A Self-Regulation Journey: One School’s Story

About a year and half ago, I wrote about the great work that was being done at Alexander Elementary with, among other things, it’s school wide insistence on making everyone’s learning visible.  It was a magical visit and, as I noted, it was akin to Pulling Rabbits from a Hat.

Well, time has passed…Principal Donna Wright has been replaced by Principal Brittney Wallace but the magic still continues. Brittney, a first year Principal having taught dance, drama, aboriginal education, learning support and grade 4/5,  brings an eclectic set of professional experiences to her new role. Last month when I visited her, we spoke at length about the impact of the journey that her staff  were taking around helping students develop and practice self-regulation skills that could improve learning. At the centre of this discussion was a return to the basics: the creation of classroom environments that promote and encourage these skills. This is the Alexander Staff’s story as told by Brittney:

Have you ever walked into your office, house, kitchen, or garage to see how cluttered or messy it is? Have you ever wanted to turn around and walk out because you’re so overwhelmed? I’m guilty! Now imagine being in that situation (not of your own making), 6 hours a day, 5 days a week and expected to learn.

Children’s ability to self-regulate is a complex notion; however, thanks to Stuart Shanker, we know the environment interacts with each of the domains of self-regulation (biological, emotional, cognitive, social and pro-social). One of the easiest ways to start creating an environment for self-regulation is to look at your classroom, because one of the most obvious reactions we see from students is a hypersensitivity to forms of sensory input in the environment.

We might see many reactions: they might have difficulty sitting still, want to get up and walk around the room, ask to go to the bathroom/water fountain…or the opposite: day dream or seem to not listen. Their responses to the environment might be to shut out the stimuli and withdraw (hypoalert). By doing this, the nervous system is no longer on overload, but they are not aroused enough to be able to learn. On the other hand, students may be overstimulated and need to decrease their level of energy. There are reasons for this beyond the environment; however we should examine our classrooms and routines in order to help students up or down regulate to be calm, alert, and ready to learn.

Alexander Elementary has been on the self-regulation journey for many years. So why did we examine our classroom environment now? It’s been done before! When we see an increase in student inability to regulate and an increase in teacher stress for reasons such as report card time or nearing a two-week break, it’s time to go back to basics: classroom environment

Our school knows the importance of developing self-regulation strategies. When basic needs are met and students are self-regulated, they are able to learn. We took time during our last staff meeting to examine a classroom checklist of strategies and adaptations (attached) then in partners or small groups we visited each other’s rooms.

Teachers left feedback for the classroom, but more importantly gained insight and ideas from looking at each other’s rooms. Many ended this experience with ideas of changes they wanted to make.

I asked for feedback and heard from first year teachers and experienced teachers. Here’s what they said:

I liked being able to see other rooms. We don’t get time to do this regularly. I was able to get some new ideas.

I received useful feedback from my colleagues.

Being reminded just really makes me want to make changes even more.

It was really helpful. I’m owning the clutter and chaos that will always challenge me. I see simple ways to continue moving forward.

Here’s some big ideas we noticed. Take a look at your classroom. Do you struggle with these areas? You’re not alone!

  1. When you’re working with students at the rainbow table, what are they looking at? What’s behind you? Is it distracting/cluttered?
  2. How can we store teacher materials to make bookshelves/areas less cluttered?

Thank you, Brittney, for sharing your school’s story. By way of starting point for all of you, Brittney has shared her staff’s check list of ways that you can enhance your classroom environment through environmental adaptations for self-regulation – we hope that it can help you along in your own journey.