Masking Stress with Misbehaviour:
A Shanker Self-Reg® Lens
Susan Hopkins EdD and Elizabeth Shepherd MSc
The concept of self-regulation has been present in the literature for over 150 years. However, many believe that self-regulation and self-control are synonymous. According to Shanker Self-Reg®, self-regulation makes self-control possible by understanding stress and effectively managing our energy and tension levels. This paper discusses and provides evidence in support of the key constructs of Shanker Self-Reg®, including the 5 Steps of The Shanker Method® (reframe, recognize, reduce, reflect and respond), the distinction between stress behaviour and misbehaviour, the importance of reframing what is often viewed as misbehaviour as stress behaviour, and much more.
An adolescent tells her mother she doesn’t care about school and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
A student in Grade 4 punches another student in the playground for no apparent reason. This happens often.
A college student procrastinates on completing a final paper for a course and after multiple chances to submit the paper late just gives up and fails the course.
A three-year-old has a tantrum at the department store when her dad says no to buying the toy she wants him to buy.
A teacher loses her temper and yells at her students after telling them for the third time to work quietly.
A bus driver humiliates a senior citizen when she puts the wrong amount of money in for the bus trip because she didn’t know the cost of the fare had gone up.
Stuart Shanker contends that when we see a person differently, we see a different person (Shanker, 2016). Any of the examples of misbehaviour listed above can be reframed as stress behaviour, thereby deepening understanding of the roots of the behaviour and opening up new ways of responding. Shanker Self-Reg® is a five-step method for managing stress, which involves recognizing the signs of stress behaviour; identifying and reducing negative stresses; becoming aware of the signs of escalating stress; and developing customized strategies for returning to a state of being calmly focused and alert (Shanker, 2016). The difference between self-regulation and self-control, misbehaviour and stress behaviour, and the five steps of Shanker Self-Reg® are discussed in this paper.
Untangling Self-Regulation from Self-Control
Burman, Green, and Shanker (2015) documented 447 different uses of the term “self-regulation” in the psychological literature. The multiple uses of “self-regulation” were categorized into six concept-clusters: self-control, including emotional regulation and control; self-monitoring; self-management; social behavior; agency or self-determination; and self-regulated learning. According to Shanker, self-control serves as the overarching construct linking these six clusters of self-regulation definitions. It is important to note that self-control and self-regulation are not synonymous in Shanker Self-Reg®, which focuses on self-regulation. Self-regulation from the psychophysiological lens is what makes self-control possible.
Self-control became a focus in psychological research largely due to the “delay of gratification” studies that began to appear in the late 1960s (Mischel, 2014; Mischel, Ebbesen, & Raskoff Zeiss, 1972). These studies showed that problems in self-control could be detected in children as young as four, and that these problems were associated with challenges in emotion-regulation and executive functions (Eisenberg et al., 1995; Blair & Razza, 2007; Diamond & Lee, 2011). The self-control paradigm became dominant because of the longitudinal studies showing that the children identified at a young age as having poor self-control fared worse over the long run, both physically and academically, and had significantly higher rates of internalizing and externalizing disorders as young adults (Moffitt et al. 2011; Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). This research led many to conclude that children should be taught in primary school how to control their impulses (Schlam, Wilson, Shoda, Mischel, & Ayduk, 2013; Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro, 2007).
The Psychophysiological Definition of Self-Regulation
In 1865, the father of modern physiology, Claude Bernard, inaugurated the scientific study of what came to be known as “self-regulation.” Bernard was interested in the mechanisms that enabled an organism to maintain a stable internal state in response to both internal and external “perturbations,” what Walter Bradford Cannon (1932) later defined as “stressors.” In its original psychophysiological sense, self-regulation refers to the way one recovers from the expenditure of energy required to deal with stressors.
In psychophysiology terms, self-regulation is a prerequisite for exercising self-control. An unstable internal state can lead to a limbic response – fight-or-flight, or freeze (a primitive neural response to threat easily misconstrued as compliance) – and impinge on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain governing self-control (Porges, 2011; McEwen, 2007). The more an individual is chronically hypo- or hyper-aroused because of excessive stress, the more readily that person goes into fight-or-flight, or freeze (Lillas & Turnbull, 2008). These fight, flight, and freeze limbic states suppress, and at times “brake,” the necessary mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex for the practice of self-control.
The psychophysiological definition of self-regulation on which Shanker Self-Reg® is based refers to how effectively we manage stress. When one is over-stressed, tension increases markedly and energy reserves drop sharply. In what Shanker describes as a “red brain” state, limbic arousal is heightened, fight-or-flight responses are easily triggered, and the “blue brain” (prefrontal cortex) functions critical for learning and well-being are suppressed.
The Five Steps of Shanker Self-Reg®
Grounded in the psychophysiological science of self-regulation (Fogel, 2013; Greenspan & Shanker, 2006; McEwan, 2007; Porges, 2001, 2011) combined with a Dynamic Systems Theory lens (Van Gelder, 1998), Shanker Self-Reg® is a method for understanding and managing stress. Self-Reg was first described in detail by Shanker in Calm, Alert & Learning: Strategies for the K–6 Classroom (2012). In Shanker’s most recent writings (2016), this five-step process, practiced as part of everyday life, enhances self-regulation in children, youth, and adults:
- read the signs and “reframe” the behaviour;
- recognize the stressors across all five domains of experience – biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and prosocial;
- reduce the stressors and lighten the stress load;
- reflect – enhance stress awareness by becoming aware of what it feels like to be calm and when you’re in fight-or-flight or freeze;
- respond – develop personalized strategies to reduce tension and restore energy by figuring out what brings you back to being calm.
Reflect on the scenarios in the introduction to this article – an angry adolescent, an aggressive Grade 4 student, a procrastinating college student, a child having a tantrum, a teacher who loses their temper, and a bus driver who takes his frustration out on a senior citizen. As we reframe with Shanker Self-Reg® we ask ourselves reflectively: “why this person” and “why now?” How might their behaviour be derived from the accumulation of stressors they are experiencing? Here are two examples of seeing a person differently – through the lens of Shanker Self-Reg® – to recognize that what appears to be misbehaviour may in fact be stress behaviour:
Instead of seeing a yelling teacher, see a teacher who has been struggling with spring allergies for weeks, is worried about her ailing father’s health, has a teenage daughter who has told her she hates her three times this week, and spent lunch hour once again supporting her colleague who was in tears feeling overwhelmed with the many needs in her classroom this year that she can’t seem to meet. You will see a teacher with an excessive stress load, the signs of which leaked out through yelling in frustration, not so unlike the adolescent with the limbic utterance: “I don’t care,” when she really does, quite deeply.
Instead of seeing an abusive bus driver, see a bus driver who has been struggling with horrible traffic all day, and has spent too many hours without moving, maybe without eating, and you see, not an ogre, but someone whose needs in that moment are not that different from the three-year-old in the department store. A gentle word to him, and to the flustered senior citizen, might just be all that is needed to help them connect with each other in a way that is good for both of them.
Shanker’s work emphasizes that enhancing one’s self-regulation requires learning to understand and manage stress through an ongoing iterative and developmental process. In other words, Self-Reg is about stress and the connected energy and tension states beneath the problematic behaviours, not the behaviours themselves. Misbehaviour is a mask, it is what is visible on the surface. Using Shanker Self-Reg® we can gently begin to peer behind the mask to better understand the excessive stress that lies beneath the outward “misbehaviour.” Seeing people differently with science-informed “soft eyes” brings with it the most amazing shift: we truly do, as Shanker says, see a different person every time.
Table 1 identifies and defines many of the key concepts of the Shanker Self-Reg® Framework. This table additionally includes research describing the origins of and supporting the inclusion of these constructs.
Table 1: Key Definitions and Research Underpinning the Shanker Self-Reg® Framework
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