A just-fed newborn, rocking in the arms of her loving parent, is warm, full, calm, and safe. Her needs are met-for now. But soon, her body will use all of the food, her mother will put her down, and a loud bang will startle her. When this happens, her body tells her-I'm hungry, alone, and in danger. She feels distress and unable to regulate herself. Her only response is to cry out, hoping that a responsive adult will come to protect and feed her.
Again and again, attentive teachers respond to the needs of the dependent child. When infants and children are incapable of meeting their own needs, they depend upon the external regulation that comes from attentive, caring adults. In this context, a special bond grows between the dependent child and the teacher. A responsive teacher provides the stimulation that helps the child's brain develop the capacity for healthy emotional relationships.
At the same time, in these same interactions, other crucial areas of the infant's brain are being shaped-the stress-response systems.
Responding to Stress
The brain is continually sensing and responding to the needs of the body. Specialized "thermostats" monitor our internal (for instance, levels of oxygen and sugar in the blood) and external worlds. When they sense something is wrong (that the body is "stressed"), they activate the brain's alarm systems. These stress-response systems then act to help the body get what it needs.
Much of this regulation takes place automatically-beyond our awareness. But as we mature, our brain requires that we actively participate in our own regulation. When the internal world needs food or water or the external world is overwhelming, or threatening, our body "tells" us. If we thirst, we seek water; when afraid, we prepare to fight or flee. In short, we "self-regulate." We act in response to the sensations and feelings that arise from our brain's alarm systems.
When these systems develop normally, we are able to deal with challenging situations with age-appropriate solutions. When a child's capacity for self-regulation does not develop normally, he will be at risk for many problems-from persistent tantrums to impulsive behaviors to difficulty regulating sleep and diet.
What helps the stress-response systems develop in an optimal way is repetitive exposure to controllable "challenges." Every time a child is introduced to something new, a low-level alarm response is activated. But with repetition comes mastery, and what the brain once interpreted as a potential threat is now familiar and tolerable. It is not bad for the child to experience low levels of "anxiety" or distress when he is in a safe and responsive setting. Moderate, predictable stress in this responsive, controllable environment leads to resilience. Children become capable of tolerating significant distress. In turn, unpredictable or severe stress can lead to a hyper-reactive stress-response system and a host of problems.
Central to the process of healthy development of stress-response capability is that children learn to read their bodies' signals.
Understanding Body Signals
Many of the sensations we feel when we are "out of regulation" are clear--thirst, for example. But the body tends to use a common set of "alarm" sensations for many different kinds of potential threats. The alarm response and the resulting feelings caused by frustration are very similar to those caused by fear. A fearful child may act sullen and "angry," unaware that they are actually anxious about starting in a new classroom. A hungry child may act distracted, irritable, and noncompliant, again unaware that the internal distress they feel is hunger. We all have had times when we have mislabeled these feelings. Sleep deprivation, illness, physical exhaustion, and family distress are among the things that can activate the alarm response and result in a set of behaviors that are misunderstood by teachers and by the children themselves.
Sometimes, we just can't get what we need right away. We must endure the discomfort related to exhaustion, hunger, thirst, or fear. Learning to tolerate this distress, to correctly label the uncomfortable sensations, and to develop appropriate, mature ways to respond to these signals is central to healthy development.
How Self-Regulation Matures
The capacity for self-regulation matures as we grow. Infants are born with an undeveloped capacity to self-regulate. The dehydrated infant cannot use words to ask for water nor can he get water. The infant feels thirst, distress and then cries, dependent upon an attuned adult to meet his needs.
Healthy self-regulation is related to the capacity to tolerate the sensations of distress that accompany an unmet need. The first time the infant felt hunger, she felt discomfort, then distress, and then she cried. An attuned adult responded. And after thousands of cycles of hunger, discomfort, distress, response, and satisfaction, the child has learned that this feeling of discomfort, even distress, will soon pass. An adult will come. The attuned, responsive teacher helps the child build in the capacity to put a moment between the impulse and the action.
As young children learn to read and respond appropriately to these inner cues, they become much more capable of tolerating the early signs of discomfort and distress that are related to stress, hunger, fatigue, and frustration. When a child learns to tolerate some anxiety, he will be much less reactive and impulsive. With the capacity to put a moment between a feeling and an action, the child can take time to think, plan, and usually come up with an appropriate response to the current challenge.
When to Worry
Children with poor self regulation disrupt an entire classroom. They are often impulsive, hypersensitive to transitions, and tend to overreact to minor challenges or stressors. They may be inattentive or physically hyperactive. These children benefit from the structure, predictability, and enrichment that schools provide. Unfortunately this may not be enough. The degree of attention and nurturing that these children need is often beyond the capacity of a pre-school or kindergarten setting. If these problems are extreme and persistent, or if the behaviors disrupt the class, the child should be referred for further evaluation.