Silverthorne students learn self-regulation

Silverthorne teachers are changing things this year, bringing balls and fiddling gadgets into the classroom to help students self-regulate.

Grade 7 student Erik sits on an exercise ball in the classroom

Grade 7 student Erik sits on an exercise ball in the classroom

Teachers are doing things a little different this year at Silverthorne Elementary, bringing balls and small fiddling gadgets into the classroom as a tool to help students regulate their physical and emotional state.

Principal Mark Fehr says staff from Silverthorne Elementary and Lake Kathlyn Elementary in Smithers, met August 2012 with research professor Stuart Shanker from York University in Toronto, and talked about research showing benefits of self-regulation.

Staff met with a small team of Shanker’s clinicians twice last fall, once virtually, to discuss ways they might begin teaching students to self-regulate, starting with getting them to recognize when they are not in a good learning state, whether they’re hyper, tired or distracted, said Principal Fehr.

“That’s the first step, is to recognize if you are moving a little too fast to learn properly and to find ways to slow yourself down, or if you come in daydreamy or a little drowsy, to try to do something to get yourself regulated,” said Fehr, adding that the ideal state to learn is calm and alert.

Fehr says just recognizing what the different states look like is a big thing for a lot of kids, and then to recognize a distracted or hyper state in themselves is a huge thing, and after that it’s about giving them tools to use to help them get to the ideal learning state – calm and alert.

Fehr says all the research started in 2007 with Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow test,” where children were put in a room and sat at a table with a marshmallow in front of them, and told that if they waited to eat the marshmallow, they would get two. The study followed the children through life and found that those who resisted eating the marshmallow longer, had less problems with behaviour, drug addiction and obesity, and they scored higher on their SAT.

Now, seeing the value of self-regulation and guided by Shanker and his research team, Silverthorne staff are trying to teach kids how to self-regulate.

“We’ve got people trying all sorts of different things so we’re sort of just experimenting with what works and what doesn’t and then we meet together and talk about it,” said Fehr.

Fehr says one teacher simplified the classroom setting so there are fewer distractions, and another teacher is focusing on getting her students to know what it feels like to be alert, so that they can begin to regulate and keep themselves that way, and most classrooms have occasional exercises for students to get refocused and alert.

Marie Johnstone, grade two and three teacher, says she is using a strategy called “chime in,” where they ring a chime, listen to the sound, and focus on their breathing, slowly breathing in, holding it, and then breathing out, to get themselves calm.

She also talks with them about the different stages, asking them whether they are calm and alert, or distracted, and she does exercises, particularly ones that change the level of their bodies, because it helps get oxygen to their brains and get them into the calm and alert stage.


Johnston says students laughed at first at the self-regulation strategies, but now they often remind her when they forget to “chime in.”

Robert Mark, grade four and five teacher, says he gets student to fill out a chart each morning to record their state, whether it’s tired, hungry or scared, and now he is getting students to look at what they can do to get out of unhelpful states and into a good state for learning, such as exercising if they are tired or eating if they are hungry.

Cheryl Becker, grade six and seven teacher, is using exercise balls to help students regulate themselves, with students switching their chair for a ball when they need to move around to stay alert and calm.

Becker says that when students start to fool around she just reigns them back by removing the privilege of having it for the day.

Becker says she has found it to be really helpful for students who need to move.

“The movement is just really necessary for a lot of these kids,” said Becker, adding that several of those who really need it bought one themselves so they could use it to keep themselves alert.

The self-regulation strategies have also helped teachers to be more aware of the perspective of their students, and be more understanding when students are fidgeting or distracted, said Fehr.

Talking to teachers about the strategies showed that most feel it has been very helpful and effective in their classrooms.

Principal Fehr says most functional adults have a way to self regulate without even realizing they are doing it, such as playing with their pen, and psychology seems to show that it is important for success in life.

“If we can help give kids tools to figure out how to do it, then I think we’ll get them ahead that much quicker,” said Fehr.