Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stress and Self Regulation: A Practical Lens

"Treating behaviour like misbehaviour means we punish. Treating behaviour as stress behaviour means we help" 
- Dr. Stuart Shanker

Stress is often perceived as a simple topic, but it is actually quite complex. Dr. Shanker explains that self regulation is “understanding stress, managing energy levels and tension”. Essentially, stress occurs when something requires our body to burn energy in order to maintain the internal balance. What is a stress to one person may not be a stress to another.

Is stress always a negative thing?
There are positive and negative stressors in children’s lives and there is a need for both. Negative stress burns energy in the body which causes it to continuously try to regenerate. Whereas, positive stress often will burn energy but it promotes growth. Sometimes positive stress creates more energy than it actually burns. An example of positive stress includes challenging children to try new things. 

Obvious Stress vs Hidden Stress
Obvious stress includes things that can easily be identified when observing someone or through conversation with them. Obvious stressors can be things like a child moving to a new home or school, changes in their family structure, or transitions in their environment or activities at school. 

Hidden stressors can sometimes be much more challenging to detect. In one of his lectures, Dr. Shanker shared that even before walking into the school building there are hundreds of stressors that children encounter. Hidden stressors can include school bells, lighting, textures, hard chair, smells, classroom environment (the walls), noise level. 

The Five Domains
Stress can be broken down into 5 domains and you are never just dealing with stress from one domain at a time. All of the domains impact each other and are connected. Some examples of what stress may look like or be caused by in each domain include:

-being tired
-feeling sick
-energy levels
-sugar intake

-expression of emotions
-appearing tense

-difficulty with focusing
-ability to problem solve

-ability to understand other’s feelings and perspective
-responding appropriately to others

-putting peers needs ahead of their own
-supporting others in dealing with their emotions or feelings

Connecting to our Experience:
After learning about stress this year in our Foundations Program, we have become more aware of hidden and obvious stressors in our classroom and school environment. When observing behaviour we have been conscious about the stress that is involved so that we can support students in regulating. 

We made a few minor adjustments to our environment this year that supported many students. It is important to remember that what works for one group, school, community, and child does not necessarily work for others. Self regulation should always focus on the SELF and recognize that what supports one student, could trigger another. Furthermore, what works for that specific child one day may not work the next. This is why it is so important to always take on the role of "stress detective" so that you can adapt and provide strategies to support students in reducing their stress.

In other words, going out to buy light covers, may not be the "answer", but it may support some students in your classroom. Always think about yourself, your students, your classroom and your community when trying new things and making changes. 

Light Covers
Lighting can be a hidden stressor for many children. Harsh fluorescent lighting can be overstimulating, cause headaches and anxiety in children. We purchased light covers that simply soften the glow of the lights. 

Wiggle Cushions
For some children sitting on hard surfaces can be a stressor. When we noticed that some of our students were struggling with seating on chairs or the floor, we tried using wiggle cushions to support them. For children with sensory needs we have found a lot of success in them having a tool that allows their body to move, rock, and wiggle while focusing. We didn’t buy a class set because not all our children needed this tool, but we do rotate their use and have conversations about how it helps their body as a tool. 

Visual Schedule
Transitions can be a huge trigger in terms of behaviour for students. When considering the flow of the day, we found that many children benefit from having a visual schedule to support them in anticipating what is coming up next. We are very conscious and aware of how many transitions we have within our day and how they impact our students (Transition Blog). 

Through our course, we have become more aware of how important it is to have different micro environments within a classroom to support the needs of all learners. They provide small and large spaces with different energy levels so that all children can find a space that works for them. We have written a blog with much more detail here: Calming Environment

Developing your understanding of stress and becoming aware of how we are viewing behaviours can truly change your practice. When we become stress detectives and look for signs of stress to understand behaviour, it can ease our own stress as educators as well. This is a process that takes time to understand and adopt into your practice, be kind to yourself ... becoming aware is the first step!

This blog was written as part of our final projects for our Foundations Program by the Mehrit Centre. This course has provided us with an in depth knowledge and understanding of Self Regulation under the direction of experts Dr. Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins.

Interested in learning more?
Join us this summer!

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