A few years back, I spoke with Dr. Stuart Shanker about DIR/Floortime and Self-Reg. Self-reg is a process for enhancing self-regulation by understanding and dealing with stress. Self-regulation is the first Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity of the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model and you can’t get to self-regulation without co-regulation. This week we’re discussing the new Co-Reg Community, an online space bringing together Self-Reggers from around the world with Dr. Susan Hopkins, the Executive Director of The MEHRIT Centre. Using commenting, liking, and sharing features, members can explore the extensive library of video, graphic and blog content, post in the Co-Reg Community forum, and interact with peers.
About Dr. Susan Hopkins
Over Susan’s two decades of experience in education, she has worked in the early years, K-12 and post-secondary across contexts from Italy to the Northwest Territories in Canada, including classroom teacher, program support teacher, vice-principal, district coordinator for inclusion, researcher, curriculum developer, and post-secondary instructor. Under Susan’s leadership, The MEHRIT Centre has evolved into a highly respected, accessible, and successful center for teaching and learning Self-Reg. Susan co-authored the Self-Reg Schools Handbook for Educators and developed the online resources for the Principal’s edition with Stuart Shanker. She is also the CEO of The MEHRIT Centre’s sister company Self-Reg Global.
The New Co-Reg Community
Self-Reg includes Co-Reg
Dr. Hopkins said that the co-reg community has really been a part of the MEHRIT Centre since the beginning, 10 years ago, in order to bring together like-minded people who are working in relationship-based spaces together as a place to learn, communicate, and connect. But there were a lot of misunderstandings. Self-reg’s understanding is about the effect of stress–positive and negative, but because it has the word ‘self’ in, many think of it as you being in charge of managing your own behaviour. There are at least 447 definitions out there of what self-regulation is, Susan explains. Typical educators tend to think of it as having the ability to organize yourself or manage strong emotions.
From the beginning, Dr. Hopkins says, self-reg has always been about being within relationships. Making that explicit through this new Co-Reg Community was intentional for this reason. There’s often a goal to ‘fix’ a child or deal with behaviour, she says. When you learn about the five domains of Self-reg, you realize that it’s not just about ‘that’ kid. It’s about everyone. It’s not about being within ‘that kid’, but about what happens within relationships. The community is a place to lend calm to each other, and even to join a book club (Alan Fogel’s latest is the book for November).
Co-Reg is about a Sense of Safety and Connection
Ultimately co-reg is about the sense of safety. Dr. Shanker gave us an example in that podcast of a child labelled as a behaviour problem feeling safe by talking about race cars with him. With Susan, I gave the example of my son asking me repeatedly who my favourite Mario character is when I pick him up from school, even though he asks me multiple times per day for the last many months. Co-Reg’s definition is about the original more physiological definition that there is a brain-body connection of stress to threat. There are many other definitions of co-regulation, too, though, as with self-regulation, she says.
She still hears people thinking that co-regulation is about managing behaviour, too. For her, as a parent, it’s about trusting your instincts and looking beyond the behaviour to see what’s below the surface and asking, “Why?” and, “Why now?” People will say kids are seeking attention, but she asks, “Why? What is the underlying need?” She says that Jody Carrington talks about seeking connection, and that the example of my son asking about Mario Kart characters was him seeking connection which regulates his nervous system. And it’s not about words, she says. Sometimes it’s just about being with.
Regulation is not a ‘level’
Self-reg and co-reg are also not linear, Dr. Hopkins explains. It’s not a ‘level’ you accomplish and you’re done. We all go through periods where we need others. Sometimes it’s the kids who co-regulate us, she adds. Just like when we feel the cascade of something isn’t right, our kids experience it too with stress. There’s always something going on underneath the avoidance or silence. When we see this with our ‘soft eyes’, which is language an Elder gave her, we can see it differently and lend our calm, she says. It’s humane and about dignity, and not about annoyances to ‘train’ out of anybody. The behaviours are there for a reason, and when we shift and see them differently, often the things we were trying to shift do shift as a result.
How does it feel when someone really makes us feel understood? That’s what kids need from us.
We Still Co-Regulate as We Develop
I gave an example of going to a model train show a few years ago and my son being so excited that he was jumping up and down and flapping his hands. A man beside me leaned over and whispered, “We all feel the same as him inside; we’re just not showing it.” I thought that was great that he saw beneath my son’s behaviour, as Susan mentions. As we develop we may appear under control, but can still get very excited and stressed inside and we co-regulate with others all the time. Dr. Hopkins says that we also mess up along the way, which is part of being human.
Along with the five practices or domains of Self-Reg, she says that feeling our stress is about the sense of Interoception. Sometimes we feel the stress come on like a sneeze and maybe we need a break ourselves to decompress. It’s not always easy with all of the loads we carry but taking that break to just breathe is important. It’s important because “we can’t lend calm if we’re not calm” she states. At times we feel it coming on, but other times, our stress responses seem to come out of nowhere.
The Co-Reg Process
The Self-Reg definition of Co-Reg was first defined in the Self-Reg Schools Handbook for Educators to distinguish it from the definition used by behaviourists who might look at co-regulation as shaping behaviour. This is not what they’re speaking about, Dr. Hopkins explains. She referenced Dr. Porges work and how we can manipulate the vagus nerve with longer exhales to calm ourselves a bit, for instance, as I discussed in an earlier podcast with him. With all the different definitions of co-regulation it was important for them to identify their developmental definition that is about the adult helping another person with their own five practices of self-regulation.
It’s about beginning to recognize when you’re getting over stressed, and having strategies about what to do when you do. Then it’s about teaching this information to others. Co-regulation is a marriage of all of this. Susan gave an example of a boy she worked with in a preschool who would kick and spit when he was dysregulated, but who was a wonderful child when he wasn’t upset. (As an aside, Susan said she wished that these schools would follow the research about how children learn best and move towards play-based approaches that are child- or student-led.) This boy would go from zero to 500 in 2 seconds, flat despite the good relationships he had with the staff.
This little boy had the classic signs of allostatic overload where it would take forever to calm down. Dr. Hopkins says to think of all the chemicals flowing through his body (she refers to this as the fitbit of the future). He might even lose it over the tiniest little thing and you might focus on that as to why it happened, but Susan says, “No!” She says even Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, says it was coming and just needed that one thing to tip him into a full stress response. Susan says we can do better by seeing the signs earlier and dialing down by connecting. And you build this over time. You recognize these cues over time like a drip…drip…drip… effect, she explains.
It’s not about solving a problem, or saying you’re sorry. There’s a gap to honour, she says. So, this little boy, Mikey, who was only about four, was playing well one day when being observed. He was playing frisbee and by accident the frisbee hit another little boy who fell and started to scream and cry. The staff rushed to soothe the hurt boy but Mikey ran up to the climbing structure, scared a little girl playing near the slide and he scowled. Now, Susan says that there is a history of him acting out with his hands and feet when he feels explosive when he can’t feel it coming on and nobody is there to help him recognize it and dial it down. What he needs is co-reg: the soft eyes, a big heart, and help to dial it down.
And then over time, he can learn to do this himself. Susan was at the playground equipment observing, and sat at the bottom. She hadn’t met him before. He was yelling at the top of his lungs that the other boy “should have“, etc. in a very defensive manner. This is a little boy who thinks he’s a bad boy. He told Susan that, later on. Susan just replied, “He’s ok! He’s over there.” (about the other hurt boy). She had no idea if he heard her because the cascade effect of being dysregulated affects how the ear works, and changes everything including his ability to feel empathy. It’s not that he’s not an empathetic kid. In that moment, he’s in survival.
A couple minutes later, Susan had cued enough safety, that he came down, which was a big deal. He wouldn’t have come down if he didn’t feel that safety. But he was still revved up and his pupils were dilated (a sign of stress). She noticed a shift that happened in him. Susan says that when are stressed and snap at our children and see that sudden shock in them, it looks like compliance, but it’s a stress response that puts them into autopilot survival where they can no longer think. So this was the opposite of that. She was only trying to cue safety for Mikey.
It wasn’t about solving the problem of what happened to the other child. He needed her to sit with him like a child who had an asthma attack would need someone to sit with them. Mikey brought a paper over to her and said, “Can you write that down here?” on the behaviour report that goes home to his mother. Susan said, “I don’t have to. He’s ok.” then he went over and said he was sorry. She suggested asking if he’s ok as well. She was practicing Co-reg. It’s getting him out of survival mode. It doesn’t always work, and there are times when it hasn’t with kids or teens she didn’t know, but this is what it’s about.
Think of a time, Dr. Hopkins continued, where you had someone with you, or on the phone with you. You just felt safer and a little more rooted and connected. It’s not about any magic words. Their presence made you feel safe. There is a cascade of physiological reactions that happens. You feel better because your systems synch up, which Dr. Shanker referred to as the Interbrain. Allan Schore’s work goes back to this, including the book The Interbrain by Tantum, where it’s like a blue tooth connection between two people where their emotions and experience synch up. Relationships are important. When you have that established connection, you can give ‘the look’ to synch up with another individual.
Relationships can be a tool to harness and lend safety.
It happens a lot in positive and negative ways, she continues. Think of being at a concert, or in faith-based settings where everyone is having that shared experience. The same parts of their brains are lighting up at the same time. So think about when we are stressed and are trying to get our kids to do something by telling them for the 20th time to do something. It’s not likely to succeed, especially if our relationship is on eggshells. If we are stressed due to all that we have to take care of, we don’t have calm to lend. Spend fifteen minutes with your child. Take the time to foster that relationship. It’s an investment in restoring the relationship to feel more energetic and connected.
The Co-Reg Community
I suggested to Susan that once you learn about this, you likely start to recognize it more and this is where the Co-Reg Community comes in because you can share and bounce off ideas with other like-minded parents, practitioners, or educators. She says that they’re called ‘Self-Reggers’ and they want to see a better world for everybody and subscribe to a developmental approach. Many are trying to figure out their students or their children. People tell her all the time that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. There’s also learning together where they review books. There are also a lot of parent resources.
They also have a parenting Facebook group of about 6,000 members that is moderated by Vicki Parnell who works for them and is a parent of children on the spectrum. Parents often ask for help with communicating with schools on behalf of their children. The Co-Reg Community has videos, book clubs, discussions, and little bits of content that is all free, as well as things that people can pay for. Sometimes you feel like you’re all alone, and while in-person is nice, it’s also good to have people on the internet to figure things out with together. It’s a safe, helpful space to engage, meet others, and learn.
There’s parents, grandparents, foster parents, educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, professors, researchers, early childhood educators, education assistants, and more from countries around the world. Everyone is welcome and it’s driven by what people ask them for. They do their best to create new content regularly. You can influence what the next conference or course will be and future content. There’s webinars and numerous resources. It certainly would have a big overlap with those doing DIR/Floortime. There are many Floortime practitioners in the community as well which lends to having conversations about the intersection between approaches.
This week’s PRACTICE TIP:
This week, try to catch your child’s cues of stress before they escalate. Connect with your child in a non-threatening way in order to co-regulate with them, which brings them a sense of safety.
For example: You notice that your child is a bit agitated while you’re busy doing some household chores. Stop and spend 15 minutes (or more) with your child, just sitting next to them and doing something they like so you can enjoy each other’s company.
Thank you to Dr. Susan Hopkins for sharing her time with us to introduce the new free Co-Reg Community. If you enjoyed and found it useful and helpful, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter. Feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below. And do sign up for the community and browse around to see what it’s all about!
Until next week, here’s to choosing play, and experiencing joy every day!