useful book, recommended for educators wanting to consider the developmental needs of their students.  It is a beginning point for a deeper understanding of what children need to achieve full maturity as learners, as friends, and as participants in their families and communities.

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Today’s Parent magazine has also written an article on this topic. You can read it here.

…and, here’s a November 2013 CBC article about B.C. schools teaching all kids about self-regulation.

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