Inquiry into Self-Regulation

Kelly Goodsir mentored Ellen Carney, teacher at Guardian Richmond in 2021. This is a reflection Ellen wrote of an inquiry they engaged with children and her learning over 6mths.


The beginning of this year posed many challenges for our kindergarten classroom with plenty of change and uncertainty inside and outside the classroom. I found myself faced with a number of complexities within my group: Big behaviours, anger, distress, worry, anxiety. Whilst these feelings are all ok to have, they were outweighing the feelings that keep a level of balance in a group setting. Feelings like calm, happiness, peace to name a few. One thing I knew we had going for us was our strong trusting relationships, so I knew deep down we would get through this difficult start to the year. I did often wonder: How were we going to do it?


Beginnings are always hard, trying to see the wood through the trees. I decided to just start with something I knew, the zones of regulation, a common tool associating colours with feelings. Each day we would explore this at our yarning circle, sharing feelings and making connections to the zones. In a way, this built our common language around connecting what we do with what we feel.

This year (2021) I am working with Kelly Goodsir alongside me as my mentor. She could see this was a strength in our classroom. She could also see its limitations. Kelly made a welcome suggestion to move away from the commercial element of the zones and allow children to make connections to their own thinking and ideas within their play contexts. What would it mean to really dive into the messy and complex world of feelings and self-regulation she asked? What possibilities might exist if we explore many pathways in the hope to make stronger connections to what Dr Stuart Shanker calls the ‘calm, ready, alert’ child? So that is what we did - instead of seeing the zones poster as the place of conversation we shifted the self regulation conversation into the play context more.


The power of listening, observation and data collection

We started engaging with a new way of collecting data. We gathered the threads of meaning the children naturally engaged in through their words, drawings, photographs and creations. The children used multiple media to really inform a conversation about how they already showed an understanding of their feelings, and the management of them. Observing and listening in this way is an empowering strategy. It takes the pressure off and positions children with the answers; we just needed to listen differently.


The slowing down and collecting data in this way allowed us to really see and to meet children as collaborators in the decision-making process. It was about not rushing ahead with a teaching outcome in mind. Instead we trusted that in the messiness of day to day play children would reveal insights that would off offer us the building blocks for moving forward in our planning. Kelly and I would have planning conversations every month where we discuss and reflect what I’ve noticed; what was unexpected; and which ideas were having traction in play. These conversations allow us to stay tuned into what sustains children’s attention and not planning ahead unnecessarily. We are always navigating the best way to support children’s ability to either come back to ‘calm, ready and alert’ to learn or to be in a state of ‘calm, ready, alert’ to learn longer. Six months later, here is what made a significance difference to what is now an overall calm, peaceful and productive learning environment.


Agreements

Working from a strength based perspective has to be quite the conscious choice, especially when items are being thrown, voices are raised and safety is of concern. An immediate response is always necessary and often co-regulation must happen. It is my intention to support each child to find ways to manage themselves too. When Kelly suggested 1:1 agreements with children where we collaborate on individualised strategies with the child, I was keen to give this a go. I did wonder, would it really work? This changed a lot for me as a teacher. I was able to have conversations with children when they were calm and come up with an agreement with them that was fair and reasonable. Then, if the agreement no longer worked, we could revisit it together and problem solve again. It was a working document and yes, it was a slower process, but the long-term outcome meant children came to trust that an agreement was a way to have their voice heard. We were building up the skills to self-regulate by collaborating with children as part of the solution, and by making amendments to the agreement as children’s needs changed. This meant we could reflect on our progress and celebrate this over time.


A Peaceful Zone

One of the conversations that came up quite early after removing the commercialisation of the zones of regulation was a new association: The ‘purple zone’. The children described this as ‘calm and peaceful’,with one child saying ‘you need to make the room quiet, so slow and close the door. That’s peaceful’. Of course, a calm and peaceful classroom is what these children were craving after the stress and anxiety they had been facing. I tried to delve into this more. The children were creating very interesting purple images. I didn’t feel as though I was truly tapping into the depth of this idea. It was more of an association with the colour that I was making. It didn’t feel that meaningful to them, so back to listening and noticing again.


Dreams…

Then along came the conversation on dreams one morning. I noticed it kept coming up again and again. We would share stories about the weird and wonderful dreams we were having exploring questions like: What is a dream and why do we have them? One child noted ‘when I close my eyes I have colour in my brain. Normally when I have my eyes really closed I have a dream, but today I was just looking at the colour’.


We began sharing our dreams every day, this acted as a way for children to develop their storytelling skills and make connections to one another. They were making each other laugh, they were revisiting dreams they had had, they were including one another in their dreams. These discussions were bringing us together as a community. They were something we could all relate to in one way or another. Inspired by a book I was reading ‘Unearthing Why by Jill McLachlan and Clare Britt I decided to engage the idea that ‘art is their (children’s) living tool to seek understanding in the world; to creatively express responses to and questions about life; to attempt to connect with others’ expressions, questions and meaning making, and to seek to be understood by others; to collaborate, share and communicate the joy of creating in community with others.’


This idea of using the arts to deepen our thinking about dreams and strengthen the connections these conversations were making made sense as the next planning step. I invited the children to draw their dreams, and their ideas really came alive on paper. As a provocation, we created a ‘dreamcatcher’ in the centre of the table where we meet, a talking point and a place to gather our documented dreams. As time went on and the children continued to share their dreams, we started to include their own ‘dream book’; a journal of sorts where they could make visible their ongoing stories about dreaming.


It started to become evident to me that the classroom atmosphere was much more peaceful and relaxed. It was the obvious next step to make our own dream catchers. Threading and beading became a great strategy to add to our toolkit of strategies for being ‘calm, ready and alert’ to learn. This repeated practice offered children who struggle with social interactions an opportunity to be with, and work alongside others and practice their social skills in a calmer setting. For some children, this time was their favourite part of the day offering time to connect, and bringing a sense of overall peace and stillness to the classroom.

Connection to materials…

I started to think about the impact of using different materials in our program and how this can have a positive impact on our wellbeing. On one of Kelly’s early visits she introduced a small group of children to Zentangle, a drawing technique with spirals, circles and intricate shapes drawn inside a square on a small piece of paper. It’s almost a meditative practice, and the children were really taken by it. I invited the children to engage with this practice during our ‘quiet time’ and day after day they were focused and calm and creating more and more intricate designs. This was a true reflection of what peaceful meant – it was not about the matching colours or zones of colours anymore, it was about being calm and what helped our bodies feel this calm.


Learning to self-regulate is not as simple as teaching children a feeling and classifying it to a colour. It is about experiences in everyday play that offer an opportunity to listen closely and partner with children from where they are, then gently build using emotional literacy in the moment. It is the combination of working with the individual and the group as a whole to connect their feelings to strategies throughout the day - making self regulation a collaboration and one that always needs to be in the forefront. For me, I have come to find myself more at peace as a teacher with the complexity of this process understanding not to over simplify a skill by sticking with associations to colour or any other prescribed method - children are highly creative and capable of complexity in their learning. It has been wonderful to now have a calm and peaceful environment....and have a shared language and approach when we don't.


Written by Ellen Carney supported by Kelly Goodsir

Kelly was a mentor as part of the Department of Education and Training Victoria, Improving Quality Through Educational Program & Practice Program, provided by Semann & Slattery and consortium members fka Children's Services. This article was also first published in

'The Space Magazine' in 2021