A Self-Reg journey to reducing punitive approaches: What is Self-Reg?

It’s been about four years since the last time my son was restrained, secluded, and traumatized in a Maryland, public school. What began with a promise to my son to do everything I could to make sure this did not happen to him again led to an unexpected journey. It started with research. I wanted to understand who was being restrained and secluded in schools and the impact of using restraint and seclusion on students. I also wanted to know what we could do to stop it. There had to be a better way. It was that journey that led to the formation of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. It was a journey that led me to look for better ways of supporting children, teachers, and staff in our schools. It was that journey that led to my interest in an approach called Self-Reg.

Learning about Self-Reg

In January of 2022, I started the Self-Reg Foundations Certificate Program. At the time, I was familiar with Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work and his book “Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life.” I previously had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Shanker and Susan Hopkins, the Executive Director of the Mehrit Centre, for the AASR Live podcast. I was excited to embark on my journey to learn more about the Self-Reg process. The Self-Reg Foundations Certificate Program includes four courses. I am currently completing the fourth and final course in the program. As part of the final course, we have a capstone project to demonstrate what we have learned from the program. As my final project, I decided to write and publish a series of blog posts about my Self-Reg journey and reflections on how I think the Self-Reg process can reduce the use of punitive discipline practices. This article is the first in the series and introduces the Self-Reg process.

What is Self-Reg?

Let’s begin by talking about what Self-Reg is not. Self-Reg is not a program, a set of strategies, a recipe box, or a list of steps. Self-Reg is not about self-control. The focus of Self-Reg is not on behaviors. There are no bad children from a Self-Reg mindset. 

What is Self-Reg? To begin with, Self-Reg is a process. The process looks at stress across five core domains (biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and prosocial). Dr. Shanker encourages us to become stress detectives, which enables us to identify and reduce stress. It is a highly individualized method of reframing behavior, recognizing stress, reducing stressors, reflecting, and restoring energy. The focus of the process is not on the behavior but the underlying stress. 

The domains of stress illustration by Guy Stephens

Perhaps you have heard it said that behavior is communication. Behavior is often a signal of distress when stress levels increase. The Self-Reg approach does not rely on rewards and consequences to manipulate behavior. The process is about recognizing and reducing stressors, which can reduce and eliminate stress-based behaviors. Dr. Shanker introduces the concept of homeostasis in the course. The goal is to keep stress stable and manageable, to maintain homeostasis. The Self-Reg approach is about durable solutions, not quick fixes. That said, the Self-Reg approach has the potential to help all humans.

Let’s explore the process

Let’s dive into the Shanker Self-Reg process a bit. We begin by reframing behavior. What does that mean? Often we make the worst assumptions about behavior. We tend to assume that all behavior is intentional. We call children attention-seeking, avoiding, manipulative, maladaptive, defiant, oppositional, and make assumptions about their behavior. The first step in reframing is moving away from focusing on observable behavior. It is far more critical to understand why the behavior might be occurring and why it is occurring now. 

The Self-Reg Process illustration by Guy Stephens

We also need to be compassionate; it isn’t easy to empathize with an individual when we believe that behavior is intentional. We need to understand that children do not have fully developed brains. It is not until an individual is 25-30 that the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. Children are not giving us a hard time, rather they are having a hard time. So rather than focusing on the observable behavior, can we reframe to understand what is beneath the behavior? Reframing the behavior allows us to see the child differently and to see a different child.    

What is it beneath the behavior? When considering this question, the Shanker Self-Reg process encourages us to become stress detectives. Observable behavior is often precipitated by stress. When the demands placed on an individual exceed their ability, the result can be a stress response. Dr. Shanker often talks about homeostasis in the context of Self-Reg. Our bodies are designed to maintain homeostasis across many systems, including stress. During high stress, individuals may struggle and be more prone to exhibit stress behaviors. In the second part of the Self-Reg process, our job is to identify the stressors across the five core domains (biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and prosocial). Many stressors can impact a human being and lead to stress behaviors. Let’s look at a few examples. In the biological domain, it may be sensory-related think about lights, sounds and other sensory input. In the emotion domain, it may be something upsetting the child. In the cognitive domain, a child may not have the skills needed to complete an assignment. In the social domain, we might consider a neurodivergent individual that has difficulty with neurotypical social interactions. Finally, in the prosocial domain, perhaps the child is susceptible to the distress of others. Another child in the classroom having difficulty may result in stress in the prosocial domain. The question is, once we recognize the stressors, what do we do next?

The next step in the Self-Reg process is reducing stress. If we successfully identify stressors, we should consider ways to reduce them. This is an excellent opportunity to collaborate with the child to validate your assumptions and to work towards a solution. Perhaps having a conversation with the child would help. John, I notice that you seem to get a bit distracted when the air conditioner comes on and makes a humming noise. Does the child recognize the stressor? You might then consider potential solutions and ask the student to help you solve the problem(s). The key in this stage is to determine how you can reduce the stressors that are leading the child to become overwhelmed. You should do your best to address all of the stressors you identify. It would help if you also realized you might not resolve the issue(s) on the first attempt. Keep digging, keep looking for potential stressors and strategies to reduce the stress and maintain homeostasis.      

The next step in the process is reflection. It is time to reflect on the process and work to increase our awareness of stress and its impact. At the beginning of the process, perhaps you needed to understand and reframe. Maybe you assumed the behavior was intentional and did not make the connection to stress. Many models focus on behavior, but in the Self-Reg process, the focus is on stress and managing stressors. Traditional behaviorist models focus on the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence (ABC’s of behaviorism). Often the antecedent is what immediately preceded the behavior. The antecedent might be determined to be a demand placed on a child. However, what preceded the behavior does not answer the questions of why and why now. If we successfully reframed, identified the stressors, and reduced the stress, we are now looking at this child differently. We perhaps helped the child get to the core of the problem. Now it is time to reflect. It is not the child. As Dr. Shanker would say, “there are no bad kids.” This journey should solidify the impact of stress and how removing or managing stress helps all humans succeed.

The final part of the Self-Reg process is about restoring energy. Restoration is about restoring balance and reaching homeostasis. What can we do to restore energy, or how can we help others to recharge and restore? Like everything in the Self-Reg process, how we restore energy can be highly individualized. There is not a one size fits all approach to restoration. I tend to think about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges and the polyvagal theory. The polyvagal theory explores the mammalian autonomic nervous system. The theory explores the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic is engaged in times of high stress and can mobilize our bodies for a fight or flight response. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system can help us to calm down and return to homeostasis. Thinking through the Self-Reg lens, how can we engage the parasympathetic nervous system? There are many approaches, such as focused attention practices and meditation. It might even mean getting outside in nature. The important thing is that we prioritize restoration as it is critical to the Self-Reg process. 

Foundations of Self-Reg

The foundation of the Self-Reg process is brain science. It begins with understanding a simplified model of the brain (Paul D. MacLean’s triune model) and how the brain responds to stress. As you start to understand how stress impacts the brain, it becomes clear why so many approaches based only on observable behavior fail to help individuals that need help. Many programs focus only on behavior and assume that all behavior is intentional. However, the underlying cause for behavior is biology. Our brains are hardwired to survive, and stress can shift our brains into a survival state. When our brains are in a survival state, our behavior is not driven by the thinking part of our brain (the cortex) but rather by the brain stem. It is also critical to understand that experience drives brain development. Individuals under chronic stress tend to develop an oversensitive threat detection system, increasing the likelihood of stress-related behavior.  

Relationships are critical when it comes to the practice of Self-Reg. Co-regulation constitutes an essential component of the process. The well-regulated prefrontal cortex of a calm adult can be instrumental in helping a child (or another adult) who is struggling. On the other hand, our stress can impact our interactions with others. Our emotions are contagious. When working with children, the adult’s stress levels can change the classroom climate. When we begin to understand how stress affects behavior, we see the world differently. Dr. Shanker suggests that when you see a child differently, you see a different child. The Self-Reg process enables us to see children and ourselves differently.

Illustration by Kristin Weins

So much more to come. In the next article, I’ll share more about my experience with the Self-Reg Foundations Certificate Program and why you might want to consider enrolling in the program.

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