ESSENTIALS: What Really Drives Dysregulation with Dr. Stuart Shanker

ESSENTIALS: What Really Drives Dysregulation with Dr. Stuart Shanker

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Ever wondered what really drives students to become dysregulated in school? Because if we can work out what's causing their heightened emotions then we can do something about it.

The answer is... probably not what you think it is. In this 10-minute snackable Essentials episode, we share a short clip of our interview with Dr. Stuart Shanker, who explains what really fuels dysregulation... and at what age we can teach kids to start recognising and managing their emotions.

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Want to hear the full interview? Then check out episode 2 of School Behaviour Secrets.

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Show notes / transcription

Stuart Shanker  0:00  

Self-regulation refers to how we manage stress. And the reason why that original definition is so critical is because it tells us that we can manage stress in a maladaptive way or in a growth promoting way.

Simon Currigan  0:15  

Welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton and we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course, students. When classroom behaviour gets in the way of success, we're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural Special Needs whole school strategy and more all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear their latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the school behaviour secrets podcast.

Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to this snackable essentials episode of school behaviour secrets. In these mini essentials episodes, I'm going to share with you one important piece of information or golden strategy or insight from a previous interview episode that you can start using straightaway with the kids that you work with. Because in a world where we're bombarded by information all the time, it's helpful to get reminders of these key strategies so they can continue to make a difference in your classroom. In this essentials episode, I'm going to share an insight into student behaviour from Stuart Shanker all the way back from Episode Two. Stuart is an author, speaker, and expert on how stress chemicals fuel children's behaviour, knowing this is core to understanding how to deescalate a pupil and identifying what might be causing them underneath the surface to become dysregulated in the first place. Here's Stuart explaining how our nervous system attempts to manage stress and its impact on pupil behaviour.

Stuart Shanker  1:59  

We've got this mechanism which operates entirely on its own, we can't control it. It's called the autonomic nervous system. And so autonomic pure meaning automatic, and it's really designed, it has two branches. And so one of the branches is called the sympathetic nervous system. And the other branch is called the parasympathetic nervous system, the role of the sympathetic nervous system is basically to provide us with energy to meet a challenge. So whenever we have, say, a stress, what happens is our heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up a little bit, our breathing increases, all these reactions are the result of the sympathetic nervous system, and it's really sending messages into the bloodstream. Basically, they are tapping into our glucose so that we can meet the stress, this is not a bad thing. This is life, the problem that you identified is stress overload when that sympathetic nervous system is really being triggered too much. So we have that second branch that you mentioned the parasympathetic, and we refer to that as the source of restoration. The problem with the sympathetic nervous system is that if it's chronic, if it's constantly burning energy, this causes all kinds of waren terror cells, organs. And so the role of the parasympathetic nervous system is to restore our energy to reduce inflammation, all these are very important. So you've got these two branches working together, when a child is thriving, those two systems are really balancing off the parasympathetic restores all of the energy expenditure of the previous day technical term is homeostasis. And we know when a kid is in homeostasis, because, you know, they wake up, they're happy, they're smiling, they're eager to embrace the challenges of the day. They're curious all the signs of balance, when you get the kinds of problems that you guys that big support is working with. When we get those behaviours, it tells us the child is out of balance, the technical term is in a state of caca stasis, meaning that the parasympathetic system can't keep up with the demands

Simon Currigan  1:59  

Could you talk a little bit about how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems trying to up regulate and down regulate, you said you can see the child trying to cope with this increase in stress.

Would it be fair to say a child gets stuck?

Stuart Shanker  1:59  

It's because they get stuck that they begin to seek out various kinds of stimulation. And really what they're doing here is they're looking for ways to trigger adrenaline or epinephrine in order to keep going so they're not restoring they're actually pushing even harder on this what's called the parasympathetic reflex. I want to tie that to where we started today, this reframing because now when I see this kid that's having problems regulating their emotion or problems, you know, lashing out instead of seeing this as a bad kid, what I actually see is I see a kid whose parasympathetic reflex can't keep up. And I began to ask myself why instead of seeing this as a child who needs to be punished or corrected, I see this as a child who for biological or neurobiological reasons, is overstressed. And I want to know how I can lower that child's stress and teach that child how to do it for himself.

Simon Currigan  1:59  

So that brings us neatly to what is the difference between self regulation and self control?

Stuart Shanker  1:59  

So that's the million dollar question, right. And self control is where we, you know, it's a very Victorian concept. And the idea here is that if you have impulses, you have to inhibit those impulses. So if you want to, you know, if you want to hit another kid, you have to be punished, so that you learn that hitting is not allowed. But what we've learned is that when we try to teach a child to inhibit their impulses, what happens is that they may, they may stop that behaviour because of their fear of punishment, but their sympathetic arousal remains incredibly high, even while they're sleeping. Now, this is literally what I did at Oxford, I was studying self regulation. And the idea here was self regulation refers to how we manage stress. And the reason why that original definition is so critical is because it tells us that we can manage stress in a maladaptive way or in a growth promoting way. And so all of the work that we do in self reg is really designed to shift kids from maladaptive to growth mode. And so one of the typical behaviours that we saw with children that have autism is gaze aversion. What it was, was that the young child on the spectrum finds social interaction incredibly stressful, and it could be the proximity, it could be the energy coming off the caregivers, eyes, it can be smell, it can be noise, but whatever the stresses are in choosing more than one, the child responds by gaze, averting by breaking that connection, this is a way of managing stress.

Simon Currigan  1:59  

And of course, in the classroom, you'll often hear look at me when I'm talking to you. And that's going to result in more stress

Stuart Shanker  1:59  

 So maladaptive means that maybe it reduces the stress at the moment, but it creates more stress down the road. So a maladaptive response to stress is anything that actually serves to increase the child's stress later, what we're looking at then is, let's suppose that the child deals with this heightened stress load. So we're talking now 12, 13, 14 year old by immersing themselves in a video game. Now, the problem is not the media, per se, it's not the game, when we have problems, it's because the child is using this to avoid dealing with their stress. So what we want to do is we want to shift them, we want to help them transition to a healthier way of dealing with stress. And so what we find is that those kids that are struggling, if they turn to their primary caregivers, and can deal objectively non judge mentally with their stress, this is not only incredibly effective, incredibly growth promoting, but it's true at all stages of life, even at the end of life. And let's tie that in with what you just said about the kid in the classroom, we get those misbehaviors. And that kid needs that inter brain connection more than ever, that inter brain connection at this moment is with that educator.

Simon Currigan  1:59  

I think that brings us on perfectly to the five sort of key domains. And I wonder if you could just give us a quick description of those domains and the kinds of stresses in the classroom or the kinds of experiences in the classroom that would cause a child to feel stress.

Stuart Shanker  1:59  

One of the things that we did was we had a team scientists that began to assemble what are called stress inventories. For us, what we wanted was a list of every kind of stress that you can find in scientific literature. Some of them were very surprising. For example, it turns out that birthday parties are stresses, you know, and begins to all make sense. And you can get those stress inventories for free from our website. And so what we wanted to do was to simplify it, because in the moment dealing with a kid that you see is becoming overstressed. You haven't got time to pull out a stress inventory. And we did what's called factor analysis, we wanted to know what are the basic groups of stresses, and what we found was there are pretty much these five domains. So all of the examples that we have can be fitted into one of the five domains. So the five domains are physical, biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and procession. Okay, so let's start off with physical. Let's take a typical classroom, all the kids all the students are sitting at the same chair and desk. And you wouldn't normally think of that in terms of you know, self regulation, but what we found was that for kids that have poor proprioception know proper perception is this internal sense. It's like the five senses, but it's an internal sense where your body is. But what they found was that for kids with poor proprioception, the result of forcing them to sit for a long time in, you know, the typical desk chair arrangement was behavioural issues. What they studied was what happens if I change the seating? What if I give them some kind of seating, which is not as stressful on their proprioceptive system? And the answer was, there was a dramatic drop in their behavioural problems. So that's what we're doing in our five domains. Okay, so in the emotion domain, suppose you've got a kid that has been conditioned never to get angry, and the child starts to get angry. And so they're punished for it or shamed for it by their parent, because in our family, we don't get angry. And what we really want to know is, you know, what were the stresses that led to this angry outbursts, and what's a constructive way of dealing with it. But now suppose that instead, what we've done is we shut it down, you do not behave that way. So now what happens is the child may well inhibit their anger. But inside, if you could peer inside what's going on, you'll find that their heart rate is beating like crazy, their sympathetic arousal is off the charts. So what we've done is we've created a problem for down the road. So what we want children to do is we want them to understand why certain emotions are running away on them. So it's not a case of controlling their emotion. It's a case of understanding how the connection between stresses and the emotions that they're feeling and then giving them tools that will help them reduce the stresses so that they can manage more effectively the stresses. Now, an interesting question is, at what age can you begin to teach this to a child, and what we found is you can begin to teach around the age of three.

Simon Currigan  11:57  

And that was Stuart Shanker explaining why you might see heightened or dysregulated students in your classroom and how to identify the causes of that dysregulation. I'll put a direct link to Stuart's book and website in the episode description. And of course, you can head back to episode two to hear the entire interview - it's definitely worth your time. That's all we've got time for on this essentials episode. If you've enjoyed listening today, please spend 30 seconds rating and reviewing us when you do that. It tells the algorithm to recommend school behaviour secrets to other listeners. And that helps us grow the podcast and reach other teachers, school leaders and parents just like you. And while you've got your podcast app open, do remember please to hit subscribe so you never miss another episode. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)