Start the day with a song
Transcript of interview with Madonna King and Dr Kate Williams.
Introduction: At QUT we believe that teachers do more than build understanding. They build confidence, resilience, they help students to make sense of the real world and the faster technology changes, the more important teachers become. If you feel the same way, this podcast is for you. Welcome to PodClass.
[Children laughing and a school bell rings]
Every step that you take forward you’re actually changing a child’s life, you are taking people with you.
This idea of the silent classroom is also a little bit of a myth and could be getting in the way.
They have very little time to just take a breath, sit down and think. Where do I want to go, what do I want to do with my career?
It's amazing how many fresh ideas you can have when you can ask your question of the entire world.
I have given it all I have got, I am exhausted and I need a break. I think that is part of it.
Sometimes when first year, we think goodness how are we going to make a teacher out of you? But then you see them in fourth year and you think gosh they are better than I am. [Multiple voices laugh]
Madonna: Hello and welcome. I’m Madonna King and this is QUT Podclass. Could teaching toddlers good self-control be a game changer for how they learn? And could music be the key to unlocking strong organisational skills, and moulding the behaviour of our students even through their teenage years? My guest is Dr. Kate Williams, and teachers and teaching is our focus. Kate, hello.
Madonna: So what’s your position at QUT?
Kate: I’m a senior research fellow in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education.
Madonna: And you specialise, in a sense, in self-regulation.
Kate: I do, yes.
Madonna: What does that mean?
Kate: Well, I guess a more lay term would be something like self-control. So, it’s the way that we all control our own emotions, and our thinking, and our intention and also our behaviour, in ways that allow us to be, sort of, well functioning human beings. Or when we’re thinking about children in education settings, the way they control themselves in a way that allows them to learn.
Madonna: So are there different types of self-regulation?
Kate: Yes. It’s a really big umbrella term and there’s lots of things that come under it, but I think the three main things that are good to think about are emotional regulation first and foremost. So, you know, we all get upset sometimes, angry, frustrated, all sorts emotions, that are reasonable and realistic, but when we are able to regulate those it means we’re able to sort of calm ourselves in a reasonable period of time and then be back open to learning or different ways of thinking. So that’s emotional regulation. And the second one would be attentional regulation. So that’s the ways where children know where to put their attention, do they pay attention to the teacher speaking in front of the class? Or to the jiggling peer next to them.
Madonna: So even as a toddler their focus.
Kate: Exactly, and their focus. And part of that is also their persistence to tasks. So when they do pay attention to something, maybe they’re trying to work out a puzzle or how a toy works, can they stick with it for quite a time, even when it gets tricky, to try and overcome some of those challenges. And that’s really important for young children to develop. And then the third area of self-regulation that’s really useful to think about is something we’d call inhibition, or you might think of it like impulse control. So that’s when children who, sort of, might be desperate to yell out an answer in class or hit out at somebody when they’re frustrated, they can control that sort of instinct and instead do the more preferred, socially acceptable response.
Madonna: So we’ll explore all of those, but you’re tying them to education in a sense and how a child learns. How much do you see a strong self-regulation as a ticket to learning?
Kate: It’s absolutely fundamental. We know that children with better self-regulation skills before they enter school tend to do much better in the early years, they have a faster learning trajectory, and not only for learning but also for well-being. So we know children that have better early childhood self-regulation skills have much fewer risks, risky behaviours in adolescence.
Madonna: When you say a child might lack self-regulation, is it a child we might previously have called naughty?
Kate: I guess so, yes. So, we would have thought about these children as perhaps sometimes sort of intentionally bucking the system, and no doubt there’s some children who do still push the boundaries even when they know how to self-regulate, but I think in early childhood we’re starting to turn the language around, particularly around to looking at children’s developing self-regulation skills, rather than talking about poor behaviour.
Madonna: So looking at a child’s self-regulation levels, can we determine their likely future outcome, or is that a big jump?
Kate: It’s a big leap because lots of things can happen on that trajectory. But, strong self-regulation skills in early childhood are going to be a really strong protective factor. We know that for a fact. So there’s certainly not going to do any harm building those skills.
Madonna: How quickly does the learning gap widen, let’s say in Prep, if your child has good self-regulation skills and mine doesn’t.
Kate: It becomes apparent quite early. Prep is not too late to develop these skills, it is never too late to develop these skills. However, the child who enters Prep with poorer self-regulation might struggle to know where to put their attention, might struggle with their emotion regulation. Without the right supports they will quite quickly start to fall behind with the learning experiences.
Madonna: At a shopping centre today, how might I spot a child with poor self-regulation?
Kate: So a child in a shopping centre might be somebody who’s pulling a lot of things of the shelves, even when their parent asks them not to, they don’t seam to be able to stop. They could be the [tantruming] child on the floor. I mean tantrums are a normal part of development, they will happen at two and three years. If you are seeing them in a public space at seven, eight, nine years we’d be quite worried about that child’s self-regulation skills. Those sorts of things, not able to control their sort of motor responses, their emotional responses.
Madonna: Is this bad parenting? Or what contributes to its under development?
Kate: Well look, I’m a parent myself and I know how hard that job is. I would never blame the parents for anything. I think parenting is a really difficult gig. There’s lots-
Madonna: But it must play a part.
Kate: It does play a part, absolutely. The research shows that, I guess some of the negative things that can impact on children’s self-regulation development around early parenting, are if parents struggle with self-regulation themselves. So, when we talk about really angry, hostile, aggressive kind of styles of parenting-
Kate: That’s really a parent struggling with their own emotional regulation, and we know this impacts quite significantly on children.
Madonna: What about permissive parenting? “You can do what you like love.”
Kate: Yes, I’ve got a really interesting story about that actually. There was a young person who arrived at a Kindy a couple of years ago and really struggled to fit in with the group routines. And the teacher, sort of, worked on this for some time, but the child wouldn’t sit at group time, the child yelled and called out, the child had a lot of trouble making friends, because was sometimes a bit rough and dismissive with peers. And when the teacher spoke to the parent, which is a great thing to do of course, the parent said, “well my child has never had poor behaviour outside of Kindy. Never, ever. It is this Kindy that is making him naughty.”
Kate: And this is astonishing to think of course. But-
Madonna: Not a child I know.
Kate: That’s right. But what’s happened there, I got to know this context over time, and what I noticed is that this parent had acquired a permissive parenting style. So until that child had arrived at Kindy, they hadn’t done any other childcare experiences. Until that day arriving at Kindy, that child’s world was led by that child. So the parent worked everything around the child. They ate when and what the child wanted, they didn’t really have to fit in with anybody else’s routines. And of course, when this child turns up to Kindy, where they’re not he only one who has to be catered to, they have to fit in with group routines and this is a bit of a shock to the system.
Madonna: So parenting might be one reason, but certainly not the only one I presume. You know, ADHD, or Autism?
Madonna: High anxiety?
Kate: So there’s a lot of underlying neurological differences. Or even developmental differences. So children who struggle to communicate, for example, children with ADHD, ASD, other developmental differences are all going to probably struggle with self-regulation.
Madonna: Boy, this makes it difficult for a teacher. What percentage of a class in early childhood might have an underdeveloped self-regulation?
Kate: We’re thinking around 30% at this stage.
Madonna: One in three!
Kate: Mmm hmm. Yes. So that’s come from our own Australian research, where we looked at population data and found around 30% of children with below average attentional and emotional regulation skills. And it’s also coming from the field. So that’s about the number of calls that early childhood peak service providers field from teachers saying we need some extra support with these children.
Madonna: Should we be listening more to teachers here, because we put so much effort into getting our kids to study at the end of school, if we could address this early on, could we see a different educational path for those 30% of children.
Kate: Absolutely, it’s absolutely key. I mean if I had my way, all kind of early childhood curriculum would mostly be about self-regulation and language development. They are the two key tickets to future learning. And I think, you know, we are doing great work in that space, so in Australia the primary school curriculum is very focused on these things and should remain so. But I think in the early years of school we also need to maintain that focus.
Madonna: And I know music plays a big part in that, and we’ll come to that in just a moment. But first, your research shows how crucial sleep is here. Just explain that to me.
Kate: Sleep is a big part of children learning how to self-regulate. It is both impacted on by their daytime self-regulation skills, but also impacts on their daytime behaviour. So we all know about the child who is sort of, gone to bed late the night before, not slept in and is a bit ratty and difficult to manage the next day. But it goes beyond this. It’s actually, there are long-term consequences for both limited sleep hours, but what I’m more interested in is the behaviours around sleep. So we know that children by five years of age who can put themselves to sleep, they don’t need support, when they wake in the night which we all do, it’s normal, they can sort of roll over and get themselves back to sleep, and they wake up relatively refreshed. Children who can do that by five independently, tend to much stronger self-regulation skills, a better transition to school and the teachers find them sort of more attentive and less emotionally reactive.
Madonna: I can’t imagine a five year old putting themselves back to sleep at 2:00. Most of them would run in and climb into bed with mum and dad. Is it my children or is there a big proportion of the population?
Kate: You’re not alone. You’ve probably got again about 30% according to our research. Maybe more, maybe less, that was just one study. So it’s not uncommon, it’s certainly not uncommon, but I guess we’ve found through sleep intervention research and other research that if we can address some of those independent sleep behaviours, we’re going to get a better quality of sleep and a better daytime outcomes for children.
Madonna: So what’s the difference at school entry for a child who is in a good sleep routine and one who’s not when it comes to learning?
Kate: Well we’ve found children who have some poor sleep behaviours that their parents report, teachers independently of knowing anything about the children’s sleep, report those children to be more hyperactive when they have poor sleep routines, and more emotionally reactive during the day. And the problem with those two things is that when your system is caught up with emotion and also sort of hyperactivity type behaviours, you are not really open to the learning opportunities that are around you.
Madonna: But wow. This is outside a teacher’s domain, isn’t it? Is their job to talk to parents or to deal with the child during the school hours?
Kate: It’s a really interesting and difficult question. I think, teachers have a lot to do, the last thing they want to be doing is addressing children’s sleep.
Kate: They’re not at home when children are sleeping.
Madonna: They do enough without going home and reading the children a story a night.
Kate: Exactly, exactly right. But I think in the primary school setting there is an opportunity for teachers to support parent education around sleep, to have conversations about sleep. I mean, I know a lot of children who’s parents would say to me, you know, “I sooth my child to sleep every night, they wake in the night and I go and lie with them, and this is not a problem for us, this is the way I choose to parent.” And I say, “that’s fantastic, that’s totally fine.” Unless you are seeing, when parents come to me and see that as saying my child just can’t seam to concentrate in the daytime, I can’t manage their behaviour, their teacher is complaining to me that they’re difficult in class, well in that instance, maybe have a look at the sleep.
Madonna: At what age can you teach a child self-regulation, how early?
Kate: Well it begins and factors as soon as children begin to move. So the developmental course of self-regulation growth is that we are all born completely other regulated. So we talk about other-regulated to co-regulated to self-regulated. And other-regulated as infants means that obviously we can’t feed ourselves, we can’t clothes ourselves, we cannot put ourselves to sleep in fact as infants, we need soothing and help. But as soon as infants start to discover their body they do things like thumb sucking, reaching out to stroke a favourite toy, once they’re sitting and crawling they start crawling toward comfort areas or comfort people. They’re actually beginning to learn co-regulation, which is the help of another, which then gradually leads to self-regulation.
Madonna: Can all toddlers learn self-regulation?
Kate: Yes, all people can. In fact, you know you and I are still learning self-regulation now at our age [laugh].
Madonna: Oh yes, and I suspect so. I think my husband might be too [laugh]. Now you’re a registered music therapist, and you’ve conducted this research showing that link between music and self-regulation. What’s the headline here? What does it show?
Kate: Well it's fascinating. My research mostly focuses on people’s ability to maintain a rhythm or a beat. So how rhythmically we can align ourselves with music. And this seems to provide a window to the brain. So for example, we know that children with ADHD struggle moving rhythmically to a beat, and children with better self-regulation tend to be a bit more rhythmic in their movements.
Madonna: So what you’re saying is, there is a concrete link between those toddlers struggling with rhythmic skills and those with poor self-regulation.
Kate: There seems to be. This is cutting edge international research, but more and more is coming out. And the other piece of the puzzle and the clue that we get on this here, is that when we provide formal music training to people, you can scan any musician’s brain, and you will find the areas for language and auditory processing but also self-regulation are better connected and better grown in professional musicians.
Madonna: Is that the science behind the research?
Madonna: At what point can music make a difference? How early?
Kate: Very early. So, my work focuses on active music engagement. It’s not just about listening to music, which is great too and I would encourage everyone to do that, but as soon as you can be moving with your child, which is infancy, you can rock rhythmically with children. We know for example, that infants and toddlers who are rocked rhythmically by their mother or father regularly every day, after that experience they tend to show a bit more social skills and empathy with other people-
Kate: And that’s probably going to also link into parts of the brain for self-regulation.
Madonna: You’re talking about rhythmic music. Are we talking about you know, things like ‘heads and shoulders, knees and toes’ or ‘the animals going to’ what would be the best couple of songs or tunes that a parent might use in those early years that could help?
Kate: That’s a tricky question. I think that things that involve the body so [sings] “heads and shoulders, knees and toes,” but you know what, then as children get used to that you can start tricking them and you can ask them to do it backwards, and this really tricks their self-regulation brain into gear.
Madonna: Can you do it backwards?
Kate: Well you sing it forwards and do the actions backwards so, [sings] “heads and shoulders knees and toes,” Starting with the hands on the toes while you sing heads.
Madonna: I think I would struggle with that.
Kate: [Laughs] You struggle with it after a late night, that’s for sure. Things like that, [sings] “open shut them, open shut them,” very rhythmic. We can just sing, you know, tapping our knees and clapping our hands. [Clapping] You can sing good morning too children, teachers do this all the time, and parents, I’ve often heard them doing it trying to get out of the house, you know. [sings and taps] “let’s all march to the car, march to the car, march to the car” and it sort of motivates children and gets a little bit of rhythmic movement into their life.
Madonna: So even singing instructions as you have a toddler can help?
Kate: Absolutely, clean up songs, everybody needs a good clean up song in their toolkit.
Madonna: [Laughs] Alright, what is yours?
Kate: Just make it up, just make it up! You know [sings] “this is the way we pack away, pack away, pack away.”
Madonna: Did that help your children become cleaner?
Kate: Oh I’m not sure they’re cleaner, but it helped us get through the packing up with less arguments [laugh].
Madonna: I might try that tonight. And Kate, how important then is it for teachers make sure that they do include this in Prep and Year one and Year Two.
Kate: Look would love, my mission is to make this a regular part of the day, perhaps even the first part of the day. We’ve done some work in the last few years, with introducing more, a rhythmic movement session into early childhood classrooms. And the teachers told us when they did that at the start of the day, they really found their students much more ready to learn for the rest of the day, and they use words like “much more settled” and “if we don’t get our dose of rhythmic movement now, our day is not as great.”
Madonna: So it almost had an immediate effect.
Kate: That’s what they told us.
Madonna: We’ve talked about the importance of music and the importance of sleep early on in self-regulation. What about play based learning? How important is that?
Kate: Ugh, play’s so incredibly important for early childhood development in general, but particularly self-regulation. So, if you and are in a pretend play game, you know maybe you’re the vet and I’m the pussy cat, what we’re having to do as a young child in that situation is engage so many different parts of regulation. Okay, so I have to stay in character, I have to use my working memory to remember who all the characters are so you’re the vet and I am the cat-
Kate: I have to refrain from the impulse to step out of my role as the cat and suddenly be a dog or something else. So I have to stay in character and that takes involves self-control. It also involves emotional control when you as the vet, you know are maybe bossing me around as the cat and I’m getting a bit frustrated with that. How do I deal with those emotions? So, it’s quite incredible what little brains are doing during pretend play. It’s really important.
Madonna: Is that challenging for some parents? If your child comes home from playschool, from Kindy, if your child comes home from Kindy and they’ve played being a cat and being a dog but not done the alphabet, I can imagine some parents would think whether that time or money was well spent.
Kate: I think parents might yes, but I think we need to change the conversation here, because without those self-regulation skills that do develop through creativity and through play and through relationship building, that is the most key and important thing young children can have to support their self-regulation. You know, ongoing learning won’t support and won’t happen. We do see kids in high school who are academically quite brilliant, but self-regulatory wise, still struggle, and that means that important things in life, peer relationships, romantic relationships, dealing with peer pressure, bullying, they’re still going to be difficult no matter how many A pluses one gets.
Madonna: Would be ideal to include music in play-based education at the Kindy level.
Madonna: Or childcare even.
Kate: Yes, and you see, children are quite musical beings. So when I was in my music therapy training degree many, many years ago, we had to go out and video young children just in their natural play and analyse their musical behaviours. And these are children without any music training or adults around them, and they sing and they move rhythmically and they clap and they tap and they self-talk. And all of these things are behaviours that are supporting their self-regulation skills. So encouraging, rather than stifling those is really important.
Madonna: And you’re being a little bit humble on your research. You’re actually involved in a longitudinal study of almost five thousand children?
Kate: Yes, well that’s the longitudinal study of Australian children, and that’s where a lot of our understandings about self-regulation development and sleep development in young children have been able to be developed in the last few years. And there’s also some interesting findings we’ve had there about music in that study as well. So parents were asked when children were toddlers, about two to three years, how often in the week they did these kinds of nursery rhyme games or dancing or clapping games with their children. And what we found was parents who did that more at two to three years had children two years later with better attentional regulation.
Madonna: So, Kate, we’re all told to read to our children, you know. From the moment they’re born, in utero, read a book as they go to sleep. Should we flip that and we should be playing rhythmic music as they go to sleep or as their homework?
Kate: Let’s not flip it, let’s add on. Book reading is so important, we’ve got so much evidence for that. Keep doing that. Add on maybe some rhythmic movement activities. And in fact you know you can maybe combine the two as every early childhood teacher knows, there are fantastic books that are books of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the extra verses. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes and the extra verses.
Madonna: I was hoping you would sing it again.
Madonna: Now you’ve actually pioneered a PD program using music as an early intervention. How did that actually come about?
Kate: It came about because I was a registered music therapist working in the field for about eight years. Working with pretty vulnerable families nationally, young children prior to school and their parents, and we used group music therapy to support parents and their development and child relationships. And I did notice that also, in group music sessions, children who might be quite dysregulated in other settings, often because of experiences of trauma when they were young, were able to find a way to regulate themselves in music sessions. And then when I completed my PhD I didn’t look at music at all, I sort of went down a different path, and I looked at that longitudinal study of Australian children data, five thousand children, and looked as self-regulation development over time. So then it was time after that to bring the two paths of my career together and internationally there was sort of this vibe or this sense going on that there’s something happening called the musician advantage, when we look at professionally trained musicians and their better brain architecture. And I thought well, actually we need to bring this musician advantage to very young children who struggle with self-regulation the most. And we need to do it before school and we need to do it in a really cost-effective way, where teachers can implement it. You do not need professionally trained music teachers or expensive instruments to do it.
Madonna: And where does a teacher find details of that PD program?
Kate: Through the QUT education PD website.
Madonna: How long does it take a child to actually learn self-regulation?
Kate: A life-time I would say [laughs].
Madonna: But of course, we’re always trying to better ourselves, but a teacher, I’m thinking of all these teachers listening, and they’ve got so much on their plate, and often as parents we put more and more onto our classroom teachers, if they have a child who arrives without much self-regulation, over a period of a term, can they see a real difference if they walk a particular path?
Kate: Absolutely, yes. These things do take time but I think teachers are really good actually at making early learning goals for those kinds of children to be about self-regulation. Because learning goals around literacy and numeracy aren’t really going to be that achievable till we can have that child ready to learn.
Madonna: Absolutely. So when a child begins Prep, what does good self-regulation look like?
Kate: So a child with great self-regulation in Prep will be able to sit at group time, not for too long, we really need to remember about age appropriate expectations for self-regulation.
Kate: So we’re not going to expect a two-year-old to sit for a 40 minute group session and we’re not going to expect a Prep child to sit for a huge amount of time either. But for a well-regulated child will sit during group time, will know where to put their attention on the teacher, will be able to resist some of the distractions that are around the room. They will also be able to independently manage their own belongings and materials, they’ll show an interest in learning and they’ll follow at least one step, but potentially two step and three step instructions.
Madonna: For a teacher, ahead of learning, this is actually a class management issue.
Kate: It does become a classroom management issue, and I think understanding where children are in their pathway of developing self-regulation can really help teachers do that.
Madonna: I want to talk to you about what teachers can do, but first of all let’s go to parents. If parents want to work on this before their child goes to school, can you give me three concrete steps that they could take.
Kate: Sure. Well we’ve already talked about the reading to children which will be great for all of their development. Parenting in a way that tries to be as self-regulated for parents is really important. And it’s hard every day to try and be the calm, cool parent-
Madonna: Ooh yeah [laughs].
Kate: [Laughs]. But it’s really worth the effort in trying to do that and perhaps getting some support with that. So if parents are finding themselves sort of emotionally disregulated themselves or overwhelmed on a regular basis, really getting some family, friend, partner or even professional support with that so that parents can be the stronger, wiser, kinder, more regulated person in the house at all times, or as most of the time as possible is really important. The rhythm and the movement, dance with your child, have fun with your child but also co-regulate. So, children will need help in the prior to schools with their regulation, so for some children that will be a big bear hug, for some children that will be a rub on the back. For other children it can be really about being trying to gradually get them to independently manage their sleep and their emotions. Getting sleep right before school can be a really big ticket.
Madonna: So can we recap on those? Are you saying read to your child, role model behaviour, co-regulate and focus on sleep?
Madonna: Okay, so that’s for a parent. What about teachers that are in early educations? What can they do, are there concrete steps they can take to help children in their class self-regulate?
Kate: Yes, so I would suggest being my passion as rhythm and movement, I would suggest trying to get some body percussion and rhythmic movement sessions happening as the learning warm up at the start of the day. I would also suggest that teachers create learning goals with and for students and parents that are focused on self-regulation in the first couple of terms of year. So that’s about supporting children to be self-organised and having the strategies to do so. And using language and modelling about self-regulation for teachers can be really important. So giving children the language to describe their emotions, and talking about the strategies you can use when you’re upset and frustrated, teachers also may need to co-regulate and they do some of that work just beautifully.
Madonna: Can this be moulded into the curriculum so it’s included in maths, or big lunch for example?
Kate: Absolutely. So when teachers are working with students, for example on a maths problem, they could be articulating what’s going on through their head. Not just in relation to the maths, but things like, gee, this is getting really tricky, so I’m going to have to really concentrate here, I’m going to stick with it even though it’s really hard.” So that self-talk, we actually know that children who self-talk more seem to develop their self-regulation skills quicker. So this idea of the silent classroom is also a little bit of a myth and could be getting in the way. So encouraging self-talk about not just the content but what’s going through students’ heads as they try and concentrate. When we video children doing their homework independently, it’s just beautiful to see some of the ways that children do this and it would be nice if that was encouraged in classrooms.
Madonna: Are teachers sufficiently supported here, or what else needs to be done to support them?
Kate: I think many schools have a focus on the whole child and social-emotional development, of which self-regulation is one. Many schools are using age appropriate pedagogies or positive education approaches that come from positive psychology. All of these types of curriculum-based approaches do actually focus on self-regulation and they do give teachers the tools and support to do this. Finding room in the day and the curriculum can be difficult and I do think that it can be embedded, I do think that there is largely good support for this and that we need to continue to support teachers to do this.
Madonna: I’m so jealous of all your knowledge in this area. Are all your children beautifully self-regulated?
Kate: [Laughs] No, I wouldn’t say that at all!
Madonna: A work in motion.
Kate: A work in progress, I mean I think they do very well at school, and this is a common experience for parents and teachers, is that children will use their self-regulation skills in the context that matters most. So it’s not uncommon for children to be quite well self-regulated at school and in other settings and then they let it all hang out at home. And that’s where they have the emotion and they have the difficulty regulating. And this is a smart move by children to do this because obviously at home this is where they’re going to receive the unconditional-
Kate: Love and respect. So I think it’s really good for teachers to understand that as well and there’s nothing quite like, I remember one day dropping off my oldest Kindy many, many, many years ago and sort of just looking a bit frayed I think, and saying to the teacher, “Oh gee, we had a rough morning, I hope he’s okay for you today.” And the teacher was sort of a bit, “Oh, gosh, well that’s surprising because he’s such a beautiful child in this Kindy.” And I understood that, and I got that, and there’s nothing like that to sort of make you feel a bit like, “oh gee, what am I doing wrong at home?” But in reality this is what children do. They do it smart and wise and then gradually it will become embedded in all parts of their life.
Madonna: Well I’ve written a couple of books on teenage girls, and I wonder, some of the issues facing them in their well-being, could that be as a result of an immature self-regulation?
Kate: Yes, in fact we did a study just last year where we looked at children’s self-regulation skills at four to five years and across that transition to school, so up to about six and seven years, and then we looked at these children again at 14 to 15 years and in fact children with poorer self-regulation at four years were twice as likely to be engaging in risky teenage behaviours like self-harm, suicidal ideation, school truancy, smoking, alcohol use. So in fact getting it right and trying to support this in early childhood, this self-regulation and growth is incredibly important.
Madonna: So are our well-being problems that are focused on teenage behaviours, do they include enough on self-regulation? Should we re-look at that?
Kate: I think most of them do. It can be difficult work engaging teenagers in this kind of work.
Kate: And the tricky part about it is, I think, is that a lot of our attention is often on children or young people in high school who are dysregulated and showing it through obvious disruptive behaviour in the classroom, school truancy, acting out okay, these are the easy kids to see that where self-regulation is an issue. The harder kids to see are the internalisers. So they are maybe withdrawn, having maybe a few peer issues that aren’t as obvious to the adult eye looking on. But they’re not disruptive in class, they’re not causing teachers any real grief, and that is actually more likely to be girls than boys, although both actually do internalise. And it’s those children that I think we really need to support with self-regulation.
Madonna: One of the biggest problems with teenage girls in our schools is the power of the peer group, and from what you’re saying, I’m wondering if strong self-regulation could actually break that.
Kate: It absolutely can, because if you’ve got strong self-regulation you will be a little bit more resistant to those influences around you. Even the ability, we were talking about inhibition or impulse control before, so even the ability to just delay a decision, so peers are sort of trying to get you to do something, or say something, even if you have enough skills just to delay the decision whether you’re going to go along with that, that’s going to create some thinking time and that is a really strong self-regulation skill to be able to engage.
Madonna: And I imagine with the issues we’ve got with social media, that’s a perfect example.
Kate: Yes, being able to delay that immediate response of you’ve received something on that Facebook feed or that Twitter feed that’s upsetting and horrible, can you just delay a response until you have thought about it, and then reach out to your co-regulation. So we are still, as adults and young people, needing that co-regulation. Who’s the trusted adult that you talk to? You know, who’s the peer that you trust and talk to?
Madonna: What teacher can you go to?
Madonna: So are you too old as a teenager to learn good self-regulation if you’ve missed that boat when you’re younger?
Kate: No. Never, our human brain is just the most amazing, plastic, wonderful thing and I would say to parents and teachers who are working with teenagers who are struggling with this, you know, we need to go back to the sort of three pillars of lifestyle which will all help with self-regulation, which is sleep, which we’ve already talked about, diet and exercise, so getting young people moving in a coordinated fashion. You know, things like martial arts, yoga, Pilates, any kind of sport, playing music, all of those kinds of things, so those three pillars. Plus some of those curriculum approaches around positive education, goal setting, those sorts of things.
Madonna: So let’s explore that a little bit, because doing Pilates, or exercise, eating and sleeping, really comes at home. You’re a teacher of year nine students today and you think better self-regulation might lead to better learning outcomes in your class, how might you pursue that?
Kate: I’ve seen teachers do really great things that I think are helping with this. So when teachers support students to set themselves goals and then are checking in with students about how they’re achieving and working on their goals, this is really a self-regulation learning in motion kind of thing. And sometimes those goals might not be about you know, subject content, but they might be about becoming more organised or-
Kate: Teachers also talk with students about things like packing their bag the night before, using-
Madonna: Putting their list on the fridge.
Kate: Yes, yes, using their diary. How do you break up bigger tasks into smaller sections? How do you conflict, you know resolve conflicts with peers? And a lot of this is happening in development classes.
Madonna: What about the role of music for older students? Should every child in year five or six or seven play a musical instrument for example?
Kate: Oh I would love that, wouldn’t that be utopia.
Madonna: But would it help with self-regulation at that point?
Kate: I have no doubt. Yes. We already know from studies in America that instrumental tuition given to the children with the poorest academic outcomes in the poorest areas of America, two years of instrumental tuition improved their reading and numeracy scores. We don’t have quite the evidence for self-regulation but that’s because we haven’t measured it yet. I’m quite sure it would work.
Madonna: So are you saying if each child, all children play a musical instrument, let’s say in year six, by the time they went into high school, there would be better organisation or better academic results as a result of playing the instrument?
Kate: Both absolutely. I’m almost certain of this, I’m quite certain of this. I think we’ve got a fantastic instrumental music program in most jurisdictions in Australia, but particularly in Queensland, where children in years three and four, depending on the school get the opportunity to take up an instrument. But one of the limitations of the way that we’re doing that is often because there’s limited places, schools often select in to the program, into the instrumental music program, those students who already have a great record of both academic results, homework and behaviour. So the children who are the most self-regulated already, get the benefits of the musician advantage. Those potentially who need it most, may miss out and that’s a problem we need to address.
Madonna: What advice would you give to a parent who calls you worried about the behaviour of a child settling in to high school? Would it be to have a private music lesson?
Kate: If they can afford it and have the resources, absolutely. Or if not, what about joining a community choir? Drumming circles, free drumming circles happen in the community regularly, and of course anything like that and of course looking at sleep, diet, exercise.
Madonna: Could a teacher who doesn’t have access to a program like that in the school, bring it into the classroom in a more simple way?
Kate: Yes, absolutely. So I’ve developed some resources that are freely available online, mostly for early childhood teachers but these can be easily adapted and in fact some of them were so challenging for the young people that we worked with at four years of age that they would probably be you know more appropriate for young people in high school. So you know, things like pencils tapping on desks aren’t that noisy actually, but could be a great thing, some simple rhythmic drumming activities at the start of a lesson, there are lots of ideas online and we’re working more and more with teachers to develop these skills in teachers.
Madonna: What type of music, or what instrument is best? Or does it matter?
Kate: No. It doesn’t matter because what happens when you learn music is you are engaging so many different regions of the brain that become much better connected. Interestingly though some findings do say that drummers or percussionist who arguably kind of move in the most complicated rhythmic ways of all musicians, they get this amazing brain architecture happening, but all musicians do as well. So when we tell our daughters, “don’t date a drummer,” you know, we might be having them miss out on some of the smartest people around [laughs].
Madonna: [Laughs] I’m going to hold of on that one just yet. We’ve heard the link between music and maths and music and language, but this seams to be a whole new area.
Kate: It is a whole new area and there are a lot of international calls for us to address this and at QUT we’re really trying to lead some of this cutting edge work internationally in early childhood.
Madonna: I think both of us are in awe of what teachers do in the classroom every day, but do they know how important their role actually is in building self-regulation and well-being in their students, do you think?
Kate: I think we’re beginning to, I think we really are beginning to. Certainly in early childhood we’re seen this language enter the dialogue much more in the last sort of five years than it ever has been in the past. As we move up through the school years teachers are under more and more pressure to get content delivered and of course the expectation by then is children have learnt to self-regulate, and in the perfect world this would be the case. But I think what teachers do need to know and remember is that young people learn to self-regulate through trusted relationships, so the better that teachers of children of any age can build a relationship with their children, I mean, know your learners is 101 of all teaching and all teachers know that. When they know their learners they have positive regard sort of regardless of any of the behaviours or difficult things that students bring to the table. These relationships, and the supportive way they speak to students getting to know them is really going to help with self-regulation development.
Madonna: If a teacher’s listening and wants to take that first step to increasing the self-regulation of their students, would it be contacting the parents, introducing it to the curriculum? How? Talk me through this.
Kate: It’s, self-regulation development is you know, it’s multi-systemic I guess, it crosses all areas of children’s lives. I think teachers can get to know their learners very well, they can model self-regulatory behaviours, but also that self-talk. So saying to students, “Okay, what I’m thinking is this is getting really tricky and we might need a little break from this, you know, let’s have a mind break and we’ll come back to it.” And these are strategies that students can think, “oh, I can use that at home when things are getting tough.” Or trying different ways. Letting students move regularly is actually really important, so having bodies still for too long at any age is not great for our self-regulation. So are there ways we can bring movement breaks into classrooms of all ages? Are there ways we can bring the outdoors and natural light and rhythmic play, and a playful attitude to learning as well.
Madonna: We’ve seen many workplaces move to us standing at a desk for parts of the day, is that recommended?
Kate: It might support self-regulation. I think many people do that because it’s not great for us to be sitting for so long, but I think that you know some people need to jiggle while they work and jiggle while they learn -
Kate: And I think that unfortunately sometimes in classrooms we stifle this movement but we need to find ways, I think, in which it can be present without disrupting other learners.
Madonna: If we don’t deal with self-regulation as toddlers, in the early years, and again in teenage years, what does lack of self-regulation look like in an adult?
Kate: So you would see a poorly regulated adult perhaps having issues with things like gambling, alcohol use, drug use. You might see them taking more risky behaviours, speeding ticket after speeding ticket for example. You might see them struggling with their relationships with other adults and the children in their lives. You might see them struggling to stay in one workplace for very long because that poor self-regulation means when there’s conflict or difficult work colleagues, they really struggle to sort of persist and work through that.
Madonna: Kate a fascinating chat. Is there a message you’d like to actually leave us all with?
Kate: Self-regulation underlies everything for children and adults. So let’s really focus on it with our learning goals, and let’s consider the role of active music participation in our lives to do this. Moving rhythmically, dancing, singing at a local choir, picking up an instrument, tapping pencils on tables.
Madonna: Does the flute have to be one of them? No it’s the recorder.
Kate: Oh [laughs] I know the recorder has a bad name but it is learning an instrument so let’s do it.
Madonna: Indeed it is. Dr. Kate Williams. Thank you.
Kate: Thank you.
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