Today Dr. Stuart Shanker speaks with us about how Self-Reg came about. Self-regulation is the first functional emotional developmental capacity in DIR/Floortime, and Dr. Shanker was the lead researcher on the DIR/Floortime brain research study. Dr. Shanker is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the MEHRIT Centre. He is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University. He is also the Founder and Science Director of the Self Regulation Institute at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
Self-Reg and DIR with Dr. Stuart Shanker
I first heard about Dr. Shanker a few months after our release from the hospital and just before our son’s imminent autism diagnosis. I was watching the national news in Canada and they were covering the DIR/Floortime brain research study done at York University. I contacted Dr. Shanker and he connected me with his team. From there, I was hooked on DIR/Floortime and went on to take the certificate courses at ICDL and eventually become ICDL’s Parent Advocate. So, Dr. Shanker is really the reason affectautism.com exists.
In 1997, Dr. Shanker read The Growth of the Mind by Dr. Stanley Greenspan then sent Dr. Greenspan a message about how it helped his team. They finally met in 1998 when Dr. Greenspan invited Dr. Shanker to a training class he was holding in Toronto. After the event, Dr. Shanker recalls that Dr. Greenspan grilled him in a way he hadn’t been since graduate school! A few days later, Dr. Greenspan called and asked if Dr. Shanker would like to be trained by him in child psychiatry. Dr. Shanker didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.
Dr. Shanker was then approached by Canadian philanthropist Milt Harris who was familiar with Dr. Shanker’s work and whose friend’s son had been “saved by Stanley“. This lead to him funding the randomized, controlled trial study of DIR/Floortime that eventually began in 2005 and went until 2012. It was a big project as they had to work with therapists who were not trained in DIR/Floortime to show it was the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) approach and not their experience that was the contributing factor to favourable results.
The goal of the MEHRI (Milt and Ethel Harris Research Initiative) study was to work with children, all diagnosed on the autism spectrum, who appeared to have considerable difficulty engaging with their caregivers. By identifying and reducing their stress and building in restorative practices, they wanted to see if they could get the children to be able to engage with, and enjoy interacting with their caregivers.
The first two stages in the DIR model are the heart of Self-Reg: regulation and engagement. But there are also big differences between Self-Reg and DIR. The Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model was explicitly developed for children who struggle with back-and-forth interactions, and reflective and logical thinking, but that’s not the group of kids Dr. Shanker was looking at in the school system. These were kids who were able to hold conversations and distinguish between reality and fantasy, but who were having serious problems with attention, behaviour, and mood. Dr. Shanker wanted to expand the platform for all children.
When a child or a teen is in flight or flight, what they hear is limbic cues (i.e., what look is in your eyes or other non-verbal language). They don’t process what you’re saying, just what they’re seeing. In those moments, you can’t change what you feel through will power. It’s when you understand and see what’s happening with the child that your own anxiety and tension disappears and only then are you calm. Then, the child can hear and feel that calmness. So it’s every bit as critical what the adult feels/understands/experiences as what the child does.
Dr. Shanker called this fragile secure attachment. They were children who became very disorganized when they went to preschool or school because of the huge jump in stress. Maybe there were things taxing that child’s sensory system, or you could have a caregiver in the school environment who had not learned to tailor their interactions with that child. It’s up to the caregiver to read the child’s cues and adjust the stimulation to the child, but if the early educator wasn’t able to do that or didn’t have the resources to devote to that, Dr. Shanker’s team saw that the child would become disorganized. They also saw children who looked like they were on the spectrum simply because they were overly stressed.
I gave an example of how my son has been sticking his tongue out and spitting lately when he doesn’t want to do something. I pointed out that in Floortime we always want to think about the environment and what happened just before the child behaved in an unpleasant way, in this case referring to my son’s spitting.
The ‘red brain’ was on. You know that because the tone of voice changes: he was actually communicating that he was scared, and that he really didn’t know what he’d done. He wasn’t at all communicating that he didn’t care, Dr. Shanker says. The vice principal couldn’t distinguish between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. The teen was in freeze. So Dr. Shanker turned off the lights, relaxed and just sat with the teenager. Even speech in that state is really stressful, so they just sat and ‘were‘ together.
Dr. Shanker just wanted to let the teen know and feel that he was safe with him, as they did know each other. As the teen’s alarm system gets turned off, the blue brain comes back on. After a few minutes of just sitting there, the boy asked Dr. Shanker if he liked bugatti racers. This indicated to Dr. Shanker that he was reaching out for social engagement.
Critics say that Self-Reg is advocating permissive teaching. No, we’re advocating keeping children safe. When the child is in a state to learn what they did wrong, we will address it. If you see the child’s behaviour as stress, you relax, your tension comes down, and you can transmit the affect cues that tell the child that (s)he is safe.
I asked Dr. Shanker what process really gets the parents and teachers to practice this new outlook. Certainly it’s necessary for the those who are firm in their behavioural stance that this approach is too lenient or not ‘teaching kids lessons’ when they misbehave. But I pointed out that in DIR, we also look at behaviour as a why and as communication. Yet, even knowing this approach cognitively, it can all go out the window when you are in the moment and can’t control how you react!
Dr. Shanker said it’s really just about making the shift from “I have to teach/educate this child how to behave” to lowering the child’s stress and then the misbehaviour disappears. Canadian developmental psychologist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld also says that when you look through the new lens, you see a different child. He also says having the strategies and tools of how to respond will help you in those tough moments. Dr. Shanker described the breakthrough that lead to his team figuring out how to inspire change in the adults they worked with to looking through this new lens.
Dr. Shanker says in Self-Reg, they made the same mistake when they started with teachers. They gave them all the information, but the teachers were coming to them with a behavioural management mindset of “Will self-reg give me a quiet classroom?“
Dr. Shanker’s team uses the Thayer matrix to show low energy, high energy, low tension and high tension states. They want everyone to ask “Why?” and “Why now?” about stress behaviour. When we go red brain, we go into automatic mode. It doesn’t matter why or if you can figure out why, but you’re more interested in the pause. We don’t want the clash of fight or flight. It’s the pause between stimulus and response, Dr. Greenspan would say.
You can also teach kids to do ‘the pause’. Dr. Shanker’s son would get up at school and walk around when things were too much. He was self-regulating. The first time it happened everybody freaked out and it could have been treated like misbehaviour. But Dr. Shanker spoke with the principal and they were able to work it out. If you can show the child how to recognize the signs and then give them a solution, they can self-regulate. So Dr. Shanker told his son that whenever he got “that itchy feeling in his arms“, he could put his hand up in class and the teacher would give him permission to walk in the hallway until he was ready to return.
I asked Dr. Shanker what works for young children or even non-speaking children. He said that indeed you can describe things in a way like he did with his son (‘itchy arms’) and he has seen it work. In DIR, we want to help the child who is unable to self-regulate by co-regulating with them, with the hope they can do it themselves in time. Dr. Shanker points out that children and teens can often regress back in times of stress and require that co-regulating adult to help them get back into homeostasis and a calm state.
Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!