It’s all about self regulation

Recently, we had the chance to view a terrific webcast in which Stuart Shanker, York University professor and authority on the topic, shared his ideas on why the teaching of self regulation is a crucial job for educators.  For me, the journey to this webcast was motivated by what I was seeing in my classroom, a troubling trend in the student population; a lack of motivation to do anything beyond what they wanted to do.  It seems as if the general disclaimer “but I don’t want to do that” excuses them from any activity.  If it wasn’t stimulating, desired, “cool and fun”, they didn’t want to do it, so could opt out.

Now, I understand the universal desire to do the fun stuff, don’t get me wrong.  Everyone wants to have a good time, we were all kids and we recall the drudgery of activities “that are good for us”, even if we don’t like them.  “Eat your broccoli”, “learn your times tables”, “clean your room”.  All of these are the stuff of our childhood, and now we pass this onto our own children and students.  Sometimes I fear I sound like my parents; sometimes I’m glad I do.

What I fear most with the “Generation Z” or “Digital Generation” kids is that we are allowing them to be immersed in a vast sea of stimulation without any tools to stay in touch with themselves as a person.  The result is, they start to take on the characteristic of addicts, awash in dopamine and constantly looking for their next fix from cellphones, videogames, facebook, anything that stimulates.  In this kind of environment, why would you spend time with things that weren’t stimulating? I worry that they’re missing key skills for future success, but more importantly, I worry they’re losing touch with themselves and becoming addicted to stimulation.

Well, as Shanker teaches us, we need to learn these self regulatory skills for our very survival in the world.  Without the ability to stop our behaviour, and perform others that are in our best interest (sometimes against our will), we risk becoming mindless automotons awash in a sea of stimulation, hunting our next dopamine fix, but not moving ourselves forward in our lives.  These are teachable and learnable skills, and a high priority in our schools.

What can we do for our students to assist them with this learning?  Let them play.  Force them to play.  “We’re bored, there’s nothing to do”.  Go out and play.  “There’s nothing to play”.  Good.  Invent something, make something up, figure it out.  Don’t wait for the world to entertain you, entertain yourself.  It turns out, children’s play is a powerful place where they learn to self regulate, and if we deny them the chance to do this, they miss out on the learning.

All of the key components of a self regulated child are learned through invented, make believe games where they create, use, and enforce their own “rule structure”.  When children have the time and space to act out complex pretend scenarios, in which rule structures are important to the continued play, they learn how and why these rules are important and must be followed.

Let’s give an example.  Two children gravitate together and begin to play.  Unlike the parallel play of toddlers, this involves an integration of wills and a negotiation of “how we will be together”.  You can hear this in their talk as they build the rules of the game.  “OK, let’s say this guy is the king and he’s going to attack that castle over there”.  One of the children sets a pillar of the game; identifying what is happening.  The second child then responds. “…and these guys are the warriors to defend it”.  Now, they are engaged, each has declared their willingness to play a game and be active participants in the scenario, making up bits to keep it moving along.  If one of the children suddenly makes a major change to the game, the other needs to work with it or the play risks falling apart.  He can’t just grab a bulldozer and smash over the castle, that would be too drastic an action without some context building between the two participants. If a new part is added, there needs to be agreement between the two, which may involve argument.  Again, here’s a learning opportunity for the child; negotiating disagreements and bringing them to a resolution means letting go of some things you believe in, in order to continue a relationship that you want.  Such an important skill to learn, but one we don’t allow children to learn if we jump in and “break up fights”, or solve their problems for them.

We can see how, in this invented game scenario, we learn to suppress our egocentric desire to seek immediate pleasure and participate in the give-and-take required to move a pretend scenario forward.  There can be no friends, no play, if you don’t do this.


About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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