Self-regulation in the Classroom


Before we think, we feel



Modelling self-regulation – Co-regulation never really ends.  Throughout our lives we are influenced by the emotions of others.  So first and foremost, the teacher must lead by example, modelling the desired emotional state that she/he wants the whole class to adopt during an activity.  As much as anything else this “sets the mood” in the classroom.

But beyond modelling, there are a number of tools and activities that a teacher can use to promote students ability to self-regulate.  Environmental sensory irritants (such as noises, drafts, and florescent lights) can seriously stress and distract some students making it hard for them to self-regulate.  This can happen even when most people don’t even notice the stimulus.   Ask each student individually about which background stimuli they are aware of, and try to minimize or eliminate these.

Concrete Metaphors – Abstract concepts are hard to keep in mind.  It helps to use a concrete metaphor to embody the basic concepts of self-regulation.  There are several that are often used to represent the energy-states that a student may experience: trarffic-lights (red/yellow/green), engine speeds (fast/medium/slow/idling/off), brain parts (human/dog/lizard/snail, blue/brown/red).  This gives a student a structure that makes it easier to monitor their emotional state, and the teacher a short-hand to quickly communicate what emotional state is needed for an activity.

Mindfulness – The first element of self-regulation is self-awareness.  Mindfulness exercises, even for a few minutes each day, can make a big difference.  These can be as simple as asking the students to stop what they are doing and pay attention to how they are feeling or what parts of their body feels tense, or conscious breathing, or exploring by touch only the texture and shape of an object (e.g. a rock or raisin or toy).  Part of these simple mindfulness exercises is to reduce pervasive distracting elements like sight, sound, and reliance on words and “self-talk”, in order to better pay attention to tension in the body that are a key indicator of a person’s emotional state.

Exercise and stretching – Sitting still is hard on the brain and hard on the body.  It reduces blood flow to the brain of all students. A 1 minute “7th-inning-stretch” break every half hour or so is helpful in all grades.  In younger graders, regular bouts of games like Simon Says or dancing to a 2 minute high-energy song, can re-energerize the class and help them focus.

Body posture and movements – Emotional states trigger body reactions, and body positions reinforce emotions.  Learning simple strategies like taking slow deep breathes, counting to 10, standing up straight, and keeping your hands open and loose (rather than clenched) can break physical feedback loops that lead to negative harmful emotional states.

Singing together – Singing an upbeat song in unison can actually help students self-regulate and the whole class co-regulate.  Singing is one of the oldest methods of communication that we have.  Some researchers think that humans sang before they spoke.  When we sing in a group three things happen: we breathe deliberately, we pay attention to the other singers, and we take in the tempo/mood of the music.  But: no solos, nothing complex, and no marks.  Sing with a record playing to make it easier.  The goal is singing as a group, not putting on a performance or showcasing excellence or even trying to help someone sing in tune or learn the words.  Loud and enthusiastic and without judgement and everyone singing is what you’re after.

Improv –  The keys to improv are to pay close attention to your partners (co-regulation) and to play along with them (self-regulation).  This is much like group singing, but with less structure, greater creativity, more communication, a lot of movement, and (with any luck) a good deal of silliness.  Improv can also be used to break down walls between cliques and turn hostility into friendships.

De-clutter the walls – There is a tradition of festooning classroom walls with student art and projects, colourful posters, and decorative borders. Unfortunately, this could well have the effect of making it more difficult for students to self-regulate and concentrate.  Excessive “visual noise” can distract students from not only the lesson, but also in some cases can cause visual overload that is hard to block out and interferes with self-regulation.

Dampen the sound – Sudden noises (like the scrape of a chair) can generate a startle rush and a feeling of anxiety.  Repetitive noises like the hum of fluorescent lights or the hiss of a fan can create a sense of anxiety.  Both can reduce a student’s ability to self-monitor and self-regulate.  Old tennis balls can be used on chair legs to eliminate sound when the chair is moved.  Replacing florescent bulbs with led bulbs, and turning them off when not needed, can be a big help.  And in some cases white noise machines might with noises that you can’t control.

Options other than hard chairs – Chairs aren’t natural for human bodies.  Most force us into a rigid static position. Human bodies evolved on African grasslands to stand or be in motion.  Sitting still for hours in even the best chair isn’t part of human nature (The harmful health effects caused by prolonged sitting has earned it the label of the “New Smoking”.)  All are designed for some idealized body shape, height, and weight, and assume that no part of the body that will inhabit the chair is stiff or painful.  But the bodies of students come in all shapes and sizes; the same child changes dramatically as he/she ages.  One-size-fits-all school chairs just don’t fit for most students.  This makes it harder for them to concentrate on learning, diverting considerable self-regulation effort to coping with physical discomfort.  Options to standard-issue chairs include: yoga balls, short stools, bar stools, bean bag chairs, and pillows. Or simply allowing the student to stand.

Options other than standard desks: Once a variety of seating (or standing) is allowed, the standard-issue desk needs to change also.  A variety of standing desks, lap desks, and adjustable height desks will be needed.

Quiet spaces – From time to time most of us need a moment of quiet, particularly when under stress.  And school is full of sources of stress: tests coming up, waiting for test results, fear of looking stupid when struggling with a concept, worry about losing a friend, concern about being shunned, laughed at, harassed, or worse.  Having a small place to retreat to for a few minutes, without facing stigma, can go a long way to help someone self-regulate.

Exercise equipment / movement options – Giving students easy access, as they need it, to stationary bicycles, resistance bands, skipping ropes, dumbbells, and other equipment, will help them self-regulate.  Just giving a student the ability to walk in the hall will help.  There is a clear link between exercise and stress reduction, and between stress reduction and the ability to self-regulate.  The challenge of integrating exercise/movement options for students as needed without disrupting the rest of the class is easily overcome, especially if hallways are seen as an extension of the classroom space.

See Hallways as an extension of the classroom – If learning is assumed to take place whenever a student is sitting listening to the teacher, then any time spent out of the class is unproductive.  But if the assumption is changed to account for the student’s receptivity to learn, any non-receptive time is also unproductive.  With this view, it is far better to give a student access to a hallway for 5 minutes and return ready to learn, than to sit closed-minded for 10, or 20, or 40 minutes.

Spend time outside – Being outdoors, particularly around trees, can have a calming, mood-elevating effect on people.  Establishing formal or informal outdoor learning spaces, and using them even in inclement weather, can improve self-regulation and lead to greater physical health.