Helping Students through Co-Regulation

 young girl kid sitting on the floor at home looking stressed and nervous with hands on mouth biting nails. Anxiety problem.

Some of the behaviors that we are experiencing out of the COVID-19 pandemic are rather disturbing and often can cause a great deal of concern by caregivers of students. The behavior can be unpredictable and very dysregulated. Some of the students that seemed balanced before the pandemic have developed a great deal of fear, anxiety and depression among other symptoms as a result of the pandemic. 

One objective at Lakeside, both in our schools and in our training of other schools through our Neurologic by Lakeside program, is to help students regulate their brains and help teachers understand what that process looks like. One of the keys to helping dysregulated students is to understand your own self-regulation which is often called co-regulation. It is important to realize that students pick up their emotional cues from the adults around them that are significant to their lives.

In an article in Hey Sigmund, Karen Young writes about this process in adults who are dealing with students who are severely dysregulated. Here are some of her thoughts as she introduces this process:

All children can behave in ways that are … not very adorable. Big behaviour can be exhausting and maddening for even the calmest of parents. There’s a good reason for this. Children create their distress in their important adults as a way to share the emotional load when that load gets too heavy. This is how it’s meant to be. In the same way that children weren’t meant to carry big physical loads on their own, they also weren’t meant to carry big emotional loads. Big feelings and big behaviour are a call to us for support to help them with that emotional load.

black woman cuddling daughter.

When you are in front of a child with big feelings, whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection of what your child is feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you is relevant.

Children communicate through behaviour, and behind all big behaviour there will always be a valid need. The need might be for safety, connection, sleep, food, power and influence, space to do their own thing. We all have these needs, but children are still developing the capacity to meet them in ways that aren’t as disruptive for them or the people around them. This will take a while. The part of the brain that can calm big feelings, the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until mid to late twenties. Of course, as they grow and develop they will expand their capacity to calm their big feelings, but in the meantime, they will need lots of co-regulation experiences with us to help them develop strong neural foundations for this. 

The article goes on to describe some of the ways we can help students deal with their big reactions to stress in a way that we will bring calm to their responses and enhance their capacity to learn. A key factor has everything to do with our responses and ability to be balanced in our own nervous system.

This knowledge alone can make a huge difference to our ability to have a meaningful and effective encounter with students who are struggling with their emotions, behaviors, and self-control. It will be tremendously helpful to know more about how our co-regulation can help regulate students who are struggling to cope with all kinds of adversities in their lives, including the effects of COVID-19.

Gerry Vassar


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