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Self-Reg: Busting the Myth of Self-Control

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I was recently visiting a special-education class when I noticed Brian, a 7-year-old who doesn’t speak, intently tapping the knee of his classroom helper.

“No,” she said quietly, looking away. Brian was supposed to be paying attention to his classroom teacher. Instead, the boy persisted, tapping again. This time, the aide scooted her chair away, out of Brian’s reach. In response, he threw his head back and made guttural sounds. Finally, he stood up, so agitated that the helper announced it was time to go to the “quiet” room for a time-out.

Oppositional and defiant behavior? Hardly. Like many children, Brian was simply having difficulty regulating himself.

Challenges like Brian’s are the focus of the groundbreaking new book Self Reg, authored by Stuart Shanker of Canada’s York University with co- writer Teresa Barker. Too often, Shanker argues, we mistakenly assume children are intentionally misbehaving when their actual challenge is an inability to self-regulate (self-reg).

“The association between poor self-control and weakness,” the book argues, “is the most punishing aspect of a remarkably ancient outlook that viewed self-control as a matter of strength and character” (p.12).

I couldn’t agree more.

Consider Brian, who had difficulty functioning in the noisy and chaotic classroom environment. He tried to gain his helper’s attention the only way he could, by tapping her on the knee. When she didn’t respond, he became agitated. Rather than a showing a lack of self-control or inattentiveness to the teacher, he experienced a stress response and then reached out appropriately. He was trying to regulate himself.

Self-Reg explodes the myth that if only children tried harder or had enough willpower, they could control all of their challenging behaviors. Instead, it’s we who need to make an effort to recognize that the reasons underlying children’s stress are far more complex than we had assumed. In turn, we should stop punishing children whose behaviors are communicating the need for empathic human assistance.

When we assume that all children are capable of self-control, we blame them for their behaviors and find ways to discipline them. Shanker and Barker describe how “children as young as three are now being suspended from preschool for ‘inappropriate’ language or behavior” (p.251).   In my clinical practice, I have seen scores of children who don’t respond positively to discipline that is based on the assumption that children are simply not controlling their behaviors. The reality is that social and emotional development is much more complex.

Rather than viewing human beings as having to suppress “base instincts” in the service of socialization, Shanker and Barker argue that human beings “hunger for social connection from the moment of birth ” (p. 188). We can show children we care by developing curiosity about their behaviors, and, in turn, reframing them. This leads to solutions to help children find their way back to being calm—in other words, to self-regulation.

When we view a human being’s capacity to feel safe as the foundation of learning and development, it changes the way we perceive children. As I recently wrote, when we look below the surface of behaviors, we usually discover that the child displaying challenging behavior actually has challenges feeling safe and calm. We owe it to children, and to ourselves, always to ask whether the child’s (or our own) emotional regulation is challenged. When we do this before judging or punishing, we support children in developing social and emotional competence.

Shanker and Barker’s book, Self-Reg, will change the way we perceive children’s behaviors and struggles. Its hopeful message is that understanding emotional regulation provides fresh ways to understand stress and to support the emotional lives of children and families.

Self-Reg by Stuart Shanker with Teresa Barker was published June 21, 2016 by Penguin Random House.

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