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Send your comments to spark* News
In any classroom or group or family, there will be diversity. Some prefer the world to blister along, Others prefer it to take a slower pace. Some prefer to listen. Others prefer to watch. Regardless of the diversity, all students, all children, all learners benefit from time to think. It’s about taking the time to encourage children to explain their thinking. It’s about them feeling safe to express their thoughts.
Teachers are often pressed to accomplish a certain number of things each class or each week. Parents too feel a need to get a certain number of things done. You have to ask yourself: “Do I want to help the child learn how to think? Or do I just want them to comply with what I’m telling them to do?” That ‘s the difference. You can push ahead and get things done or you can help the children think.
A parent reminded me of one phrase I use a lot: “What do you think?” That’s what I say to children, even low verbal children. I ask them to show or say what they think about … how to start an activity, what to do next, how they did something, what a problem might be, how well they did, etc. It’s simple. It’s powerful but it takes time.
By asking this question, you’re doing a number of things:
That’s pretty powerful stuff … just by asking a simple question.
In the beginning, you’ll need to help children deal with the question. They’re used to people asking ‘test’ questions. Those are questions
adults ask when they know the answer but want to see if the child does. Kids are usually pretty nervous about answering those questions because they risk being ‘wrong’. Children need to know that whatever they say will be looked at positively. Regardless of what the child says, the adult has to be willing to answer with “That’s a good idea.”, “Hmm, I’m not sure, Can you help me understand?”, “That’s interesting. Should we try it out?” These responses all indicate that the adult values the child’s ideas. The ideas may be way out there but the teacher must respond positively. What’s the harm in trying out a really different idea? I remember I posed a problem about a boy who fell down and scraped his knee. I asked a group of children what we could do. Some suggested getting his mom. Others said we could go to the doctor. One child said we should call for an ambulance helicopter. I dutifully wrote everything on the whiteboard. I acknowledged each idea. After all, they all focused on the injury. The children just needed more help in scaling back their ideas to the size of the injury. With more questions we figured out that it was just a little scrape and probably needed to be cleaned and covered with a bandage.
What do you do if a child is unwilling or unable to answer your question? Start by narrowing down the options. You can ask the child to show you. You can point to or name a part the might be helpful – “What about this part here? Do you think it might be helpful?” or “Let’s look at your work and then look at the model? Do you think yours looks the same?” You can also comment on how you did an activity and ask if that’s okay. Ask questions that can have a positive outcome, ones that give the child credit for something they did well.
Over time, when the children learn you’re not out to catch them up, they’ll get bolder and more confident in answering “What to you think” questions.
Resilient people are aware of their thoughts and can do something to help themselves.
There are so many worries today. Children, and their families, are worrying about climate change, political upheavals, war, migration, etc. We need to help children become more resilient. They need help coping with day-to-day worries and uncertainty in healthier ways.
Here are some ways parents and other important adults can help:
Here are some examples of objects that can help children regain self-regulation. There are many possibilities but I’ve included a few of my favorites. All are available on line from a variety of vendors – please do comparative shopping to get the best price and quality.
A: Let’s think about the school day. The child spent anywhere from three to six hours at school, usually sitting, listening, interacting with others, trying to keep from being overwhelmed by sensations around them. That’s a lot of self-regulation for anyone. By the time they get home, they’ve had it. Their capacity for self-regulation is gone. They can’t do it anymore. That’s why they fall apart. They’re telling us they’re done.
What can you do? Regardless of whether your child growls past you, welcome them warmly and tell them you’re happy to see them. Don’t judge and don’t be offended.
Suggest they go to a quiet place to recharge because it’s been a long day. Don’t be too wordy. They’ve probably had too much talking already.
Let them go to a quiet place where they can listen to music, watch a favorite video, or read a favorite book or just be quiet. Have some sensory objects available – hammocks are wonderful, ball pits are a favorite of many children, squishy objects are good as are favorite toys or stuffed animals. Give them uninterrupted time alone, time to recharge. Some ideas are presented below in Resources.
After a while, offer them a snack that is both a sensory experience (maybe something crunchy or chewy) and nourishing. Don’t push. Just offer. Leave the snack close by.
After a while, if your child isn’t coming around, offer them something enticing. You might suggest more snack, a meal, watching television with the family, playing a sport …. You want to make sure they’ve recharged but don’t stay in isolation.
In a funny way, you can look at your child’s falling apart when they arrive home as a positive thing. It’s an indication that they feel comfortable and safe enough to let go. That is, home is a safe place where I can be myself.
I was watching a podcast a while back. The speaker talked about results from research into their self-regulation program. She said that, after three years, improvements were found. THREE YEARS??? That’s a long time. Children change and develop no matter what you do – the improvements they saw might have happened just because the children are three years older. Also, she said ‘improvements’ were found, not statistically significant improvements, just improvements. Unless something is done in a carefully controlled study and results are statistically significant, they’re essentially useless.
Lots of parents have told me about how their children had worked on the same things year after year at school. Their IEP (Individual Education Plan) or IPP (Individual Program Plan) looks the same year after year, only the dates change. Why is this? It’s likely because the goals weren’t achieved. So why is that? And why do they keep flogging the poor child with the same things over and over? It may be that the goals aren’t appropriate but, more likely than not, the way they’re teaching the child isn’t working.
So, how much is enough? At what point should I change what I’m doing? In my experience, if a child hasn’t shown progress within three months of starting a program or plan, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing. You should see change and improvement before that but three months is the limit. If a child hasn’t learned what you’re trying to teach STOP. You haven’t found an effective and meaningful way for that child to learn.
The same thing goes for research projects like the one I mentioned in the first paragraph. If they hadn’t found any changes within three months of starting the project, don’t keep going. Stop. Evaluate what you’re doing and make meaningful changes. Face it, you’ve hit a brick wall.
If you truly believe in the goal and what you’re trying to teach the children, try changing one or more of the following:
Remember, three months is maximum. If you don’t see progress, change what you’re doing.
Teachers (and therapists) sometimes feel like they can’t work on self-regulation with a group of children. There are challenges to doing it in groups, but it is possible. It can also be a lot of fun.
Let’s get a few things clear first. Always start with body (behavioral) self-regulation. Everybody seems to want to start with emotional self-regulation. That’s down the road. Help children become masters of their bodies first. If they can organize their movements and bring them under their control, you’re a long way to helping them regulate other areas.
Self-regulation activities focus on conscious, deliberate control of executive functions. Think of activities that will help children use their:
Talk about the executive functions with students. Help them understand each of the five key executive functions and how they can learn to control them.
Explain specific activities in terms of the executive functions, like the descriptions above – “This one helps put on our brakes when we need to.” Make sure they understand that the goal is to help them become masters of their own behavior, thinking, and emotions.
1. Body self-regulation. These activities can be done any time during the day.
Focus on planning and organization as well as working memory by using activities that involve a sequence of actions, like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. With older children, you can do the same actions to more age-appropriate music, like Lady Gaga. By slowing the speed and whispering/muting the song (doing the action without words), you’ll challenge inhibitory control. Change the words or actions to something new (head and shoulders, hips and knees) and challenge their cognitive flexibility.
Try walking between places within the classroom or within the school in different ways. Walk very slowly, hop, move quickly without running, etc. Have the children do other activities at different rates. Make up a deck of cards with different speeds (fast, slow, in-between), intensities (soft, hard/loud, in-between), and manners (like a rock star, butterfly, ghost) so students can draw a card and move in that way.
Do Turtle breathing (mindful breathing) to calm and centre their brains and bodies before and after an activity.
2. Cognitive self-regulation.
Prompt all students to stop, think, make a plan before starting activities (that focuses them on inhibitory control plus planning and organization). Model this in your own activities so the children can see everyone uses this approach and it’s helpful. Ask them, “What should we do first, next, next …?” Encourage them to help you plan and organize activities.
Talk about noises or other distractions that are making it hard for you to think. Ask the students, “That noise is really bugging me, what can I do to help myself?” If you see a student having difficulty controlling their impulses, quietly chat with them about telling their brakes to start working. Again, ask them what they can do to help themselves.
Prompt students to talk to themselves (“say things in your brain”) to help working memory. Other strategies for improving working memory are visualizing (“make a picture in your brain”), and writing/drawing information they read or hear. It’s important to point out these are not cheating. Strategies are smart ways to make your brain remember important things.
Self-monitoring can be worked on by developing checklists for things that need to be done. Also, include criteria so the student can know they did a good job. This checklist can include things like, “I put my name and date at the top”, “I read the directions before I started and checked to make sure I know what to do”, “I finished all activities.”
Cognitive flexibility can be a fun area to work on but a little frustrating for some students. Ask questions like, “What’s another way we can do this?”, “How else could we look at this?”, “Why don’t we ….?” These questions are meant to shake up the usual order a little bit, just enough to open students’ minds to other possibilities.
3. Emotional self-regulation.
An important first step is helping students identify moods/emotions in others and understanding why. It’s easier and calmer to look at someone else’s emotions first.
While reading a story, ask students how the characters feel and why. Prompt discussion of as many emotions and reasons as possible so you build in flexibility and understanding. Then work on planning and organization – What can the character do to help themselves? What steps can they take? Inhibitory control can be introduced by asking what the characters should do to help themselves so they don’t deviate from their plan. Working memory can be worked on by having students develop a mantra for the character to remind them about how to proceed. Self-monitoring can incorporate “how will I know if my plan is working/worked?” Cognitive flexibility will be challenged on many fronts as you help the character navigate the emotional path and then compare this to how the author unfolded the story.
ALWAYS make sure children get recess and other breaks. They need a chance to move and interact with other students. NEVER use loss of recess/break as a punishment – it’s counterproductive.
A: Over the years, lots of people have said, “He doesn’t need a checklist. He knows how to do everything and, if he forgets, I remind him.” Parents, teachers, therapists, and other people seem to resist checklists like they’re some kind of weird device only for people with special needs.
They’re not. Let’s think about what checklists are. They make us plan and organize ourselves before we do a task or activity. That’s a good thing. They make sure we work systematically and don’t miss anything. That’s another good thing. By having checklists, we don’t have to use so much working memory to do things. That’s another positive point for checklists. They help us monitor our progress in completing a task or activity (“O
kay, I’m at step #3, only three more to go.”). Yet another good thing. These are the executive functions that make up self-regulation. So instead of weakening self-regulation, checklists are making it stronger.
Now, let’s look at the social stigma of using checklists. Do they make someone look less able? Do they look stupid or open you to ridicule? Have a look at the video below and you be the judge.
Checklists can make all of us better organized, more systematic, and more accurate and are a powerful life skill.
Not yet convinced? Watch this video
Here are some examples of books that can help children learn strategies for regaining self-regulation presented in this blog last Monday through Thursday. There are many possibilities but I’ve included a few of my favorites.
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn – this is a delightful children’s book about a raccoon who was worried about starting school. His mother gives his hand a kiss so, if he feels worried, he can look at his hand and remember his mother loves him.
The LIttle Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams – delightful story about a woman who was confronted by scary objects but she told them to go away.
Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley – simple little book thatteaches ‘power language’ (“Go Away”) to each scary element.
Chester the Brave by Audrey Penn – in this book the Little is nervous about trying things. His mother teaches him to talk to himself and say he can do it.
The Queen’s Feet by Sarah Ellis – this is one of my favorite books because it deals positively with a problem behavior (the queen’s busy feet). The final resolution is to let her feet be busy at certain times only.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Little – everything seems to go wrong for Alexander but he learns that somethings like this just happen (even in Australia).
The LIttle Engine that Could by Watty Piper – this is a good book to help children think like the Little Engine – it kept going and telling itself “I think I can”.
You can find more books in a wonderful database of children’s books at Miami University. Search by keywords like ‘bravery’, ‘challenges’, ‘determination’, ‘courage’, ‘persistence’. Books on these themes will be shown along with a short summary about each story.
You can also ask your local librarian who’ll likely steer you in the right direction.
The goal with Distancing is to help children learn to stand back from a situation or problem. Then look at it like an outsider, with fewer emotions.
Sound odd? There’s lots of science behind it. Self-distancing has been used for decades to help people get better perspective on problems. You’ve heard people say to themselves, “What would Mom/Dad do in this situation?” That’s distancing. It helps them step back, cool down, and evaluate things with less emotion.
Children can be taught to do the same thing. A delightful study was done to look at how distancing helped preschoolers self-regulate. Some were taught to talk to themselves by name (“Okay, Heather, what are you going to do now.”). Others were taught to take the perspective of a favorite media character and ask themselves, “What would Batman do?” For good experimental control, another group was left to do what they usually do. The results were clear: talking to yourself was pretty good in helping self-regulation. But, thinking like a media character was most helpful. They found, though, for children to benefit the most, they needed to have stronger Theory of Mind (that is, be able to think how someone else thinks).
Lots of children with exceptional learning needs are delayed in developing Theory of Mind so what can we do? I use another form of distancing that doesn’t need much Theory of Mind. I found that, by prompting children to talk to their brain, feet, hands,
mouth, they can more calmly control them. It started one time when a child ripped up a craft. I said, “Oh, look what you did.” The child looked at me ready to dry. I felt horrid. My job was to teach him, not make him cry. I quickly corrected myself and said, “Look what your hands did. They forgot to be gentle. Let’s teach those hands to be gentle.” It worked! He looked at his hands and said, “Be gentle.” He continued to work with a new sense of pride and command over his hands. If a child puts their hand in paint, what can you do to get them to regain self-regulation? Prompt them by saying, “Oh my goodness, look what your hand did. It forgot that brushes are for paint. Tell your hand that brushes are for paint.” This encourages children to distance themselves and act as the ‘control central’ (teacher) of their body. It helps them stay calm and take control of their bodies.
I’ve used distancing with swearing and mean words (“Those swears/mean words just slipped out of your mouth. How can you help your mouth?”), running (“I think your feet forgot to walk. What can you tell your feet”), gentle touching (“What do we tell your hands when you pat the kitten? That’s right, be gentle, hands.”), and in many other situations. By putting our children in the driver’s seat with their own self-regulation, they feel a greater sense of power and are more likely to use it.
The goal with Displacing is to help children put a worry or problem away for a another time.
I found myself working on a project the other day. I realized that my frustration was increasing. Things were not heading in a good direction. What was my solution? I decided to try again tomorrow. That’s displacing the activity. I wasn’t going to abandon it. I just thought a little break would help refresh my enthusiasm.
We can help children do this too. When you see children becoming worried or frustrated, introduce the idea of leaving it for right now. Suggest “How about we put that away for right now?” Follow this with an explanation, like “It’s pretty late in the day to do something like this.” or “I think your brain needs a little break.” or “I think we need ____ to help do this because they’re an expert.” Make a plan for when and where you’ll try again. Then calmly put the worry, thought or activity away and do something relaxing or refreshing.