Canadian early childhood development expert Dr Stuart Shanker spent time in Western Australia in June 2012, as the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s 2012 Thinker in Residence. During his two week residency, Dr Shanker presented to more than 2,000 people at 35 seminars, workshops, forums, lectures and meetings. His presentations resonated with parents, teachers and a wide range of other professionals who work with and support children and young people.
The focus of his visit was on sharing knowledge and information about the concept of ‘self-regulation’, which Dr Shanker described in his Report of the 2012 Thinker in Residence (page 5) as follows:
"Self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to deal with stressors effectively and efficiently and then return to a baseline of being calmly focused and alert. The more smoothly a child can make the transitions from being hypo-aroused (necessary for recovery) to hyper-aroused (necessary to meet a challenge) and return to being calmly focused and alert, the better is said to be his or her ‘optimal regulation’.
The more stressors a child is dealing with, the harder it becomes to remain calmly focused and alert. A child’s negative behaviour is not some sort of ‘innate’ character flaw, but a chronic state of being over-aroused that is draining his capacity to deal with new stressors.
Think of this in terms of putting your foot on the accelerator or the brakes to deal with changing driving conditions. If we aim to maintain a constant speed, say 100km/h, then we will need to adjust the pressure that we apply to the accelerator to allow for changes to the road, incline and wind.
Some children, for all sorts of reasons – biological, environment and social – may be pushing too hard on their ‘accelerator’, or jump between gears too quickly, or are slow to accelerate. Just like driver training, children need to master the ability to find their optimum speed or level of arousal. The problem appears to be that if the brakes are used too much, they begin to lose some of their resilience; and research is telling us that this is already apparent in children as young as the age of four."
Dr Shanker identifies five major sources of stress in a child’s life, and suggests that self-regulation needs to be thought of in terms of these five domains:
- Physiological – the activity or the level of energy in the human nervous system. For example, some children may be hypersensitive to noise.
- Emotional – positive emotions (for example, interest, curiosity, happiness) produce energy, while negative emotions consume great amounts of energy.
- Cognitive – mental processes such as memory, attention, the acquisition and retention of information, and problem solving.
- Social – understanding social cues and behaving in a socially appropriate manner.
- Prosocial – voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another, such as helping, sharing, donating, cooperating.
To read Dr Shanker’s full report on his time in WA as the Commissioner for Children & Young People’s 2012 Thinker in Residence, click here.
To read more about the concept of self-regulation, and the work of Dr Shanker and his colleagues — including Project Director, Mike McKay — at the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative, click here.
For a brief summary of the concept of self-regulation concept (prepared by Dr Shanker), click here.