A Two-Sided Blog Post

Have you ever wondered what really goes on in a school to support a student who struggles with self-regulation?  Aviva (as classroom educator) and Kristi (as school administrator) team up to offer their perspectives on how they would approach a specific situation.  Changing a student’s ability to self-regulate takes a lot of work and time.  Here’s a glimpse at the what it might look like.


You are in a busy Kindergarten class with 30 JK/SK students and two educators. You have a mix of student-chosen activities and school/class-imposed activities throughout the day.  You use an inquiry-based approach to learning; allowing students to dive into play in a variety of settings.  These settings are enhanced by teacher-established provocations and facilitation.  But, despite all of this, you still have some students who frequently have problems engaging in learning safely in a way that enhances their learning.  Marsha, for example, is a student who sometimes has difficulty engaging in play.  Instead, she regularly demonstrates:  yelling and whining, wandering around the room, hitting of students and staff, throwing of toys or classroom items, running from the room.  Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!  What are we going to do with you?

Educator Right Now Supports:

In the short-term, I need to develop some solutions that will keep Marsha and the rest of the students safe first. It’s the hitting of students and staff, throwing of toys and classroom items, and running from the room that are my three biggest concerns. I want to try and give Marsha some space in the room, so that she can throw things without hurting anyone else, and even lash out without injuring a student or a staff member. I want to try to empty some shelves in this space, so that there’s less to throw, but still an area for her to move. I also want to try to position myself near the door, with likely the door closed, so that it’s harder for her to leave the room. Classroom doors are often heavy for Kindergarten students, so it will likely take a little time for her to open it, and in that time, I can always call the office for additional support if needed. I can’t easily leave the classroom because of the other students (even with my teaching partner being there), and if leaving the classroom could also result in leaving the school, then I’m going to need some administrator support.

As for the yelling/whining, I need to really monitor how loud it is. Sometimes a quiet response from me can help with quieting a child. Sometimes directing to a preferred activity, or a more sensory option (e.g., water or playdough) can also make a difference. If Marsha is really loud, I may also need to contact the office, and explore another space for her to go to quiet down. Her volume may also impact on the volume of the rest of the children in the classroom, which then just increases the stress for many other children … and the adults in the room. It’s a vicious cycle!

The wandering would probably be the least of my concerns. I might be able to intercept this wandering with a redirection to a preferred activity or a sensory option (e.g., the water or playdough), which could help. That said, Marsha’s not a safety risk if she’s wandering in the classroom, and sometimes the physical movement can actually calm a child. I would likely be more apt to monitor this wandering, and see if she eventually settles. All of this being said, these “right now supports” are largely band-aid solutions. They might solve the problem at the time, but will they help prevent future problems, or help us better understand what’s causing Marsha to respond in these ways? This is where the long-term supports, and Self-Reg, really make a difference!

Principal Right Now Supports:

No matter how many students you have in a school, a good principal gets to know all of his/her Marshas as early as possible.  So, I will have had some conversations with the educators in the room and have done some observation of my own before trying to help Marsha – and the rest of the class – in this moment.

Safety is always my first concern.  So I’m going to see how I can immediately support to increase safety for Marsha, for the other students, and for the educators in the room. However, barging in and immediately taking charge can backfire and escalate a situation. 

First I would scan for any immediate safety threat – if Marsha is throwing something, am I more helpful helping relocate other students, removing possible throwing objects or relieving an educator from shadowing Marsha so that he/she can support other students?  If Marsha is hitting someone, can she be distracted by me (sometimes a new voice and face can deescalate a situation but sometimes not) either with my voice, my presence, or an object I can provide?  Can I prevent hits by moving the person being hit away and giving Marsha some physical space?  If Marsha is making a run for it, can I predict her most likely route from past experience and determine if it is likely a safety risk (i.e. is she running down the hall and stopping to hide under the stairwell or is she running out the door and into traffic?).  If she needs an escape from the room but is likely to pick something relatively safe, like the stairwell, I will follow at a distance and try to alert back up support, in case she changes paths.  If she is heading out the door, I am quickly eliciting help and following her out the door.  If this is the normal course of events, we probably have a fine-tuned plan for how we all react (e.g. I follow on foot with my phone, teacher alerts office to advise whether to contact family and police, resource teacher is alerted to follow as well).  If it is a first time event, I follow on foot with my trusty phone and call the office to relay information and get support put in place.  (Side note:  what did Principals do before cell phones???)

If the behaviour isn’t about safety, I may be in to observe since Marsha is one of the mystery students I want to help support the educators in figuring out.  I may watch to see patterns of wandering, timing of whining or content of whining.  I trust my educators to have some thoughts about why we are seeing these behaviours.  We’ll talk about these later.

Educator Long Term Supports:

The more that I’ve read about Self-Reg, the more that I’ve learned that there’s almost always a bigger reason behind the behaviours that we see. Is this misbehaviour or is it stress behaviour? This is when I have to slow down and ask myself the question that Stuart Shanker often asks: “Why this child, and why now?” We see the Marshas of the world that are yelling, wandering, hitting, throwing, and running, but if we stop and look for the reasons behind this behaviour, we often see a lot more.

For me, it often comes down to determining the stressors. What is triggering this child? There’s a very comprehensive list of stressors in this Self-Reg Toolkit, and I’ve found that it’s often a combination of different things that are leading to the behaviour that we’re seeing. If we know the stressors, we can also look at making changes to reduce them. This may be about changing classroom design, lighting, sensory experiences, noise levels, academic demands or expectations, transitions (frequency and time), and social opportunities. I’ve found that while some of our classroom changes may be made with Marsha in mind, Billy, Bob, Sue, and Joe, will all still benefit. When Marsha’s calmer, the whole room feels calmer!

We also need to consider our own Self-Reg. How are we feeling at the time that we’re seeing Marsha’s behaviour? How do we respond to Marsha? If we’re feeling stressed, this often compounds a child’s stress. And sometimes, we think that we’re hiding it well, but kids hear it in our voices and see it in our actions. If I find that the room …

  • is getting louder,
  • a child is acting out,
  • somebody’s running,
  • screaming is about to start,

the very best thing that I can often do at the time is stop … and breathe. I need to make sure that I’m self-regulated, so that I can make those small actions. Get down lower. Be quieter. Speak and move from a distance. Kristi mentioned something similar in her principal supports, and this is equally important for educators. For Marsha to self-regulate, Marsha’s educators need to feel just as calm.

Principal Long Term Supports:

For a Principal, my long term supports are more about the educators than Marsha, actually.  Educators are at close range, in the moment, all of the time while I can closely experience the situation at times, but I also can step back, view the bigger picture and offer supports that go beyond the moment.

My first job is to encourage.  Educators work tirelessly with very little praise.  Boosting teacher confidence by acknowledging specific things they are doing that are supporting Marsha and the other students is of paramount importance to helping them maintain their calm and self efficacy.

Next, I question and facilitate educator reflection.  Helping educators prioritize concerns and streamline next steps helps decide what supports to try.  If I read Aviva’s account, I get the sense our first priority is the hitting.  I would help educators reflect on any patterns they see to the hitting (is it always at the end of the day? Or just before lunch? Is it in reaction to certain children or certain toys/activities that are not available when Marsha wants?). This allows us, as a team, to meaningfully make changes to the environment, routine or support.  Changing everything at once rarely turns out well.  Slow and steady is what we aim for to support progress. Reassurance and celebrating those small victories will hopefully help them to see the progress and abate the frustration of not having quick fixes.

The third role I try to fill is as advocate.  I try to access the resources and supports that will promote change, safety and learning in the classroom.  Since some resources, like Educational Assistants, are a very finite resource (and worth their weight in gold!), this usually means getting creative and being an active participant in that change.  If you ever came to my office, you would notice it’s distinct lack of decor.  I have bare, beige walls, two student work tables, a variety of calming manipulatives (kinetic sand, building toys, games, puzzles, a student rocking chair, stuffed animals, books) and my desk shoved in the corner as far back as I could manage.  My office is rarely without students working on regaining self-control and developing better self-regulation.  I often have to make important phone calls from the supply room or meet parents or staff on hallway walks, but in my school, there isn’t another space that is suitable for use as a calming area. That is how I am creatively making space to support students.  Advocating for, and communicating with, various teams and outreach supports within the school, board and community will also bring in different perspectives and supports for Marsha and her educators.  Multidisciplinary collaboration results in educator/parent/student, and most definitely principal, learning.

With Marsha, I would probably bring her down to visit my office at a time when she is well regulated and in good self-control so we can start to determine favourite calming resources and to familiarize her with me and the space.  Building rapport with her in the calm times will make things less challenging for her (and me!) in the not so calm times.

I often think of that old photo of JFK working in the oval office with his young son playing under his desk when I think about modern day principals.  We still have a whole lot of business and paperwork and reporting to deal with, but we are also juggling a whole lot more constant student contact to help meet the growing student – and staff – needs of well-being.  My hope is that being there to help staff maintain their well being, feel they are not alone, and offer support and encouragement in a variety of ways will ultimately play a small role in helping Marsha develop self-regulation skills.

Where Does This Lead?

In a school, educators and administrators don’t need to work in isolation. Marsha needs support. We’re there together to support her: with both short-term and long-term solutions. Self-regulation helps us view Marsha’s behaviour differently, and hopefully determine what’s leading to the yelling, wandering, hitting, throwing, and running that we’re noticing in the classroom.

Whose voice is missing here though? How can they support Marsha’s self-regulation? As an educator or administrator, what might you do to support your Marshas? We’re providing two sides to this blog post, but would welcome any additional sides.

Is Violent Play Ever Okay?

This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As a Kindergarten educator that fully embraces and believes in the value of play-based learning and the emergent curriculum, I want to listen to and build upon student interests. My teaching partner, Paula, and I spend a lot of time discussing our kids. We’re constantly noting our observations and trying to determine next steps together. We realize that students are at different development levels, and they need various degrees of support to get to that next stage. What happens though when their interests include violence?

Our kids spend a lot of time outside, and stick play is often a part of this outside time. Thankfully, this year, the biggest interest in sticks actually revolves around letters …

but at some point, a child looks to a stick as a weapon. Thankfully the interest is actually not in physically touching the person with the stick, but it’s held in such a way as to signify a gun, knife, or sword. And if it’s not a stick being used in this way, it’s a wood chip, a piece of wood, or sometimes even just their hands.

The discussion then builds around bad guys, robbers, and jail, and the play becomes physical. Yes, it’s often boys that interact in this way, but sometimes girls are also involved. Some may say that “boys play differently,” or that “school is not always receptive to boys and their needs.” I’ve heard these arguments before, and contemplated them. Paula and I have discussed this topic a lot, and tried to figure out if there’s ever a point in which more hands-on play is okay. To us, there’s a difference between the physical contact that might happen in a soccer game versus the weapons, fighting, kicking, hitting, and punching that happen through this more aggressive imaginative play. We know that many of these same students are interested in Autobots, transformers, Power Rangers, and super heroes, and there are physical components to all of these interests.

As much as I want to follow the child’s lead, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable in following it if that lead involves violence. In real life …

  • weapons hurt and kill.
  • violence is far too prevalent in our society.
  • “bad guys” — of any variety — are not people to put on pedestals.

In a young child’s world, where the line between real and imaginary is often quite fine, I want all our children to see the value in love versus hate. It makes my heart happy to see the number of our boys and girls — from last year and this year — that find different ways and reasons to share a hug with each other.

There’s something powerful and positive about this physical touch.

I’m not saying that every topic that we discuss needs to be sunshine and roses. We have many serious conversations, including these ones about the environment.

We always encourage students to find ways to make a difference and have their voices heard. But violence is not a solution, and if we raise kids to understand that now, what long-term, positive impact might this have?

So there is a lot that we will allow. There are an infinite number of topics that we’re open to exploring together. But when it comes to weapons and violent play, we don’t discuss. We just say, “No.” What do you do? Are there times that you allow this kind of play, or are there ways that you interrupt this play to change its outcome? I want to try to see things from a child’s perspective, but I also want to create a safe and caring classroom and school environment. I don’t think that violence can be a part of this, even in a make-believe sense. What do you think?



Is it possible that I actually love the Communication of Learning?

There’s no doubt about it … I should definitely be going to bed right now. And if I’m not, I should be writing Communications of Learning. But I’m not doing either. I’m blogging … because I’ve been inspired to blog and I know that I won’t be able to sleep until I do.

The inspiration came from Lisa Noble: an absolutely incredible educator, who often causes me to think and reflect. Tonight she made a few comments on an Instagram post that I shared a little earlier today. 

This is me trying hard to remain calm, as I wait for our Communication of Learning program to save my comments and move onto the next child. We’re working through some growing pains with the program that we’re using, and at the peak of my frustration today, I was waiting 5 minutes to save a comment and 3 minutes to move to the next child. Aargh! Trust me: this was the best picture that I could share. 

While I was definitely frustrated with the program this afternoon, and while writing reports can be stressful, I have to say that I’ve actually come to love the Communications of LearningThese are not report cards! And even though “Communication of Learning” is so many more characters than “reports,” you will not once see me interchange the two terms — even on Twitter where characters count. It’s the differences between the two that make Communications of Learning beautiful.

  • They’re personalised.
  • They focus on a child’s growth.
  • They’re asset-based.

They capture each child’s learning journey and make me realize just how far our children have come. Yes, these Communications of Learning take time, and yes, I’ve spent many weekends staring at a computer screen, and I will likely spend many more. But when I can go back and can read a beautiful story of growth, the hours somehow seem worth it.

This Communication of Learning is not full of marks, edujargon, or qualifiers. It’s different. It’s special. And if my comments would just save, I’d be posting a great big smiling selfie instead. How do others feel? Does the difference in the Communication of Learning make you like it more than a report card? I never thought that I’d feel this way about it, but this year I’ve realized how much I do.


What Would Make Recess Duty Better?

There’s no doubt about it: I absolutely love what I do, and cannot imagine doing anything else in my life. Teaching is my passion, and I’m grateful that I get to go to work every single day doing what makes me so very happy. While I stand behind the words in our nightly blog posts, highlighting that we’ve had another “great day,” I think that often one of the biggest highlights of our day is our time out in the forest. There’s something special about this outside time, and the learning that happens in this space: whether it’s on a bright, sunny day, a freezing cold day, or a rainy, muddy day. So much of what Laura Bottrell captured in her article is true of our time spent outside, and I’m grateful that she wrote what she did. But as I say all of this, these positive experiences give me pause, especially when I compare our outdoor time to recess time.

I’m very grateful that our kindergarteners don’t go out for recess. We’ve scheduled our outdoor time differently, so that we can better meet the needs of our students and have less transitions during the school day. While my teaching partner, Paula, stays in the classroom and extends the learning time during our nutrition breaks, I often leave the room during these times. A couple of days a week, this is also when I’m on duty. I have absolutely no problem going outside no matter how cold it is, and will happily bundle up for duty time, but I definitely do not have the same happy thoughts around recess as I have around our time outside. Recently, I started to wonder, “why.” 

It’s interesting, for if you ask most educators, it’s during recess time that many students with social, emotional, and/or behavioural needs, struggle the most. You often hear the comment that, “[Name] does not behave like that in the classroom.” I’ve even made similar comments before, but I’ve started to question, Why is this happening? Is there something we can do to change this trajectory for kids?

Certain elements of recess may be outside of our control.

  • The child’s homeroom teacher is not always on duty. 
  • It’s different having just a couple of classes outside versus multiple grades and/or multiple divisions.

That said, in my current teaching situation, I’m at a small school, and even though I’m not every child’s homeroom teacher, I know the names of just about every student in the school. I’ve only taught here for a few years. Most teachers at the school have taught in this same building for many more years than me, and at one time or another, have taught either most of the children or siblings of these children. These teachers have connections with the kids and the families. And while our outdoor time in Kindergarten is different, we still have three large classes outside in the same space versus 5-6 smaller classes. The numbers are not actually significantly different. So what is?

  • Maybe it’s the space. We do not go to the primary playground area when we play. We’re in between the junior field and the forest area. There are no big plastic structures and lots of space to run, climb, and play. Space matters. It’s in a more open area, where all children can find things that work for them: if it’s climbing on a fallen tree, running in an open field, or sitting quietly under a little bush.

  • Maybe it’s the push for creativity. Every once in a while, when students ask, we take out a ball for them to use, but usually, we don’t bring anything outside with us. Students use sticks, pinecones, mud, and trees in creative ways. They talk about letters and sounds, they explore math concepts (especially counting and measurement), and they engage in The Arts (from creating their own bands in the trees to making nature art). We don’t come outside with an agenda. We know the Program expectations, and we watch and listen to what the students do, and then make links to these expectations. We create mini-lessons on the spot, and try to extend reading, writing, and math opportunities among the trees. The kids support each other in similar ways. It’s amazing to watch: but it’s often when you provide less that kids do more!

  • Maybe it’s the time. The primary and junior students are outside for two, 20-minute nutrition breaks a day, but we’re outside for about 1 1/2 hours every morning. We adjust the time depending on the weather and how the students respond to the space. Whenever possible, we try to be responsive to kids. This makes a huge difference! With the additional time outside, kids can evolve in their play: from that initial need to run to quieter, more focused, deeper, and richer learning experiences.
  • Maybe it’s the role that we can play in the space. When we’re outside each morning, I never feel as though I’m policing kids. I hate that feeling! Instead, I’m interacting with kids, observing them, documenting learning, and extending it based on what children say and do. This is a very different feel to recess, and it’s the feeling that I wish could be a part of duty experiences!

I’m beginning to wonder then if there’s a way to change the “recess feeling,” and make this time a more positive experience for all educators, administrators, and students. For when I stand back and really look and think about my experiences, it’s often the kids that have the most challenging time outside that really need this time the most. What can we do then? 

  • Could we reconsider the space? I’m actually lucky to teach at a school that has a lot of room for children to play. Our school numbers are small, so the numbers outside are actually quite low. It was interesting to watch the play a couple of weeks ago when we had a lot of great packing snow. Almost nobody was on the playground equipment, and everybody was working together to make snowmen and forts. There was so much incredible teamwork, problem solving, math thinking, and perseverance, that I struggled with not documenting this wonderfulness for homeroom teachers to see. If snow highly reduces the amount of children on the playground equipment and results in more focused, richer, deeper play, then I wonder what else would do the same. What happens at your school?
  • Could the recess games change? On most days, the biggest problems revolve around the organized soccer games. Students struggle with team formations, rules, and scores … especially if certain kids end up losing the game. I’ve tried to help reduce the stress of these games by having everybody run around the perimeter of the field three times before playing. This is my co-regulation strategy for decreasing the problems in these games, and it usually works. We also have a bench near the field, and I call it the “bench of breathing.” If kids are getting really worked up, I suggest that they take a few minutes and go and breathe. Many classrooms in our school use the MindUp Program, and you can see kids trying to have their own Brain Break on the bench. While I’d rather have no problems at all, I do like seeing the benefits of a little breathing for the kids that need it the most. Sometimes I wonder though what would happen if no balls came out. Would kids create their own games as our Kindergarten students do, and would less competitive games, reduce the number of issues for many kids? I wonder …
  • Could the number of minutes outside change? I’ve thought a lot about this question, as I know that there are limits on duty minutes. I just struggle, as it takes kids longer than 20 minutes to settle into play. This means, that we’re usually sending children back inside very up-regulated (or even dysregulated), and I worry about the impact that this has on learning. I wonder what would happen if we used both nutrition breaks for just outdoor learning time. What if kids ate while they worked, or if the eating table that we have in our Kindergarten classroom made its way into other grades? There’s something to be said for the rich dialogue that happens around food, and the additional time outside, may allow kids to better settle into play and come inside calmer. Have any schools tried this option before, and what was the impact on student learning and mental health and well-being?

  • Could our role change from “supervisor” to “facilitator?” I wonder if the answer to this question rests in the decision around the number of minutes outside. Even when we’re outside with our kindergarteners, we usually have to rotate more at the beginning of play, and then once the play settles, we can engage in more discussions and observations. I’m not saying that the duty teacher should be bringing out an iPad to take photographs, record videos, and write learning stories, but if we talked more with kids, what kinds of questions might we ask? What kinds of conversations might we have? What impact might both of these things have on student thinking and learning? The Kindergarten Program Document highlights the importance of “noticing and naming” math behaviours. This is something that could happen outside for any grade. 

All of this may be my Utopian ideal, and maybe considering these changes isn’t even possible. But it makes me sad to know that there’s a recess problem — to some degree — in just about every school out there, and not try think about some possible ways to solve it. Imagine if we could all love duty time as much as I love our outdoor learning time. How do we make this happen?


Do Kids See With Their Hands?

I can’t remember the first person that said these words to me, but as a primary educator, they’re words that I’ve often contemplated and repeated: “Look with your eyes, not with your hands!” Parents and teachers of young students are sure to be able to relate to this saying. How often do we ask kids to look at something and they go up to touch it? How often do we ask for them to talk about something, and again, they go up to touch it? This may be one of my biggest pet peeves. I’m not sure why it bothers me so much, but I constantly find myself breathing deeply through the many times that this happens, and I then having to ask a child to go and sit down. Quite unexpectedly yesterday though, I gained a new perspective. 

This week, we’ve been working on a collaborative art project. After a couple of days of painting together, my teaching partner, Paula, pulled the class together to have a look at what we made, and reflect on some possible next steps. 

I was on duty during this reflection time, so I didn’t get to hear the conversation live, but I listened back to it later that day. And it was as I was watching the video recordings that I began to wonder …

  • Do some kids need the sensory experience that comes from touching an item in order to communicate about it?
  • Could the physical touch stimulate something in their brain that helps with the formulation of ideas?

While the “touching” has always bothered me, I started to wonder, is it really possible to avoid this? Maybe, as much as I want the control that comes from a quick exchange of ideas with no movement in between, some kids need more than that. So when it comes to this large group sharing, is it about what works for me, or what works for them? I think that I’m going to need to get comfortable with taking some more deep breaths. Maybe kids really do see with their hands.