Regulation and Co-Regulation

Students don't always choose their behavior.

A mom hugging her kid

I am going to say something that may challenge your beliefs and even frustrate you.

Students don’t always choose their behavior.

Hang with me for a second. Relational neuroscience has proven this to be a true statement. Behavior is not always a willful choice but a form of communication, a lagging skill, or a need that must be scaffolded. Understanding this opens us up to a new view on behavior management. And why would we need this new view? Because the academic success of our students is deeply connected to our discipline strategies.

I aim for schools to move towards brain-based discipline through regulation and co-regulation. Instead of sending students away, we must bring them closer. Take a breath; you may want to challenge me on this. I get it; I do. I am not saying this is easy or intuitive, but keep reading, and we will get to that accountability piece I know you want to see resolved.

Let’s start with a few definitions to get us on the same page.

Dysregulation: Being unable to manage your emotions. Chaos and challenging behaviors in the classroom? Yup! That’s dysregulation! Both children and adults experience dysregulation every day. Managing all those big feelings and behaviors is called emotional regulation. We regulate to self-soothe and feel better when our stress response system is activated. We all need regulation!

When regulated, a student can:

  • Learn
  • Empathize
  • Reason
  • Be self-aware
  • Solve problems

So yes, we want this for our students. We want a regulated classroom. Regulation is a necessary skill and essential for not only academics but success in all areas of life.

Co-regulation is warm and responsive interactions between two people (educator and student!). The key to these exchanges is that the adult is attuned to the student’s needs, and the student perceives the adult as safe. Because of that, the student can be settled, helping to dissipate misbehavior.

Self-regulation requires skills that get developed and built through co-regulation with a safe and dependable person who is already regulated themselves. Dysregulated students need regulated educators! It’s all about having a buffer relationship with someone we trust to help guide us when we are struggling.

The possibilities for how dysregulation manifests in the school environment are endless. We don’t always know what activates (or triggers) a student’s nervous system, and the student may be unable to tell us. If we can identify patterns and figure out the why, we can make significant headway, but even more important than the “why” is the “what.” Find out what works to help the student feel safe.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Listen and support through physical presence. You can calm students’ nervous systems by letting them know they aren’t alone.
  • Movement is the quickest and most efficient way to shift emotional states. Take the student on a walk, turn on the music, and dance. Whatever you do, do it together.
  • Give them water and a protein snack.
  • Listen, empathize, and validate, “I am so sorry this is hard.”
  • Offer regulation tools:
    • Breathing techniques
    • Mindfulness exercises
    • Fidgets and manipulatives
    • Sensory input

The overall goal is to send the message to the student that you “see” them and will be there no matter their behavior. Once the child is regulated and ready to talk, listen, and process, you can discuss what happened and what should be done next. Appropriate consequences can be implemented once both the adult and student are regulated. It’s essential to let the student know dysregulation will likely happen again. They need to know they are not perfect and are not expected to be so.

Some would argue that this framework lets students get away with things they should be held accountable for. But co-regulation doesn’t mean a lack of structure, boundaries, expectations, or consequences. Co-regulation is not a reward for behavior that is deemed inappropriate. Quite the opposite, it is a higher standard of accountability coupled with compassion. It alleviates the need for students to act out because it keeps them safe inside their bodies. It’s the key to developing self-regulation, which results in better behaviors.

Students need support more than ever. They need you. You are the strategy. You have the power to help students manage behavior and ultimately heal through co-regulation.

Written by Ginger Healy, author of 15-Minute Focus: Regulation and Co-Regulation.

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