Book Review: REFRAMED: Self-Reg’ for a Just Society (by S. Shanker)

Fellow educators, please read this book…or at least this review. Stuart Shanker sets out to reframe our understanding of ourselves and others in a way that enlivens our call to action as educators – it can reinvigorate our practice and our craft. That our future, of education (pre, during and post Covid19) , or ourselves is dependent upon:

“…the primacy of relationships not just at the interpersonal but at the inter-neural level…robust interpersonal/inter-neural relationships are needed – essential – if we are to create a just society”. (pg. 278)

In this book, Shanker curates and aligns the science of the brain with human behaviour and our collective hopes for a just society. Shanker compiles and articulates the brain science and connects it to our role in the lives of our students, our families and our inner lives in a masterful way – sometimes even playful – and in a way that is true to our current lived experiences.

You would be interested in reading this book if:
1) You are an educator, coach and/or parent or significant adult in the life of children
2) You are committed to understanding behaviour and supporting students in thriving under stress (be it social, cognitive, school and/or family related)
3) You are seeking positive, generative ways to connect with students and support them through rough and smooth waters
4) You are a brain-based educator wanting to get the best out of all the brains your work with

One of the first things that really jumped out at me from the introduction was how Stuart Shanker’s 5-step method for managing stress aligned with Marc Brackett’s R.U.L.E.R. work.

1) Reframe (Understand and Label)
2) Recognize (Recognize)
3) Reduce (Regulate)
4) Reflect
5) Respond (Express and Regulate)

It’s not a perfect match I know, but I think that this is something I will continue to explore in my own work. How might we align the science behind these two. Shanker builds on his 5 Step Method, and peels back the layers of the brain to help understand the neurological history of our behaviour and stress responses, the Triune model of the brain and the significance of the inter-brain to the evolutionary success of humans, and their contemporary applications for successful understanding/agility of the brain.

Two Key Concepts Reframed:
(1) The Triune Model of the Brain:

Throughout “Reframed” the foundation of the dialogue is on the Triune brain, colour coded where “Blue = rational thought”, “Red = irrational thought” and “Brown = inability to think coherently”. Whereas, early models of the brain had a hierarchy of the brain (what Shanker refers to as Victorian Misattribution), where the Blue, or rationale, part of the brain should oversee and ‘control’ the other parts of the brain, the Triune model embraces a reframing of how the brain works. If the brain is a hierarchy, then misbehaviour is a result of lack of self-control, therefore external regulation to get the brain ‘in line’, or ‘under control’ is justified. However, the triune model presents a different approach: that the three areas of the brain work in harmony with one another to regulate the experiences: “There is a constant flux and flow between Blue Brain and Red Brain. Calmness (homeostasis) is a whole brain phenomenon. The Red Brain is like the purring motor, keeping Blue Brain cognitive processes running smoothly…” (pg. 211)

(2) The Interbrain

This is the emerging science of a connection between two or more limbic systems – that’s right: that my limbic system is ‘talking’ to those other limbic systems around me. (pg. 13)

This is the stuff of which paradigm revolutions are made. Greenspan and Porges present a biopsychological approach to dyadic interaction that integrates continuity and discontinuity thinking. A limbic-to-limbic connection makes the growth of emotions possible, which then shapes a child’s communicative, social and cognitive development…(pg. 13)

Our brains are new, and they talk to one another. With this information, based in strong scientific research, we can reframe educational paradigms. This is required of us because, more than ever before, “Hence, education is as much about the development of self-control (vis a vis Self-Regulation) as the acquisition of knowledge and thinking skills.” (pg. 234)

Limbic Braking:

“Social animals do not survive by threat detection alone. They survive by not being smart enough to know when to quit” (pg. 35) When applied to a modern example, students will study, study and over-study because there is a dominant social narrative that this is what it takes to “succeed in life”, even when it is detrimental. We all have stories of pulling an ‘all-nighter’ at the cost of regenerative sleep.

Even though these students are tired, exhausted and probably know that what they are doing will come at great costs, the more energy is put into overcoming those limbic signals of ‘sleep’. This is limbic braking – to keep going when your limbic system (emotions!) tell you to stop.

“Self-Reg olds a key to working on children’s motivation, that is, helping them to recognize when they are going into a state of low energy+ high tension and what they need to do to restore and experience those positive feelings again, physiological as much as emotional…The deeper a person shifts into low energy + high tension, the stronger the signal sent by the limbic system to cease those efforts, that is the limbic brakes kick in.” (pg. 40)

This is critical when we, as educators start to talk about perseverance and grit. It can go to far and raise severe anxiety in our students. Specifically in the phenomenon known as High Maths Anxiety.

Reframing Education – Self-Reg Example: High Anxiety Math

Victorian Misattribution refers to the automatic perception of a child’s failure to perform or behave as we hope or expect as due to a lack of character, when in fact there are deep neural, emotional, cognitive, social or psychological causes.” (pg. 181) IF this is the model, we are working from THEN we can discipline, humiliate train these brains into line, assign rote learning, test and test again. We can even use “Grit” to get them to push through the emotional and cognitive pain.

Take High Math Anxiety for example:

The crux of the issue is that maths is a cognitive stress: the paradigm example of cognitive stress. The definition of cognitive stress is a problem demanding concentration with a consequent drain on energy…But only recently have cognitive psychologists begun to unearth the reasons that maths should be uniquely stressful…unrivalled demands on working memory…deficits [in mathematical cognition: for example counting,  mental comparisons and number sense] can have a severe impact on working memory. (pg. 155)

And yet, in response to students who are not doing well in math, our education system puts teachers in the position of correlating this to their work ethic, effort and lack of perseverance, and we respond in kind. (pg. 156) This pushes the brakes on our neural pathways, as Shanker says, “Limbic Braking” is a key factor.

If that child [who is having difficulty with maths] is pressed to persevere – pushed past the peak of the inverted V-curve [of limbic activity] – the memory is registered…The amygdala and hippocampus keep meticulous records of experiences that exhausted energy reserves without a compensating (neur0chemical) payoff. (pg. 160)

Thus, when approaching maths again, the student can be put quickly into Fight, Flight or Freeze. That is to say, Math becomes the threat!

However, IF we use a Self-Reg approach, THEN we can ask key questions about our educational routines: (pg. 160)
1) Why are we pushing so many young children to override their limbic brakes – without realizing that we are doing so?
2) How can we avoid or turn of a ‘kindled maths [learning] alarm”?

And then we can employ proven techniques that serve the Triune Brain model.

The first step in helping such a student [suffering from HMA] is to reframe: in place of misbehaviour, Self-Reg sees stress behaviour…The hard part is the second step: identifying reasons maths is such an overpowering cognitive stress for that child. This is where we need to be constantly asking why and reflecting on what we are learning about the students’s processing challenges. Instituting such measures as a classroom makeover, mindfulness, and exercise breaks or providing stress-relieving manipulatives may help as a third step. (Pg. 160)

Education In the Zone

As I reflect on my pedagogical design, learning experiences, feedback cycles and assessment practices, I am thinking about how I forced students into limbic braking. And that is a good reflective practice to be sure; however, we need something more to strive towards.

Shanker puts forward three key ideas for educators to pursue:
1) In the Zone
2) Building awareness of compulsion pressure
3) Seeking Virtue

In the Zone:

When we are in Blue Brain/Red Brain balance, we are able to deliberate. The Red Brain supplies the Blue Brain with the fuel and emotions that it needs to work on a problem. An equally important aspect of Blue Brain/Red Brain balance is that sense of time slows down and mental space expands. This phenomenon is well known to any who plays tennis. When you’re in the zone it seems like you have forever to plan your next shot, and the service box seems twice as big as normal. (pg. 211)

How might we get our students in the zone? What do we need to know about them, the curriculum and our own pedagogical designs?

Building awareness of compulsion pressure:

The child who has been well and truly ‘hooked’ is caught by desires that cannot be sated; for it is the need for dopamine that drives the cycle and not any particular reward…What is most disturbing about this new field of behavioural design [being used by social media, companies and gaming] is how many compulsions they are able to create or sustain. (pg. 218)

This is the great concern of parents everywhere – that we are raising kids in a continuous cycle of clicks and likes that are meaningless and mindless.

Using Self-Reg as our foundation. how might we build constructive and reflective practices that counter this compulsion and steers our children to form close relationships, exercise, learn and acquire skills that are productive, and most significantly allow for peace of mind. (pg. 219)

Seeking Virtue:

“…virtue is a function of reason working in harmony with and not against emotions…”
“balance comes not from self-control, but from self-awareness and insight.”

We all seek positive emotions and relationships, even those of us who have challenges in these areas; and, Self-Reg gives us an opening to reframe lives and lived experiences to get us there. It is social engagement, and not isolation, it is empathy and understanding, not competition, and it is the interbrain that makes this possible. (pg. 249)

How might our schools, our classrooms, and we, the educators cultivate virtue?

The Role of the Educator

Reframing education through the lens of Self-Reg, requires us to reframe the role of the educator (and even the parent!) in the lives of students and in the learning process.

The Triune brain requires us to reframe mal-adaptive/misbehaviour as stress behaviour, which in turn requires us to examine the causes of the the stress(es) that brought on that behaviour:

In the case of stress-behaviour, the child is not fully aware of what he is doing or why. He has a reduced capacity to act differently or restrain himself…Punish a child for what was a stress-behaviour and all you do is add to the child’s stress load – and your own.

The Interbrain concept allows us to act with this child as a thermostat: we need to connect with that child/student at the limbic level. That means sitting with them in their stress to build trust, mirroring their emotions to show understanding, and ultimately supporting an inquiry into their stressor(s), with support for possible solutions.

That is precisely what we mean when we say see a child differently and you see a different child. And this applies – especially applies – to the character judgements that we are so quick to make. (pg. 117)

How might we build a toolkit for ourselves and colleagues to see each child differently than previous held paradigms allow?

This is an excellent, important call to action for educators to reframe their own paradigms, pedagogical designs, assessment practices and for schools to consider their approaches to mal-adaptive,  behaviour against their code of conduct.

Seeing children differently, understanding the Triune Brain model, and taking advantage of the possibility to play a role in supporting students’ emotional development, will be critical as we open in September.

Answer the call!

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