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Calming the “red” brain

February 8, 2021

Winnipeg School Division's Student Services and Inclusion Support Services in conjunction with the Healthy Minds Committee recently welcomed educators from across Manitoba for a two-day conference exploring the practice of self-regulation in schools within Dr. Stuart Shanker's Self-Reg framework.

Reframing Behavior through Self-Regulation to Create Safe and Caring Schools offered workshop sessions with Susan Hopkins and Eunice Lee of The MEHRIT Centre at York University in Toronto.  Dr. Stuart Shanker started the centre in 2012 with the vision of creating calm and alert children, youth and adults in physically and emotionally nurturing environments.

"This topic definitely connects with our WSD Healthy Minds initiative in terms of the social/emotional learning and the neuroscience connection," said Jón Olafson, WSD Student Services Consultant.

"It's empowering for students to learn about how their body and brain works when they are stressed, and how they can self-regulate. The ability to calm down and self-regulate can also have a huge benefit academically, whether it's literacy or numeracy. It's all connected."

When it comes to "problem" behaviors in students and adults, Dr. Shanker's Self-Reg framework considers stress behaviors versus simple misbehavior. One must take into account underlying brain functions and responses, such as sensory loads and limbic patterns, and their role in shaping student behaviour.

"Self-regulation is not self-control," Ms. Hopkins said.  "Self-regulation is what's beneath self-control and enables it to happen. It's what makes self-control possible."

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An educator using a self-control lens would look to inhibit or manage students' behavioural problems as they arise, while a Shanker Self-Reg lens identifies and reduces the causes of problems with students' moods, thoughts and behaviours. Effective self-regulation manages stress, energy and tension that can produce emotions and undesirable behaviours.

"Self-reg is about understanding our stress systems," Ms. Hopkins said,

"It's managing energy and's not about managing anger."

In its essence, the Shanker Method of Self-Reg involves five steps:

  • Reframing the behavior;

  • Recognizing the stressors (across five domains: biological, emotional, cognitive, social and prosocial);

  • Reducing the stress;

  • Reflecting to enhance stress awareness;

  • Responding to develop personalized strategies to promote resilience and restoration.

    Ms. Hopkins, who has worked as a teacher, school administrator, curriculum developer and more, recounted an episode she experienced while serving as a vice-principal. A student was sent to her office for trying to light another student's hair on fire. When taken to her office, the troubled boy—who was still in an agitated state—spat on the floor.

    "I said to him, 'you must be really hurting to do that,'" Ms. Hopkins said.

    That moment of empathy was enough for the boy to let go of his anger.

    "Instantly, he knew he was safe with me. His brain read safety, just enough for tears….and tears release the chemicals of stress."

    For students who are dealing with stressors outside of school on a daily basis, they are almost in a permanent state of stress.

    "Nothing feels safe and these kids needs that so much. The ones that are the most difficult are the ones that need you the most…and you can make an absolutely huge difference."

    Red brain, blue brain

    Shanker Self-Reg considers the brain in three parts: the reptilian brain, which controls the basic functions of the body; the "blue brain" or neo-cortex which provides organization, executive function, social order and delayed gratification; and the "red brain" or limbic system, home of emotions, emergency response and the subconscious flight/fight/freeze responses.

    The red brain/limbic responses to stress are many: heart-racing, digestive shut down, sweat glands open up, the muscles in the middle ear constrict to only hear low frequency sounds, etc.

    "The problem with kids that are under constant stress, it's almost like a spring that is supposed to come back into shape but it loses its resiliency," Ms. Hopkins said. "Their systems are full of the chemicals of stress."

    When it comes to "mis" behaviours in children and adults, the Shanker Self-Reg practitioner would look at what part of the brain is running the show: blue brain or red brain.

    "We need to look past the behaviour and see what it is telling you," Ms. Hopkins said.

    "You can think the child is ignoring you, they're literally not hearing you in the first place…they're surviving."

    Creating microenvironments

    Erika Wainwright, an Intinerant Teacher for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder at WSD's Interdivisional Student Services and conference co-organizer, said educators can "create microenvironments" in the classroom and the school to help students reach their blue brains.

    "It's a different recipe for each individual child," Ms. Wainwright said. "For a child who needs to down-regulate, because they're more of a hyper kind of kid, you set up a calming environment in your classroom. For the kids who are tired or struggling with the learning, you have an up-regulating environment. It might be an exercise routine or walks in the hall."

    Ms. Wainwright said being attentive to non-verbal cues is important when establishing the brain state of students.

    "As educators, one of the most useful tools is reading body language. So being able to read that a child may be in their red brain gets you closer to helping them regulate and get back on line so they can access their blue brain and learn."

    Fort Rouge School Kindergarten and support teacher Jolene St. Germain-Boehm has created calming self-regulations areas in her classrooms. The stations include self-regulation tools like tactile games, relaxing pictures, books, and even a play phone for students to have conversations with family members they might be missing.

    Student friendly instructions are also an important part of the calming spaces; staff review how to use the self-regulation areas with all students to support a universal design model. The spaces are set up so learners can begin to explore and see what techniques works best for themselves in the calming down process.

    Since beginning her "self-reg journey" in 2011, Ms. St. Germain-Boehm has explored ways to help students build resilience to stressors; she's found that the Shanker Method gives a new lens to look at students' behaviours.

    "You're looking at things like are the students fed, are they happy, what happened the night before, did they get enough sleep," she said. "We manage their day differently when we know they're showing stress behaviors. If they're having stress and they don't know how to make the right choice, we're there to model and show them how to do that."

    Under the leadership of Principal Terri Rodrigues-Warner, the school has done away with intercom bells to indicate class changes, as they were found to be interrupting the learning that was happening in the classrooms and also agitated some student's stressor behaviors. Teachers use calming techniques, such as playing relaxing music when students are in the classroom.

    "Students come to Fort Rouge School and they know that it's a calm place," Ms. Germain-Boehm said.

    Caring and compassion

    Empathy is a critical component to building a Shanker Self-Reg approach in the classroom.

    "Everyone focuses on behaviours, but that is really the tip of the iceberg," said Shellie Hatch, Autism Support Teacher with WSD's Inclusion Support Services and conference co-chair. "We need to look at what's causing this behaviour from the child's perspective, not our own perspectives."

    Ultimately, the educator has to be aware of how his or her own body language and responses are affecting a student's behaviour.

    "Co-regulating, and showing the student caring and compassion is important," Ms. Hatch said. "Your responses will determine whether the child will escalate or calm down. If we make more demands and add stressors, we will escalate the child's behaviour. Kids don't come to school wanting to have a bad day, but we all have them."

    For more information on Shanker Self-Reg, visit .

    Healthy Minds is a Winnipeg School Division Mental Health Initiative, with the overall goal of achieving a culture in WSD where mental health and well-being are embedded into every student's school experience.





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