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080: Self-Reg: Can it help our children?
23rd December 2018 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
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Emotion regulation: It’s one of the biggest challenges of childhood (and parenthood!).  We all want our children to be able to do it, but they struggle with it so much, and this is the root of many of our own struggles in parenting. But instead of trying to get them to reduce the intensity of their emotions, should we instead be trying to reduce the stress they experience from things like a too-hard seat at school, itchy labels, and the scratch of cutlery on plates?  Is there any peer-reviewed research supporting this idea? We’ll find out in this, the most frustrating episode I’ve ever researched, on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book Self-Reg!   References Baumeister, R.F., Twenge, J.M., & Nuss, C.K. (2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4), 817-827.
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Transcript Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.  Today’s episode comes to us courtesy of listener Alison, who sent me some information on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work on what he calls “Self-Reg,” which seems to be his branded term for “Self-Regulation,” and asked me to explore it in an episode.  And I really don’t think she or I realized what a can of worms we were opening up when she sent the question and I said I’d look into it. According to Dr. Shanker’s Self-Regulation Institute, Shanker Self-Reg ® is “a powerful method for understanding stress and managing tension and energy, which are key to enhancing self-regulation in children, youth and adults of all ages.  Decades of research have shown that optimal self-regulation is the foundation for healthy human development, adaptive coping skills, positive parenting, learning, safe and caring schools, and vibrant communities.” I got Dr. Shanker’s book, which is also called Self-Reg, and I have to say that my warning signals started to go off when every footnote that I went to check out led to a book, rather than to a peer-reviewed journal article.  Now journal articles aren’t perfect; I actually saw an article in the New York Times recently on three scientists who managed to publish twenty papers in journal articles across a variety of fields over the last year in which they “started with politically fashionable conclusions which they worked backward to support by aping the relevant fields’ methods and arguments, and sometimes inventing data.”  And I’ve also seen articles describing how major, respected publishers released entire publications that were sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies and looked like peer-reviewed medical journals but didn’t disclose their sponsorship. But in general, journal articles are how scientific information gets disseminated, because they include a methods section and a results section so experts and other readers like you and me can understand how they arrived at their conclusions.  Then other scientists can replicate that work if they want to, or at least offer critiques of the methods and conclusions.  But no such system is in place when a book is published. Craig Silverman, who wrote a book on media accuracy, says in an article in The Atlantic that he did an anecdotal survey asking people: “Between books, magazines, and newspapers, which do you think has the most fact-checking?”  Almost inevitably, the people he spoke with guessed books, but it turns out that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book publishing world at all.  The article goes on to say that “reliance on books creates a weak link in the chain of media accuracy” because “magazine fact checkers typically treat reference to a fact in a published book as confirmation of the fact, yet too often the books themselves have undergone no such rigorous process.”  Further, when only the book title is provided in the footnotes we have no idea what in the book is being cited – whether it’s the entire premise of the book, or some obscure sentence on page 475. So I want to be clear here and say that I don’t have reason to believe that Dr. Shanker’s book is a lie.  I also don’t have evidence to show that the books he’s relying on to support his points are based on lies, mainly because I don’t have time to read a hundred books in preparation for this episode.  But what I do know is that books are about the least reliable form of evidence you could draw on to make a point about something that’s important to get right, and that he also doesn’t cite research that I now know is available that could actually have supported his ideas.  Instead he makes statements about how he has scanned the brains of hyper-aroused children in his lab (but doesn’t describe any published journal article coming out of that work, which is pretty unusual). Elsewhere he describes a process of physical sensations becoming associated with distinctive emotions: “For example, if an infant is hungry and her cries go unheeded, her muscles tense up, which is associated with sensations of discomfort, and a distinct feeling of anger may begin to emerge.  If a caregiver responds to these first signs of anger by scolding the child…then the physical sensations and the nascent feeling of anger that the child experiences may become further bound up with feelings of hopelessness.  As the child grows older, the same physical sensations – a stomachache, for instance – can trigger feelings of anger and hopelessness – and leave a parent befuddled, completely unaware of how a deep-seated physical/emotional association might be the culprit…” Again, there’s no citation provided for this work and I’ve yet to find any research or researcher who can corroborate that this process happens. A third example is related to a concept called the “interbrain,” which I did find described elsewhere, and which is a kind of shared intuitive channel of communication, which is how parents sense things like tiny shifts in their child’s mood.  Then Dr. Shanker goes on to imply that for some children, minor stressors like “the gleam in a parent’s eyes or a hug or a gentle touch, which normally would be a source of positive arousal, can be more than the baby can bear.”  Once again, I couldn’t find any literature or researcher to support this claim, and my overall impression of the book is that Dr. Shanker takes research on children facing severe stressors like poverty and violence, and connects that research to minor stressors like itchy clothing labels, whirring fans, and the gleam in a parent’s eye to tell us middle class White parents that our children have severe problems, when actually the research doesn’t really support these claims. When I went on Dr. Shanker’s Self-Regulation Institute’s website to look for evidence supporting the principles of Self-Reg I found a series of videos discussing the principles which, strangely, I can no longer locate.  One of which talked about the movement’s detractors and how people who don’t want to be convinced of Self-Reg’s benefits will never be convinced.  He went on to say something along the lines of “there’s evidence to support Self-Reg” – but nowhere is this evidence ever actually described. If you search “self-reg” in any scholarly database, you come up with pretty much nothing except the occasional hit on a non-peer-reviewed article authored by Dr. Shankar.  And I’ve also learned in the course of researching episodes for this show that when a single researcher’s name gets too attached to a concept – if they’ve basically made their name on a concept, then that’s an extra reason to be suspicious.  We saw this in our episode on grit, where we found that the peer-reviewed papers showed effect sizes that were nowhere near as large as Dr. Angela Duckworth describes them to be in places like her book and her TED talk.  Growth Mindset may also be a useful tool but is likely not as large a determinant of success as Dr. Carol Dweck states in her TED talk.  So when I see that Dr. Shanker is essentially the only researcher whose name is tied to Self-Reg but he has actually trademarked the term “Shanker Self-Reg,” my danger radar starts beeping even more loudly. Honestly, I find the claims about self-reg to be compelling.  I want to believe them.  They align with the way I view children, which is that bad behavior isn’t bad behavior; it’s the child trying to tell us something and what Dr. Shanker argues that they are trying to tell us is that they are stressed. But in the absence of much in the way of real evidence in the book or on the Self-Regulation Institute’s website I reached out to the organization to ask them what they had.  I told them that I really do want to believe in what they say but I asked to see some evidence, and the very friendly response that I received essentially said two things.  Firstly, that “Self-Reg is a relatively young model and, as a whole new approach rather than a program, there is time involved in learning the model and refining how best to apply it.  We have begun this work and I am happy to share the research we do have.  I would welcome you to look at our website,” and then there’s a link to the home page, not to any specific evidence for the approach. I’ve seen this idea of it being a “young model” bandied about a lot in the Self-Reg materials – but what confuses me here is that they somehow claim that it’s a young model and they’re still conducting research on it, but Dr. Shanker has written a book that’s at least two years old by the time you’re hearing this.  His bio on his website says he received a $7 million grant in 2005 to establish a state-of-the-art cognitive and social neuroscience centre at York University in Toronto, which was the largest gift the university had ever received.  He has advised governments on child development in at last twelve countries, and developed Shanker Self-Reg, his five domain model for understanding, recognizing and alleviating the impact of negative stress.  The Mehrit Centre, which also funds Dr. Shanker’s work, has a Foundations Certificate program that you can pay $1495 to take online, as well as a Level 2 Facilitator Program which grants you certification in The Shanker Method ® for $2,195, a Master’s Modules Program for $2,195…and the list goes on.  So my question is: if Dr. Shanker has had over a decade in his state-of-the-art cognitive and social neuroscience centre, and has had time to write a book and develop courses to train people on Self-Reg and wants to see the entire country of Canada become a “Self-Reg haven,” as he says in one of his marketing pieces, where’s the research?  How do we know this stuff actually helps? Because so often in doing this show I’ve seen ideas that have prima facie merit actually don’t hold up when we start looking into them.  The first one of these that I ran into was on how to how to raise a child who isn’t racially prejudiced – I’d always just assumed that the best way to do this is to just not mention race, because then my daughter will learn that it isn’t an issue.  And it turns out that this is actually one of the most effective ways to raise a racist child!  And before I did my episode on self-esteem, I just assumed I’d find studies saying how beneficial it is, and then some studies on how to get more of it, and it turned out that actually – despite a massive push in California in the ‘90s to increase every child’s self-esteem as a way of solving the state’s societal problems –  high self-esteem hasn’t been shown to cause good life outcomes – it’s entirely possible that people who have good life outcomes just have high self-esteem. So while it can be attractive to jump on these bandwaggons, that’s not what we do here at Your Parenting Mojo.  We dig into what research there is and get our hands dirty and then try to make a decision based on the best evidence we can find. Which brings me to the second major point of the email that I received from the Self-Regulation Institute, which was to direct me to their new open-access peer reviewed journal called Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg.  The journal has a link to a page showing its editors; perhaps not surprisingly Dr. Shanker is listed first, followed by Lisa Bayrami who is the Executive Director of the Self-Regulation Institute.  The Managing Editor is Anne Showalater, a Ph.D Candidate in Canadian Studies and is the person who responded to my email.  Two of the four members of the Editorial Board are described as having explicit connections to the Self-Regulation Institute or the Mehrit Centre, so I think it’s safe to say that this journal is probably not going to publish any research that’s critical of Self-Reg.  And actually, as far as I can tell,  it’s not going to publish much in the way of actual scientific research at all – it’s essentially a series of blog posts describing different aspects of Self-reg, with sources cited at the end of each one – the majority, as usual, being books rather than peer-reviewed journal articles.  So in this episode I’m going to go through the references provided in the book, as well as in the Self-Reg “journal” articles, and from other peer-reviewed sources and we’ll see what we can find.   So what is Self-Reg?  I’ll summarize the first chapter of Dr. Shanker’s book.  He starts by arguing that while *self-control* is important in being successful in life, sometimes the more we try to control ourselves the harder it gets.  More important than self-control is the amount of stress we are under and how we manage this, or how we self-regulate.  Dr. Shanker gives the example of cold outside being a “classic example of an environmental stressor that the autonomic nervous system responds to” – in a roundabout way, he states that if there are too many external stressors like being cold on top of the usual emotional, social, and cognitive stressors then the child’s limbic system can become hypersensitive to the slightest hint of danger.  It registers the cold as a big threat that causes the release of neurochemicals that trigger fight or flight mode, and if that doesn’t work then the brain freezes – like an animal playing dead.  The oldest, most “reptilian” part of the child’s brain releases adrenaline which sets off a series of reactions that result in the release of cortisol.  You’ve likely felt the result: heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure increase; you’re alert and reactive; your sweat glands open to cool you down, and endorphins are released that increase your pain tolerance.  These...





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