Reflections on Regulation

When I first worked with children and young people with social emotional and mental health needs, which back then we called emotional and behavioural difficulties, the word regulation wasn’t in regular use. There was a focus on behaviour, consistent boundaries and often complex systems of rewards and sanctions.

Things have changed a little over the last 3 decades and now there is a growing understanding, at least in some settings, that  if we are to help these young folk learn how to manage their response to situations in ways that are not harmful to themselves or others we need to actively teach them how to do this and offer supportive attached relationships so they feel safe and not overwhelmed by their emotions.

Relationships are therapeutic

Why do we need to regulate?

As humans we are equipped with a number of ‘built in’ mechanisms to keep us safe. One of these is our survival response, fight, flight or freeze that can be activated when we feel under threat. For most of us hopefully that is a rare occurrence because we hopefully don’t feel under threat too often and when we do many of us are able to realise that we can ‘regulate’ our response.

Everyday there will be things that upset us, causing us distress, fear, or at least apprehension, anger, anxiety, frustration, disappointment and many other emotions that don’t feel ‘nice’. As socially and emotionally mature adults we can usually regulate well so that we don’t go around hitting others or hurting them with our words, throwing plates or being aggressive to colleagues. Some days it may feel harder than others depending on a range of factors in us, our circumstances and the situation.

How do we learn to regulate?

As humans we are not born with the ability to regulate ourselves. This happens over a long period of time if as babies we are given the opportunity to co-regulate with adults who ‘claim’ us. Babies have a zero chance of survival unless they can get an adult who will commit to meeting their needs – human babies are pretty helpless. But they are born with some ‘behaviours’ that often ensure they can attract adults, crying initially and later some attractive ‘cute’ behaviours. As adults most of us would respond to a crying baby left alone or in danger, after all it ensures survival of the species.  

When baby cries because it has a need it experiences stress, tense muscles, raised heart rate, red in the face and if it is picked up and comforted by an attached adult (who will also experience stress) then both heart rates will lower and ‘calm’ will  ensue – at least until next time. When this happens hundreds of times the baby gradually learns that the world is an okay place that adults can be trusted, that they can be soothed.

Trauma informed, attachment aware practice

If children grow up without having these attached relationships, they may not have learned how to soothe themselves or regulate their emotions. If they also experienced trauma and adversity (which means they may have experienced toxic stress while their brain was developing) they may have an overactive ‘fear’ response. The video below from the film Resilience explains it well.

If this is the case then when children, young people or indeed adults, feel they are under threat they may respond by flipping into survival mode. Feeling safe and being safe are very different and for children who for example have experienced abuse or violence they may interpret many different situations as ‘threats’, sitting next to a particular student, walking into a crowded room, work they find challenging, and many more.

The limitations of sanctions

For students who have grown up having most of their emotional and physical needs met, most of the time, and who feel nurtured and valued by parents who have provided opportunities for co-regulation then they will probably respond to a sanction by ‘learning’ that the behaviour wasn’t worth the consequence. We know in schools that happens for many students. But we also know that for some they experience repeated sanctions (possibly leading to exclusion) with no change of behaviour.

For vulnerable students of the type I have been describing that is because they are not at that moment choosing their response. Imagine how you would feel if put in a situation you found very threatening – perhaps being asked to hold a scorpion -think about how you would feel, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, dry mouth and much more, and for some people the percieved threat would be too much. They would leave, scream, get cross if someone brought it too close. Even as a socially and emotionally well-regulated adults we may find dealing with the feeling of threat tough.

If someone threatened a sanction at that point, or indeed offered a reward, given that you are petrified of scorpions would that make a difference?

When the survival response is activated out cognitive thinking cortex effectively goes off line. We are subject to more primitive drives.

What can we as adults do to help?

  1. Stay calm (regulated) ourselves

For vulnerable students who are unable to regulate we need to help them learn this by first providing opportunities to co-regulate. This requires us as adults to remain calm as emotions can be contagious if we are stressed or anxious the most vulnerable students, who are usually especially sensitive to others emotional states, may feel more unsafe.

  • Develop a shared emotional language

Talk to students about feelings and emotions helping them to recognise different feelings and over time learn they can be handled in ways that are not destructive.

  • Prioritise relationships

While no one is expecting all staff in schools to be therapists the weight of evidence from the studies on adverse childhood experiences suggest that developing relationships with trusted adults is one of the best ways to mitigate the impact of early adversity.

  • Teach what they need to learn

Explain to children in age/stage appropriate ways what happens within their brain and body when they feel stressed or under threat and what they can do to manage those feelings- how they can learn to regulate. What helps you, might help them. For teenagers this video might be really useful.

  • Provide opportunities to co-regulate first

On the PDF ‘Regulation‘I have put lots of suggestions for activities that can help calm and regulate. Many of us will incorporate these into our own lives to support out wellbeing. Some will need to be adapted to be appropriate for the child/young person and setting. The aim over time would be for a child/young person to experience lot of these with a calm, well regulated adult in the context of a trusted relationship, and gradually learn which ones are most effective at helping them calm.

Many children and young people find emotions overwhelming and frightening and they communicate this sometimes, inappropriately, through their behaviour.

As adults we have a chance to make a choice to help and support that vulnerable individual by reducing the stress in their environment and looking at the cause of the behaviour, helping them develop the skills they need to manage better and feel safe enough to learn.