It's a rainy October morning in the Grade 2 and 3 class at Admiral Seymour Elementary in Vancouver, and distractions abound: it's school picture day and students are pulling on their school sweaters in anticipation; the teaching assistant has brought in a mystery surprise in a yogurt tub with holes punched through the lid (spoiler: it's stick bugs); and this reporter is moving around the room, crouching and taking pictures of students while they try to pay attention as their teacher, Carrie Gelson, takes attendance. It's enough to make any child excited.
But these kids aren't just subject to in-class distractions. Seymour Elementary is located just 10 blocks from the troubled Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, and the majority of students come from a nearby BC Housing complex where bedbugs, mice and cockroaches are roommates, and violence and hunger are part of the everyday.
Within five minutes of the students sitting at their teacher's feet near the chalkboard, however, all of those distractions melt away. At Gelson's request they cross their legs, turn their palms up, close their eyes and listen to the chime she plays, focusing on their breath at her instruction.
This is called mindful breathing, and the Seymour primary students do it at least three times each day. It's just one part of the MindUp program the school uses to help students cope with stressors and be ready to learn. Devised by American actress Goldie Hawn and promoted through her Hawn Foundation, Seymour Elementary has used this program in class for six years.*
From mindful breathing students graduate to mindful senses, like tasting and listening, and eventually branch out into deliberate acts of kindness towards one another and the community as a whole. The eventual goal is to teach children empathy, self-worth, and altruism, but it starts with being able to control their own stressors and focus.
"I find that it helps them feel more confident. It helps them approach their learning from a distance from what else is going on, and it does truly help their focus because you teach them to be mindful of their environment," says Gelson.
In addition to teaching children to focus on their breathing, MindUP instructs children as young as five in brain anatomy, emphasizing the parts of the brain that control emotions and stress.
"[Students] tell you that their brain works better. Whether it does or not, the fact that they believe it does is a huge difference," says Gelson.
MindUp is one of many programs used in British Columbia's schools to teach children and adolescents "self-regulation": the ability to avoid or overcome stress and focus on learning.
It's a concept Stuart Shanker, a professor of philosophy and psychology at York University in Ontario, is dedicated to studying. Shanker and his team currently lead the unofficially titled Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative in B.C. and Ontario, training participating school districts in his self-regulation method.
Although different from MindUp, Shanker's method has the same outcome of preparing students to learn while avoiding "problematic behaviours," like a child's inability to inhibit his impulses or ignore distractions, which can cause him to withdraw, fantasize, shut down, or become hyper or manic.
"What the theory of self-regulation is about is reframing a child's behaviour. What that means is when we see these problematic behaviours, we do not assume the child is being weak or undisciplined, or not applying himself. Instead, we want to understand why are we seeing these behaviours."
There's much excitement about self-regulation in British Columbia: the districts of Surrey, Victoria, West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Nanaimo, and the Bulkley Valley have officially signed onto Shanker's initiative, while at least six other districts are observing their progress.
Former education minister George Abbott was so enthused he told the Vancouver Sun earlier this year that he foresaw self-regulation replacing special needs diagnoses and individualized education plans.
But while educators have approved self-regulation, Shanker worries claims like Abbott's blow the benefits out of proportion.
"I'm a bit concerned that there's been almost a little too much excitement. This is something that we're launching and we'll learn who it can help and what's realistic," he says.
Reducing stress through regulation
There is no universal definition or theories for teaching self-regulation. Shanker can name at least five different theories, but personally subscribes to the physiological view that there are five key areas of stress for children: physiological, emotional, cognitive, social interaction and pro-social.
The initial step in Shanker's method is identifying and removing stressors and soothing the child to teach them what calmness feels like.
"By being regulated, the child learns how to self-regulate," he says. "It's very much about empowering the child to learn when he needs to self-soothe and how to do it."
Shanker says if done well, students should be able to regulate themselves and thus reduce teacher stress.
It's not about giving teachers more to do, he told The Tyee. "What we're hoping is by making ideas and materials available to them, which they can use if they want, they will notice teaching itself becomes considerably less effortful."
Surrey Superintendent Mike McKay, who has taken on the voluntary role of director for the B.C. segment of the initiative, says self-regulation is something many of us do already.
"A lot of the elements of the self-regulation framework that Stuart works on have been evident in teaching, parenting and being for a long time. There are people who have done instinctively some of the things that help themselves or help others get to the calm, focused, and alert stage or to get out of being flooded [by stressors]," he told The Tyee.
"This makes sense of it and it gives people a greater meta-cognition and understanding of what's happening."
BC, champ of self-regulation
Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, coordinator for the University of British Columbia's Human Development, Learning, and Culture Program, has studied MindUP for six years. Unlike Shanker she doesn't have her own program, but views MindUp's ability to teach self-regulation as the basis for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
"Social and emotional learning is really about the process by which people understand themselves, understand others, develop relationships, have a better sense of making responsible decisions, and have the skills and competencies that are necessary for school and in life," she tells The Tyee.
Schonert-Reichl references the positive rating MindUP received from the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an American organization that promotes and evaluates SEL programs. She says despite the increasing emphasis on SEL and self-regulation, the only large-scale independent research of the benefits of programs like MindUp is one major CASEL study of 270 SEL programs.
"So little [in education] has actually been formed by rigorous research, as opposed to the medical field," she told The Tyee. "I heard someone compare where we are with understanding well-designed educational studies to where we were with clinical drug trials in the early 1900s."
Nevertheless, Schonert-Reichl says B.C. is one of the top educational districts in the world when it comes to practicing self-regulation techniques, adding that by the end of this year 3,000 B.C. teachers will be trained in using MindUP.
Both Shanker and Schonert-Reichl cite the groundbreaking research of Adele Diamond, the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and director of UBC's Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience research lab, on self-regulation and its effects on childhood attention and learning. The Tyee contacted Diamond for an interview but she was out of town.
Shanker says his initiative is spreading from classroom to classroom without any attempt from him or his team to spread it beyond the six districts.
"B.C. is aggressively pursuing every advance that's occurring to make that a reality. It's a very proactive, very exciting province for the advances taking place," he told The Tyee.
"There's a reason why [districts] were coming to me: it's because of incredible changes that have been going on, and a number of really proactive ministers of education, a really strong ministry of education."
Self-regulation won't replace special needs programs: Shanker
But the proactive approach of former minister Abbott, whose expressed belief that self-regulation could replace the diagnosis of students with special needs and their individual education plans, has made some educators wary of self-regulation.
In an interview with The Tyee in early October, B.C. Teachers' Federation president Susan Lambert viewed self-regulation as a way to deny education is underfunded in B.C.
"There's this sense now that if you can just teach children correctly, if we can find a best practice that will allow every child to learn and grow, then we'll be fine, we won't have to put in special services for children with special needs, we won't have to reduce class sizes so that children get more one-on-one attention, because we'll have a magic bullet that will serve every child," she says.
"It's duplicitous because in fact it is designed simply to reduce the need for funding a high quality system, and that will be at the expense of every child."
Gelson agrees, saying while outsiders may view special needs diagnoses as a way for schools to lobby for money from the ministry, teachers rely heavily on the information that comes with a diagnosis.
"It just gives us so much more information to better work with that child. So to think that that is going to be thrown out with the bathwater..." she says, trailing off. "It's not just about the service, it's also about the information that is so vital to me as a teacher."
Self-regulation at school can't compete with some of the issues her young students have faced and continue to face, like bed bug infestations, homelessness, abuse and hunger, Gelson says.
Shanker agrees with these criticisms, and says self-regulation isn't meant to replace self-diagnosis or any programs directed at special needs or vulnerable children. He believes it's beneficial for all children to learn the skill, but says it enhances other programs and lessons instead of replacing them.
And despite Abbott's endorsement, Shanker says the ministry is not involved: "This is entirely a grassroots phenomenon. It was just a case of lots of teachers, principals, and superintendents asking us to do this."
Everyone involved is a volunteer, with only the travel costs for Shanker and his team funded by the participating districts, and no outside ministry funding.
In an email to The Tyee, a Ministry of Education staff member confirmed its lack of involvement: "The Ministry of Education is not providing funding for this initiative, and has a very limited role in an advisory capacity."
McKay told The Tyee the only ministry official with any involvement is Rod Allen, superintendent of the ministry's learning division, whom he describes as an expert resource for the project.
But Gelson would like to see some involvement from the government, particularly in teaching self-regulation to families. Although both Schonert-Reichl and Shanker believe it's never too late to learn self-regulation, the younger the child is when they learn to self-regulate, the better prepared they are to learn when they start school.
"How are the ministries working together to make sure this kind of thing happens?" she asks, directing her questions at the ministries of Education and Children and Family Development in particular.
"I'm excited that people get behind this self-regulation, but I want to [know], 'How are we ensuring that the kids and families that really need this are getting it in spades? What are we going to do?'"
*Correction made Oct. 26 at 10:10 a.m.
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