Posted by: darcymullin | February 10, 2014

Self-Regulation – The Cognitive Domain

In the third of this series of posts based on Stuart Shanker’s Calm, Alert and Learning, I will focus on self-regulation in cognitive domain.

Students who can regulate in the cognitive domain are able to:

  • focus when necessary and change their focus when it is appropriate
  • consider other people’s perspectives and attack problems from more than one angle
  • execute multi-step actions and are willing to try different courses of action
  • understand cause and effect
  • set learning goals and engage in reflection (metacognition)
  • accept that struggling (even failure) is part of learning and an opportunity to grow

When looking at the list above, it is clear that students who struggle in this domain are also going to face serious issues when attempting to learn.

According to Shanker attention is not a static process:

It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that attention is an active, goal-directed phenomenon in which the mental_model (1)student takes in and processes many different kinds of information, and then plans and executes his or her actions accordingly.

Attention is a complex issue where students must process reams of information simultaneously, there are issues that we must consider when helping students in this domain.

Value of Play

While I knew that play is important in the early years, I think it was safe to say that underestimated it’s value.  Upon further reflection the value of play cannot be understated.  It is through play that young children learn to share, wait their turn and follow rules.  More than that, play also is vital to creativity and innovation – particularly dramatic play. According to Shanker, when children “take a role” in their play children engage in essential components of cognitive development.  Those students who struggle in dramatic play need it most.  It is up to the teachers to scaffold and support learners in this process.  In fact, students who are in a play based kindergarten class have a significant advantage over those students who are not.  Research indicates that not only are they likely to be better readers and problem solvers, but they are more likely to become well adjusted adults.

Children Struggle for different reasons

When it comes to attention all children need support as they develop their ability to focus their attention.  Often this is done in early childhood as primary caregivers who engage with infants and utilize eye-contact, touch and talk.  While the child is developing language they are also acquiring the basic skills that will help them learn to focus. Focusing attention is taxing and requires a lot of energy.  Some students have to exert more energy to maintain focus than others and as a result will expend far more energy and the less will be in reserve for learning.  Focusing attention requires fine tuning “instruments” of the mind.  Children who suffer from auditory processing or ADHD struggle with this fine tuning.

Figuring out why a child struggles to attend and therefore regulate in the cognitive domain is a complex process.  Like my last post, I see the connection between Shanker’s work and that of Ross Greene.  Figuring out how to help students by discerning what is getting in their way sounds a lot like collaborative problem solving.  Using rewards, punishments and traditional interventions will not help – if students could attend they would.  Rather, students need to be understood, have their deficiencies diagnosed and have interventions that meet their needs.  Without interventions, the inability to attend can result in increased anxiety, decreased learning and disengaged students.

Teaching and supporting students in the cognitive domain is important work indeed.

Posted by: darcymullin | January 25, 2014

Self Regulation – The Emotional Domain

This is the third in a series of posts on Stuart Shanker’s book Calm, Alert and Learning.  I have written about many books that have resonated with me, but not to this depth.  I find that reading slowly, writing weekly and taking the time to reflect is allowing me to go deeper in my thinking and learning.

Shanker posits that students who are cannot deal with negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, depression etc. find it difficult if not impossible to concentrate.  If students can’t concentrate they can’t begin to learn.  As educators it is imperative that we remain calm and model emotional self-regulation.  Students who can regulate in this domain are able to:

  1. Modulate strong emotionsbrain
  2. Demonstrate resiliency
  3. Show a willingness to experiment and try new things
  4. Have a desire to create and innovate
  5. Maintain a healthy self-esteem based on awareness of personal efforts and achievement

Negative emotions diminish the ability to demonstrate the actions above, but positive emotions have the opposite effect.  Shanker suggests they are critical for sustaining the energy to facilitate learning.  We need to understand that cognitive development is directly related to emotional development and therefore create the  conditions where this can happen.

When working with students who are struggling with their emotions rather than asking why are we seeing the problems and asking what is wrong with the child, we need to ask what is triggering these issues.  Discipline and traditional strategies for misbehaviour simply don’t work.  If the students had the skills to monitor their emotions they would.  It is incumbent upon us to help the child learn.  As I was reading this chapter I was struck by the connection to Ross Greene and his work on Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS).  I can see how it would be an excellent structure to help students learn to regulate in this domain.

CPS can  help students develop their emotional intelligence – a key to emotional regulation.  Emotionally Intelligent people are able to practice:

  1. Self Awareness – identify emotions
  2. Self-Management modulate their emotions
  3. Social Awareness – understand the emotions of others
  4. Relationship Management – deal with interpersonal relationships

When we engage students in Collaborative Problem Solving we help them develop the self-awareness to understand degrees of emotions.  Once students begin to understand themselves by becoming aware of signals from their bodies we can help them identify some tools so they can begin on the path towards regulation.

Posted by: darcymullin | January 19, 2014

Self Regulation – The Biological Domain

In my previous post I shared some of my initial thoughts around self-regulation.  As I work my way through Shanker’s book Calm, Alert and Learning I will share my thoughts on each of the domains he argues are imperative to regulate out students.

Before getting into the first domain (biological), the book has a companion website where teachers and parents can find valuable resources – I strongly suggest you check it out.  In order to regulate in the Biological Domain students need to control their Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous system.shanker

What does that mean?

The sympathetic nervous system controls the release of adrenaline.  Students who have too much adrenaline are often hyper-stimulated.  Hyper-stimulated children are often:

  1. Hypersensitive to noise, touch or colour
  2. Impacted by stressors and can be overwhelmed in areas with too many people (overcrowding)
  3. Filling the need for sensory cravings by humming or chewing things
  4. Compelled to move and fidget – even when seated they may tap, jiggle and just need to move.

The parasympathetic nervous system controls the release of cortisol.  Students who have too much cortisol are often hypo-stimulated.  Hypo-stimulated children are often withdrawn for a variety of reasons:

  1. As a defence mechanism because they are overwhelmed by the stimulus around them.
  2. They are unable to interpret signals in their body such as hunger and temperature.
  3. They struggle interpreting signals from their extremities and will often bang into things (other students, desks etc.)
  4. Students are unable to coordinate sensations.  They may struggle understanding where stimulus (sounds etc.) come from.

Clearly, there are serious classroom implications for students who are either hyper or hypo stimulated.  Students who are hyper-stimulated need help to down regulate and those who are hypo-stimulated need to up regulate.  The better a child becomes at regulating them more effective they can be in a classroom.  If all of their energy and brain power is being used to regulate themselves there is nothing left over to learn.  As educators, it is important to create conditions that help students regulate efficiently so their brain can be focused on learning.

What does that look like in the classroom?  Shanker talks about doing an inventory of the classroom environment where teachers re-evaluate the structures they have in place.  He suggests a few places to start:

  1. Visual Environment – children concentrate better when there are fewer visual distractors.  Also, clutter can be disregulating, so putting supplies in bins etc. helps reduce visual stimulus.
  2. Auditory Environment – sound is the most powerful distractor.  He suggests using quiet calming sounds (chimes) to signal transitions for students.  A predictable and visual schedule allows children to anticipate transitions and will help them prepare (either up regulate or down regulate) as needed.  Teachers should also look at the geography of their classroom and make sure there is a quiet place for students to go if that is what they need.
  3. Seating – allowing students to sit on “wiggle seats”, use fidget toys, or have a something to chew on can help them meet their needs and allow for better regulation.  Teachers need to look at student groupings and anticipate transitions within their day.   Planning them with their students need to up or down regulate.

In the end, adults (teachers and parents) have a huge impact on our children’s ability to self-regulate.  Students can only learn to self-regulate when they are regulated.  Young children are still learning and need the support of adults in learning these important skills.  Shanker suggests that we cannot help children if we are not regulated ourselves.  We need to interpret situations and adjust our energy level to meet the needs of children.  If a child is withdrawn, we need to increase our energy, but if they are escalated we need to decrease our energy and remain calm.

As teachers we need to watch for the students who struggle and take longer to regulate.  We need to understand what triggers them and make allowances for them that will help be successful.  Making the techniques obvious and using age-appropriate language is important.  The more we are cognizant and aware we are, the better we will be at adapting our environments to meet the needs of students in the biological domain.

Posted by: darcymullin | January 12, 2014

Initial Thoughts on Self Regulation

More and more it seems that students are struggling with their self-regulation.  I’m not sure if we are just more aware or if students are changing, but I find more often than not when a student ends up in the office it is due to a self-regulatory issue.  I know that these students are struggling, but in many ways I don’t feel I have the skills to help them along their intended path.

The issues go beyond behaviour as there are a number of studies that indicate self-regulation is a stronger predictor of academic success than IQ.  While I understand on a conceptual level, I lack the understanding of structures help students learn these skills in classrooms – particularly in Primary classrooms.  After sending out a tweet, my PLN stepped up and offered a couple of resources to help guide my learning.  As the first step on the journey I decided to begin with, Calm, Alert and Learning by Stuart Shanker.  I’ve only just started, so these are my initial thoughts.

In his book Shanker looks at self-regulation through 5 different domains:

  1. Biological – ability to regulate energy and activity in the nervous system.  People who struggle with this often are under (hypo) or over (hyper) stimulated.
  2. heart mindEmotional – the ability to match emotions to a situation and manage them in times of stress.  People who struggle with this often are unable to control their moods and are at the extreme ends of emotion.
  3. Cognitive – this speaks to one’s ability to attend to mental processes such as memory, attention, retention of information and problem solving.  People who struggle often have a very hard time in the classroom setting.
  4. Social – the ability to read and understand body language and other social cues.  Often referred to social intelligence.  Children who struggle with this often have profound struggles in the biological and emotional realms as well.
  5. Pro-Social – the ability to act in a way that promote social acceptance.  Often this is displayed through the display of empathy.  Ultimately, the ability to act pro-socially is tied to effective regulation of the other four domains.

To illustrate this point, Shanker cites a common playground situation.  A child falls on the playground and is hurt.  His friend who is unregulated would not pay attention to what happened (cognitive), may become upset himself because of the noise and commotion his friend is making (emotional, biological).  Finally he would not be able to understand how his friend is feeling (social), and therefore be unable to help him in any way (pro-social).  It’s a little simplified, but you can see how an inability to regulate in even one of the modes would make it difficult to act in a pro-social way.

The inability to self-regulate has impacts beyond the classroom.  It has been linked to developmental disorders, personality disorders, memory disorders, alcohol experimentation and other risky behaviours, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease,and immune system disorders such as asthma, chronic fatigue among others.  While these may not be relevant to the Elementary School world, research indicates that these are potential downstream effects of poor self-regulation.

My intent is to learn more about self-regulation, but more importantly look into structures and processes that we can incorporate into our school and classrooms to help our students regulate themselves and ultimately learn the tools they need to do it on their own.  I see approaching it as we would any other academic area – for some it comes easy, but others may need more practice and reinforcement to find success.

I will continue to share my learning as I go.

Posted by: darcymullin | November 4, 2013

#EdcampOK – What a Day!

Last Saturday I attended the first Edcamp Okanagan at Dr. Knox Middle School in Kelowna.  I want to start by thanking the organizing committee –  Naryn Searcy and Carolyn Durley for the inspiration and Claire Thompson for all of her work leading up to the event.  It was a great team and I know we were really pleased with how things went.

EdcampOk was my third Edcamp experience and it was very different from the others.  While Carolyn, Naryn, Claire and myself came together through Social Media, many attendees only had a passing interest in it.  Many are not (or were not) connected at all, so as a result the back-channel may not have been as rich as other Edcamps.  That said, the conversations were amazing.  In fact, since I was tweeting less and listening more I think the conversations were richer.   edcampThere is space for both types of communication, but perhaps I have not been able to strike the balance before.

The first session I attended was facilitated by Paul Kelly.  He is a principal in Kelowna and his school has gone 1:1 with Chromebrooks.  I really appreciated Paul’s candor.  They are seeing some great success with the program.  Overall, they are working more efficiently and saving money – both great things!  Paul has chronicled his journey on his blog.  Check it out here.  I always walk away inspired when people are out there taking risks and doing things differently.  When people like Paul dive in head first with a Growth Mindset great things can happen.

The second session I attended was Graham Johnson’s session on Genius Hour.  Graham talked about his experience with his AP calculus kids and recently presented to the entire OK Mission staff – the idea really seems to be taking hold there.  Ian Landy talked about how it is sacred time in his Grade 5 class.  He takes an hour every week and works on projects and when they miss a day due to holiday, his kids always negotiate it somewhere during the week.  Ultimately, the discussion came around to assessment.  People agreed how difficult it was to assess, and I posed the question if it really needs to be assessed at all.  We threw the idea around it and it created quite a discussion on Twitter.  Ultimately many felt that any evaluative statements from adults defeated the purpose.  Genius hour is about the process of learning about something you are passionate about.  The process should trump any need for summative assessment.

Finally, I facilitated a discussion about Dr. Ross Greeene’s work on Collaborative Problem Solving.  I shared some of the work we have done and was really thankful for the insight from Pat Porbuda  and Nicky Skinner.  Pat has e been working on CPS at her school in Enderby for a couple of years and having some real success.  While everyone agreed with the philosophy and believed in the CPS process,  we all  struggled with the implementation.  Like anything, time and resources are always at a premium, so thinking how we can creatively use the resources we have is critical.  One of the participants, whose name I didn’t get, noted that our system is geared towards late intervention.  Most counselors and support teachers are at the High (and to a lesser degree Middle) school levels.  She wondered why resources were not being re-allocated for early intervention when research shows the impact is larger – a worthy question indeed.  After much discussion, the general thought was that allocation is the way it is because that is the way we have always done it.  Nobody has really challenged it before.  That coupled with the fact funding is based on a deficit mode in BC make it difficult to implement change.  Definitely food for thought.

We finished with fun session called “What Sucks?” facilitated by Graham and Carolyn.  It was a fun way to end the day where the moderators would pose a question and we had to put ourselves on the sucks to doesn’t suck continuum and justify our responses.

I walked away from the day reminded why the Edcamp experience is so valuable.  It’s the epitome of differentiated Pro D.  It is learning that meets you right where you are.  It’s like Genius Hour for educators.

Thanks to all those who came out and/or contributed to the conversation via social media.

Posted by: darcymullin | October 25, 2013

The Freedom To Learn

Today is a provincial Professional Development Day in BC.  I am spending the morning working on my personal inquiry.    I thinking about supportive structures in our classrooms.  Specifically, what does a supportive classroom look like, feel like, sound like?lightbulb

I read this post by my good buddy Johnny Bevacqua this week.  In it he discusses the work of John Hattie and some of the most effective means of improving student achievement.  I am a big Hattie fan and appreciate all of his work on achievement.  I think as educators, there is much we can learn from his findings, however Johnny (and Hattie himself) are clear on the limitation of his work:

Hattie’s work strictly deals with student achievement in the academic domain.  His research does not deal with student well-being in the affective domain (social and emotional learning). Nor does it address the spiritual domain of student well-being.  Any educator, school or district looking to implement Hattie’s work needs to understand the potential “limiting” context of this work. ~ Johnny Bevacqua

When I think of our school and my inquiry, I feel a supportive classroom must start with the affective domain.  If students can not attend (or self-regulate), how can they learn?   It’s imperative that we deal with the heart first and then the mind.  A student’s must feel comfortable and safe in order to be an active participant in their learning.  Too many students struggle with this and energy that should be put to learning is used up worrying about things that are beyond their control.    What is it that gets in kids way?

Is it worry brought from home to school?


Is it how students are hardwired?


Is it because the work it beyond them?


I’m not sure if we are becoming more cognizant, or if society really has changed, but there is no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with more students who are struggling emotionally.  Whether those struggles manifest themselves as anxiety, ADHD, withdrawal, anger etc. it seems that more and more of our jobs as educators are working in the affective domain and on an emotional level trying to support students through theses struggles.

When I am working with 8 year olds with uncontrollable rage, I realize there are many things these kids are dealing with…all of them beyond their control.  One of the issues that we struggle with is deciphering the root of the issue.  Unless we know what is causing the emotional angst, we cannot effectively intervene.  It is here, where I connect to my inquiry.   How do we create a continuum of support for teachers and students where the intervention and its intensity match the individual needs of the student?

I’m not sure yet, but I am slowly gaining some clarity.  I will continue to learn and reflect.

That said, I always appreciate ideas and insight – comments are always appreciated.

Posted by: darcymullin | September 26, 2013

It’s all About Trust

September is a busy month.  In many ways I equate it to those first few months of parenting.  As a parent either you remember (and shudder) or you have wiped the craziness from your personal hard-drive.  Anyway, September is one of those months where  you are so busy dealing with right in front of your face, you can’t stop and see the big picture that surrounds you.

It is also a month where we have many difficult conversations.  Conversations with parents, teachers, students etc., not bad conversations – just difficult.  Conversations where people are advocating for their interests, or the interests of their children or students, but also ultimately conversations where all the needs are not going to be met.

I’m slowly coming around to the point of this post.

trustAs the end of September nears, and start-up is no longer an applicable term, I have had some time to reflect on those conversations and what the are really about.  I had one such conversation that really resonated with me.  After listening and discussing to each others perspectives for quite some time, I remained unmoved from my original position.  The other person while not happy accepted my decision.  As we were wrapping up they said,

“Well Darcy, I guess I am just going to have to trust  you on this.”

It didn’t resonate with me then, but it has now.


That really what it all comes down to.

Without a foundation of trust I don’t think we can be effective as educators.

Students thrive when they take risks and they will only do that if they trust their teachers and their classmates.

Schools thrive when educators trust each other and support each other.  People are more will to take a risk if they know there is someone there to catch them if they fall.  When people take risks we learn.

Parents and communities are more supportive when they trust the school has their child’s best interest at heart. They are more willing to talk and voice concerns when they trust those concerns are being heard.


Yep, that about it.

Posted by: darcymullin | September 20, 2013

Professional Development – Inquiry Style

In an earlier post I discussed our school’s move toward inquiry and specifically where I thought my learning was going. This week we had our first official inquiry session. Initially, I was unsure of how we were going to structure it, but luckily I work with some pretty smart people who had already thought of what it could look like. I want to extend a huge thanks to Carol Barton and Anita Berekoff for facilitating the work on behalf of our school.images

Even though our school is pursuing a number of different inquiry questions, we are all working together. Our leaders (Anita and Carol) have laid out the structure of our six sessions and set a tight agenda for each meeting. We start each session reflecting on our learning through a quiet write. We were asked to think about our question, steps we needed to take, people who would help us along the way and some questions we had going in.

Choosing to start and end together in a group is such a powerful structure. It allows us a window into each others learning and we are all aware we of what each other is doing. We can make connections, offer suggestions and even be inspired by the work of others. Knowing that we are sharing our learning keeps us on task an focused on our questions on the weeks between sessions. It is also offers a network of support and collaboration that we will all need at one time or another through the process.

This week’s work was focused around refining our question. Almost all of us had questions that were too large. Inquiry is about making small changes in our practice that we hope will make a big impact in the classroom and school. Initially, I wanted to structure my question around 3 tiers of intervention for our students. Ultimately answer the question…what do we do when students struggle. However, I realized that question is too large and one perhaps that I will pursue over time.

This year I want to focus on classroom interventions. I want to formalize the process of accessing support at the school level. My question, ” If we systematize classroom interventions and formalize the process of coming to school based team, will it result in more effective supports for teachers and students” entails creating a process that ensures that students have multiple opportunities for correction in the classroom setting. Teachers work very hard at meeting the needs of their students, what I want is to give them a “tool box” of interventions for the classroom. In our school, we have many highly skilled and experienced teachers, so part of setting up the “toolbox” will involve asking and observing the many different things they do to help students when they struggle and compiling a list of promising practices.

Part of the inquiry process is making commitments for our next meeting. Our next session is at the end of October between now and then, we must connect with our critical friend on two occasions and collect some data related to our question. My plan is to share our journey as we go. Hopefully, not just my learning, but some of the exciting things that are happening here at school.

Posted by: darcymullin | July 13, 2013

A Different Kind of Cognition

A parent shared this video with me.

I was going to write a post about it, but honestly I don’t think I can say it any better.

It’s such a compelling argument for meeting students where they are.

Posted by: darcymullin | July 11, 2013

Core Values

Last night I took part in #ntchat.  The topic was interview skills for new/beginning teachers.  I suggested that in an interview, teachers would be well served to understand their (4-5) core values and then weave those into whatever questions arise.  My thinking is that candidates come across as authentic and are less likely to be stumped by a tough question. My tweet spawned a bit of a side discussion about and I went on to say that someone should be able to articulate what their Core values are.

I was thinking it has been a while since I have articulated them, hence this post…

core values

My core values – in no particular order.

1) Always be a learner – we are in the business of education and the heart of education is learning, so it is my belief that I should model this at all times.  Modelling is important, but I also try to create an environment that supports teachers and students on their learning journey as well.

2) A culture of care – going back to my classroom days, this is something that I always believed in and worked on.  I wanted every student that walked through the door to know that I was in their corner and that I cared about how they did and who they were.  As an administrator my beliefs aren’t any different.  Perhaps it’s harder because the population has grown from a class to a school, but I want people to walk into our school and feel a culture that permeates all that we do.

3) Trust – relationships are important (an understatement for sure), but great relationships start with trust.  I work hard to build and give trust to the people in our school.  I have faith that students and teachers are working as hard as they can to do their very best. Believing that allows me to act in a supportive role instead of acting punitively.  If there is trust, then people are more apt to take risks and #1 (above) seems to flow naturally.

4)Put students first – every day we are all faced with decisions.  When I am making decisions at work, this is the lens that I look through.  I try to make the decision that best serves the students we work with.  Decisions are not always easy, but when you are transparent with your intentions people may not always agree, but they at least understand.

5) Integrity – it’s a big word and one that gets used a lot.  However, I believe it’s essential to build trust and relationships.  I think it imperative to be true to what you say and what you believe.  It is important to walk the walk and follow through with promises.  Without integrity, your message is lost.

This is far from a complete list, but if I was asked what I believe, this list would be  a start.  It’s important to note that I really believe in #1, so that being said I am far from perfect and am still working on everything on this list.  It’s a continual work in progress.

What would you add to this list?  What am I missing?

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