Self-management is a crucial piece for our kids. Often the largest behavioral problems we see in the classroom or at home stem from a student’s lack of ability to respond appropriately to what she is feeling. There are many components to being able to self-manage, and we’ll address a few here.
1: Space awareness
This concept encompasses all aspects of personal space and physical boundaries, for self and for extensions of self (personal belongings, personal spaces such as desks or bedrooms, and work) When we have students who struggle in this area it is, of course, in one of two ways.
The student may not understand the concept of personal space. A student of a friend, for example, had to be taught to ask before he touched somebody; he just always wanted physical contact. It didn’t matter if he didn’t know you—he wanted a hug. When he had conversations, especially if he was very interested in what you were saying, he would inch closer and closer until he was about chest-to-chest with you. We had to give him verbal and visual reminders, or cues. “Remember, we ask first.” Or putting a hand up to indicate an appropriate distance for him to stop.
Or, on the flip side, the student may have an overly developed sense of personal space. I’ve had students who don’t want you anywhere near them, let alone making any kind of physical contact. Others are excessively protective about their possessions—one girl would have complete meltdowns if she thought anyone had touched her backpack or cubby. Sometimes this can stem from trauma, a lack of boundaries at home, or past negative experiences. For example, I found out that this particular girl had six siblings, and nothing at home that was really hers; this led to a huge amount of overprotection of things she deemed belonged to her at school. For these kids, it’s more about building trust. Be conscious about being physically non-threatening, allowing them ownership while building an understanding of shared space and encouraging appropriate social contact (handshakes, high fives, etc). Just be cautious not to push too far, too fast, especially if there is a known trauma.
2: Calming, coping, reducing anxiety
When a student is angry or upset, it is critical that they be able to self-calm. I have seen students work themselves into frenzies because they are unable to bring their emotions down to the point that they can regain control. For these students we may have to implement verbal (or even physical, if extreme) interventions and de-escalation. Regulate your own emotions. Too many times I have seen teachers take things personally or respond in an emotional fashion; we are there to show them how to regulate their emotions, not to buy into their chaos and calamity. Speak to them calmly and rationally throughout the incident. Eventually they may be able to internalize your words, and in time perhaps replicate them in their own thoughts.
Coping is slightly different. Coping involves using a set of skills and strategies to self-stimulate, enabling you to relax and handle the situation at hand. Often the need to use coping skills is triggered by external things like noise level, triggers involving trauma, physical contact, etc. A coping skill can be anything that helps deal with or distract from what is going on. It is typically something physically calming, repetitive in movement, or sensory stimulating; it can include things like deep breathing, using a stress ball, fidget toys, brief coloring breaks, etc. Anything that helps refocus the mind.
Reducing anxiety can take any combination of the two. If often involves something physically comforting—like a blanket, hoodie, stuffed animal, meditation exercises, or the presence of a preferred adult—as well as positive self-talk. Positive self-talk will develop as we build students’ self-esteem and successfully narrate positivity for them (discussed in previous posts).
3: Flexibility and adaptability
Many people get these two things confused; while they do share some foundational skills, they are actually very different in application. I tend to explain it this way.
You’re going to give a training on a lesson planning model. You arrive at the location and get set up; the coordinator finds you and lets you know that this room will be needed for something else. They have another room for you, but it is quite a bit smaller. You move your supplies and get set up in the new room, anyway. That’s flexibility.
Now, you’re going to give that same training on lesson planning. The coordinator finds you; there was some kind of mix up. You’re actually supposed to be training on classroom management, in the cafeteria, with a much larger group. Oh, and the technology doesn’t work. You shift gears and conduct a hands-on, role-playing training on classroom management techniques. That’s adaptability.
There are many opportunities in the school day for our students to demonstrate flexibility. When you try out a new routine in ELAR, or implement a new station in your math workshop. When your recess time changes because of testing. When their PE class is held outside instead of in the gym.
Opportunities for adaptability are a little less frequent. When there is a substitute, and they have to measure and work with a new personality. Coming back to school from long breaks at home. Fire drills in the middle of a lesson. The key with these skills is gradually increasing practice and positively talking them through it, especially for our students with anxiety.
So flexibility is dealing with or working around a perceived problem. Adaptability is being able to take a perceived problem and turn it into an opportunity. This is a complex skill. How many adults do you know who can really do this consistently, let alone well?
If you speak to many teachers (particularly at the junior-high and high-school levels) organization is often cited as one of their students’ largest problems. Assignments are lost or forgotten about, pieces of daily school life are jumbled together, things are constantly late.
There are two methods that have been found paramount to teaching organization. The first is through example. The more organized you are, the more likely your kids are to follow suit. This is especially true in the younger grades; if your room is organized and user-friendly, they are likely to help keep it that way.
The other is direct teaching. Make expectations for organization clear. Explicitly explain and model how to organize, and provide them time to practice. If you regularly have them follow along through the steps of organizing all the loose papers in their backpack by content area and due date, eventually when you give them time for it, they’ll be able to do it without your instructions. And yes, give them time for it—help them get their lives together!
Do you have questions or concerns about self-management? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!