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Sunday, September 30, 2012

British Columbia Schools to Promote Student Self-Discipline

From the Ottawa Citizen (Canada)

By Janet Steffenhagen, Vancouver Sun
September 23, 2012

Research suggests self-regulation is the key to learning.

Six British Columbia school districts have embarked on a project that views self-regulation as the key to addressing the mental, physical and psychological diversity in classrooms that sometimes disrupts learning and creates a stressful environment for teachers.

It’s being described as a watershed moment in British Columbia education.

Leaders in those districts have embraced the philosophy of York University professor Stuart Shanker, that teaching children to self-regulate — in other words, to remain calm, focused and alert — is the best way to help them learn. It’s a theory backed by education ministry officials.

"...teaching children to self-regulate — in other words, to remain calm, focused and alert — is the best way to help them learn."

Superintendent Mike McKay, who is leading the B.C. project, says the goal is to apply brain research in designated classrooms while working with Shanker’s research team. The districts — Surrey, West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Victoria, Bulkley Valley and Nanaimo-Ladysmith — are the “first wave” of an effort McKay hopes will spread provincewide.

Former education minister George Abbott echoed that view, and predicted during an interview last month that the project now underway will bring significant change to all 60 districts within two to four years. “This is hugely exciting,” he said. “I think it can reshape the way we manage the challenge of special needs in the 21st century.”

“This is hugely exciting. I think it can reshape the way we manage the challenge of special needs in the 21st century.”

He expects it will move schools away from their emphasis on diagnosing a child’s special need, attaching a label — which may or may not bring additional funding — and developing an individual education plan (IEP). The goal, instead, will be for them to make better use of groundbreaking neuroscience research on self-regulation to benefit all students.

“Let’s not be blowing our resources on trying — at often too early an age — to diagnose precisely what the challenge is,” Abbott told leading school officials at a self-regulation conference earlier this year. Regardless of what the challenge is — whether the child is the next Isaac Newton or has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — the strategies to help with learning are the same, he said.

Research suggests the better students are able to self-regulate, the better success they have in mastering new skills. But the emphasis today on instant gratification means a growing number of children are coming to school without that ability and teachers need new strategies to help them develop it.

Proponents of self-regulation say it’s easily confused with self-control, but the two are quite different. Self-control refers to the ability to control emotions or impulses in the hope of a reward, or to avoid punishment, while self-regulation is described as channelling emotions, setting goals and maintaining or changing arousal levels as necessary for different tasks or situations.

Shanker, a philosophy and psychology professor, sums it up in the title of his new book: Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation. He argues self-discipline is far more important than IQ in determining success for children.

The six B.C. school districts have identified classrooms, and in some cases whole schools, where lessons about self-regulation contained in Shanker’s book will be put into practice.

Training for teachers and other school staff began this month with the arrival from Toronto of the York research team.

The work is expected to help educators understand why efforts over many decades to improve the chances of success for some children have not always been successful. In some cases, they will reinforce what is already being practised, McKay said.

It’s being done at minimal cost to B.C. school districts, he said, with most of the funding provided to the university research team by the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI). Similar research is underway in Ontario. The ministry says it is not providing funding.

McKay insisted self-regulation is not just another education fad. “This is something that’s becoming fundamental to the way we do business,” he said in a recent interview. “We’re having to reinvent education.”

Adele Diamond, a University of B.C. professor and a leading researcher on the development of cognitive functions, said teaching children self-regulation will have impacts far beyond the classroom, including improved mental health and lower crime rates.

“It’s major,” she said, adding that some educators have been discussing this for the past decade but for many others who are concerned primarily with academic content, “it’s still not on their radar.”


Dr. Stuart Shanker discusses how new research on brain development is changing ideas about how we learn, teach and parent, at the People for Education Conference, 2010.

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