Co-regulation: seeking grace together at the still point

Modern neuroscience has emphasized the fundamental importance of relational safety in all aspects of childhood development. This notion fully supports our calling as Christians: to love and provide safety for all young ones.

As parents and teachers, it can be common to try to control problematic behaviors by using suppression. In a classroom setting this may seem effective, but recent understanding of stress sensitivity in childhood shows that we need to determine the motivation behind children’s problematic behaviors. Is a child acting out because of stress and a need of relational help? If so, is there a way for us to help with the core problem, instead of addressing solely the behavior?

Co-regulation is a neuro-relational phenomenon occurring when adult and child have a synchronous connection. Emotional co-regulation between adults and children is foundational to all brain development (Delahooke, 2019). Warm and responsive interactions from a calm adult provides support and modeling for children so that they can understand and express their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This interaction can lead to a shared sense of purpose and ease, creating “grace at the still point of the turning world.”

A child in a tough environment, with a weak foundation for emotional regulation, needs adult help to find their way back to a calm and engaged state. The neurosequential model provides a framework for achieving this state of grace by practicing the three R’s: Regulate, Relate and Reason.

  1. Regulation: If children are hyper-aroused or overactive, it can be helpful for a teacher to encourage deep breathing or reflective journaling. Alternatively, for hypo-aroused or underactive children, a teacher can increase arousal by playing music, stretching, or leading some rhythmic/patterned movement.
  2. Relate: As the child calms down, a teacher can “connect and redirect” by using a caring tone of voice that validates the child’s feelings and reinforces that they are cared about, before directing them to alternative behaviors.
  3. Reason: Co-regulated interactions should include a reasoned discussion about how emotions and stress feel in the body. This approach puts the teacher-student relationship at the center of the classroom, where teachers are attuned in real time, ensuring that student stress is manageable and not chronically activated which would interfere with receptivity to learning.

For teachers to extend this gift of self in the classroom, they must first be regulated in their emotions. We are advocating that administrators and teachers actively build a supportive working environment where self-care is valued, and care is extended among staff. Teachers who are given the time to achieve their own state of calm can practice their faith in their school setting and can find the grace to be “the still point” for their students. The call to relate, heal, comfort and care for those entrusted to us is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching “… what you do to the least, you do to me” (Matthew 25:40). As an educator, you are the presence of Jesus to these precious children who are made for wholeness and deserve to be raised in grace.

Sister John Dominic Rasmussen, OP, is a Catholic educator and administrator for more than 35 years and is a foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, MI.

Karen Villa, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist.

For more information, please contact [email protected].