Regulation before Education

Today’s guest author is Jennifer Abbanat. Jennifer is a wife and mom to three kids ages 18, 16, and 13. Jennifer is an advocate and voice for her neurodiverse children. She and her family live in Northern California.


As many kids begin to head back to school in-person or start distance learning for the 2020-21 school year, there is a lot of attention and focus on what kids will need, and what will be important for them to be successful.  

Many teachers/educators are wondering how to create an environment that will best support the students academically; while some will go a step further and wonder how to support their students’ social and emotional health, whether it is in person or online.  

There is a lot of concern that the students have fallen behind due to abruptly going to an inadequate distance learning model last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of this is the predictable “summer slide” that many students experience during the long summer break.  I can already hear the voices of parents and educators saying, “we must catch the students up to where they should be”.

Last spring when schools closed down, many went to an online learning model.  Many parents and educators seem to have the belief that there wasn’t a lot of learning happening and not much got accomplished; therefore this school year they have a lot more work to get the students “back on track.”

But is this the best approach to helping our kids during this difficult time? Many mental health experts tell us it is more important for school staff to develop and nurture emotional connections with the students. Therefore, not focusing on academics right away.

Yet, it is widely reported that many parents are so concerned about their child’s education gap created from distance learning that they are hiring private tutors to support their kids’ academics. This means more academics after the school day is over for many kids. This is happening for kids of all ages, from preschool up to high school.  

Most districts have put out their district-wide plans for the different grade levels to implement this fall. Parents and students now have a daily schedule of how their school day will look. Most are aware of the plan to go back to distance learning online or if the students will be back in person on a school campus.

Plans are in place. Expectations have been announced. Preparations are underway. 

Except for one important detail.  

Where is the “plan” to address our kids’ social and emotional well-being?

What are the details?  We need more than just “we care for your child’s social-emotional well being” as we have read over and over again in all the email communications.

We know through brain science and research that when a student’s mental, emotional, and physical NEEDS are met, they are more likely to love school and they learn more.

The standard district Social and emotional learning (SEL) program that has become popular the last few years is a start but is certainly not enough for what so many of our families and kids have experienced and continue to go through during this global pandemic.

We all need much more.  The teachers, the staff, and the students all need support.

Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D., a world-renowned Psychiatrist and expert in childhood trauma describes these adults as “barometers”. If a parent, caregiver, or teacher is frustrated, stressed, and dysregulated, this is communicated to the children. He calls this “emotional contagion”.  

If the adult is not regulated, the child becomes dysregulated and therefore the child is now in a brain state that he or she is unable to learn. This is why self-care for parents and teachers before they are in a classroom is so crucial to helping our children.  

The good news is that just as a dysregulated adult is contagious, so is a regulated adult. This relational safety and connection allows a child to co-regulate with the adult.  

Dr. Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., in her book, “Beyond Behaviors” reminds us that “many of our approaches falsely assume that children can self regulate their emotions and behaviors when in reality, they do not yet have that ability.” This creates an “expectation gap” as she calls it between the adults and the child.  

Whether the child is unable to meet this expectation due to their development or because they are in a moment of frustration, feeling stressed, or is feeling unsafe, it leaves them incapable of controlling their emotions.

They may be struggling behaviorally and are becoming dysregulated. This child can no longer control themselves in this moment and may be perceived by the adults as misbehaving, acting out, not complying.

I was recently able to ask Dr. Delahooke about this brain state of regulation. Specifically, what “signals” might teachers and parents observe that a child is becoming dysregulated or is in a dysregulated state?  She says

“Signs of dysregulation can be found on the face—wide eyes, looking around the room, looks of anger, surprise or disgust, body gestures, needing to move, perhaps pushing or hitting, etc. Those are signs of sympathetic NS (nervous system) activation.”

She directed me to her book “Beyond Behaviors” for more signals such as their voice may be high pitched, while they are yelling or screaming. They may be sarcastic or hostile.  She added that “we also want to look for dysregulation in the shape of disconnection, the blue pathway as I call it, and that’s when kids begin to pull away and we can see those features in the face and body as well.” In her book, she describes the blue pathway, as a child “shutting down”. A signal the child may be in the shutdown brain state can also be expressed by their body being “slouched, little or no exploring play or curiosity, or frozen.”  

What this child needs now more than anything is a regulated adult who is calm, present, and helps the child co-regulate through rhythm and patterned repetition. An adult who brings comfort and helps the child feel safe in this moment. This feeling of connecting and understanding calms this child. This is emotional regulation.

You can think of emotional regulation like a caregiver caring for an infant.  An infant becomes uncomfortable because his internal body signal is telling his mind he is hungry. The baby cries to communicate this need. An attuned and loving parent responds to this cry, feeds the baby, which soothes and comforts the baby and helps the baby feel full and satisfied, and the baby is now happy and calm. This is co-regulation with the adult.  The adult met a need, and when the need was met, it calmed the baby. Just like this infant, a regulated child is a calm child, whose needs are met and is ready to take in the world and learn.

We keep hearing over and over how these are “unprecedented times” and the pandemic has turned the world as we know it upside down. Many societal norms are gone, or at least feels like it. Everything predictable about our daily lives is different.  A nationwide Gallup poll in June 2020 found that 3 in 10 parents reported their child is experiencing emotional or mental harm because of social distancing and school closures.  

Regulation is important for all daily functions. If you are regulated, you are calm. If you are regulated, your brain is organized and able to modulate itself to appropriately respond and make sense of everything around you.

A regulated brain state allows us to access our executive functioning skills, which we all need to learn.

According to Dr. Lori Desautels (2018), “activating young students’ natural bodily rhythms helps them regulate their nervous system and prepare them for learning.” A regulated brain allows a child to recall information and to learn new information. A regulated brain is a motivated brain and feels pleasure. “Pleasure is the fuel for repetition.” (Dr. Bruce Perry, 2016) Repetition is regulating.

I was able to have a discussion with Dr. Desautels regarding any potential effects of the pandemic on our brain state and regulation.   My question for her was: In your opinion, is the stress and disruptions to our daily lives, especially to our kids from the COVID-19 pandemic capable of creating longer-term chronic stress or worse trauma? If so, what can parents and teachers do to help minimize the impact of this stress on our kids in real-time to maybe prevent more long term issues?  

“Absolutely yes”. She continued, but it is “not definitive because of our brain’s plasticity.” She recommends creating moments of “touch points” which she describes as the rituals of togetherness. 

These rituals of “touch points”, whether it is a small “check-in”, or having a shared moment of some kind, having a snack, a simple touch to the shoulder letting them know you are there, are all gestures that can bring a sense of safety and connectedness and help create a “sanctuary space” according to Dr. Desautels. This allows us to be in the moment, and these “moment to moment of touch points” regulate the brain. These “moment to moment touch points” and rituals of togetherness can help minimize the impact of the stress created by COVID-19. She stressed the importance of making all this “a lifestyle”. It is these everyday experiences we create with our kids and our families that bring a sense of calmness and safety which can greatly reduce the stress we are all feeling during this time.  

It is not healthy or realistic to expect kids to simply rebound and jump back into school to face these new challenges that lie ahead or for them to show grace with the attempts at getting them “caught up” on missed schoolwork, without first assessing each child’s brain state of functioning. Jumping right into academics for a child who is not regulated, who is stressed, worried, anxious, will only exasperate these feelings and make things worse for the child and the adults.

Our moods both positive and negative have an impact on those around us. Especially children whose brains are still developing.  

This is why I have been using a simple phrase on social media, “Regulation before education”.

But what influences the brain to either be in a regulated state or a dysregulated state of functioning?

Regulation occurs in the brain stem. It comes from feelings of being safe (from the child’s internal unconscious self), feelings of security, connectedness with others. This is what research has shown to be the driving forces to a regulated brain.

A regulated brain can guide a child to become an engaged and curious learner. Research has also shown that schools can support the “whole learner” if they integrate social, emotional, and academic skills into a child’s day.  

According to Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, “when there is a strong relationship between a teacher, mentor, principal it can reverse the negative effects of a child’s adverse experience,” such as this pandemic.  These positive relationships help create feelings of safety, which helps create an optimal learning environment.

“Emotion and learning are completely connected.” (Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond)

If the kids feel connected, feel relationally safe, and have feelings of confidence, they will become regulated and they will naturally explore more of their world. This natural exploration leads a child to learning and further curiosity. 

When I was talking with Dr. Desautels, I wanted to know what were some examples of regulating activities that teachers and parents should do while distance learning, to help get kids to be in a brain state that is ready to learn?  The first thing she said, that is so important to help support the kids, is for the adults “to take care of ourselves first, before distance learning. This prepares our brain and our body. We need to be “sanctuaries and create safe connected spaces.” She added that “this is not an action, it is being”. Adults need to share their calm in a “sanctuary of safeness”.

Another example of regulating activities to support the learning brain is described by Dr. Desautels as “joining up.” She describes “joining up as an embodied experience; rituals that are predictable routines that you do together” with your children. “Joining up” primes the brain for learning. “Joining up” with our children is “sharing an experience” with them.

Some specific examples she gives of “joining up” are going for a walk together, making a meal together, setting the table together, sitting down, and having a snack together. These are simply moments of a ritual that are predictable, that you participate in together, with your child. Maybe it is coloring or brushing the dog; it is a moment that is spent together where you are present with your child.

Dr. Desautels recommends doing “learning in small chunks of time. Start with 10 minutes. Then do a check-in with your child. Ask them how they are feeling. This is priming the brain”.  She continued by adding “we need to create forced islands of success. Ask your child if they can do just 5 more minutes?” By sharing our calm with our children, we are modeling calm for them, “ and this helps prime the brain for learning.”

She recommends doing “homework together” by creating a space for both you and your child to work. She adds, “this creates another embodied experience. Our children need us to be present and this helps provide a connection.” This all again readies a brain to learn.

Dr. Desautels shared with me a personal story from years ago when her children were young and she was working on her graduate studies. Her kids loved to sit next to her and “pretend to work” like her. She explains our kids do not need to be set up in a separate space for distance learning. Creating a space where you are together, maybe it is your child sitting in your office with you, or the parent brings their work to a different common space like a dining room table. “This is another example of joining up – do homework together.” The child does their work while the parent does their work.  

“By creating rituals together using these types of regulatory practices”, it helps regulate ourselves and our children which is so important for them to be able to learn.

She continued to tell me that for parents and teachers “when we are dysregulated, it is as contagious as this virus COVID-19. Our emotions are contagious and are why we need to pay attention to ourselves, our brain state, and embodied space.” 

Dr. Pamela Cantor, MD has commented: “that teaching and learning needs to be less transactional and more about relationships.” Again, supporting the concept that relationships are what fosters a child’s ability to perform better academically.

This is like a key to a child’s mind. Whoever has access to this key, they can literally unlock or influence the child’s full potential as a whole learner.  This is why schools and teachers must put a greater emphasis on these important relationships. Not just at the beginning of a school year; but throughout the school year to support the kids’ social-emotional health as well as their academic skills.

Just as safety is the key to regulation, it is also the key to a classroom environment that helps maintain this regulated brain state which leads to a learning environment.  

Relationships are powerful. Feelings of safety are powerful. Being connected to a trusted person is powerful. It can literally change a child’s life. When a child feels seen, heard, safe and understood, it can reverse negative experiences the child may have gone through in their past. Relationships help children heal.

This is a time in our history where far too many are being challenged with far too much uncertainty, despair, and suffering. This creates enormous stress and trauma for everyone afflicted by these hardships. The impact of this will be felt for many years.  We know how to help support all these families. We know how to support all these kids when this school year starts. But it cannot be business as usual. We need to think about what the kids/students need for them to heal and then to learn. Not the other way around.  

Our kids need the adults around them to connect with them. The adults need to be in a regulated brain state so that they can help all their students. 

I posed this specific question to Dr. Delahooke. I asked her “If there were 3 things a teacher or parent could do every day to support a child’s regulation, what would those 3 things be”?

She gave these three ideas to help support regulation each day.   “1. Let the student know you care in a way that is meaningful to that student 2. Ask the parent to inform you about the student’s individual differences in how they process information in the classroom and then work to lessen cues of threat in the classroom environment (ie: where to sit the student so he feels safe, or provide accommodations like earphones if there’s auditory over-reactivity) and increase cues of safety (ask the parent what kinds of things help the child feel more regulated and secure) 3. Model self-compassion so that the student can develop this important skill.”  

These three suggestions all serve to support a child’s regulation, which is critical for a child’s development and prepares them to learn which leads to future success.  

In Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model in Education, he teaches about the six R’s for a classroom. These are “relational, relevant, respectful, rhythmic, repetitive and rewarding.” These six R’s are the necessary ingredients for a healthy life and a trauma-informed classroom. He continues that these 6 R’s are crucial for parents and teachers to understand for them to be able to support the child’s “relational foundation.” This foundation is what supports and holds up a child’s development and brain state so that the child can be regulated, maintain regulation, and this allows a child to reach the goal of learning.  

This is why we need “REGULATION before EDUCATION!”

“When children feel safe
Development takes off
And they can reach their
Highest potential”

Dr. Mona Delahooke, Ph.D.

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