The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Why constant consistency matters: emotional regulation as a foundation for learning

Gareth D Morewood reflects on the importance of a joined-up approach when it comes to reducing stress and enabling learning to take place.

I have written previously about stress and emotional regulation in the context of learning and the value of listening to the voices of young people. However, as with most things, knowledge in isolation has its limits with regard to impact and outcomes.

About 15 years ago I attended my sister’s PhD graduation. One of the speakers was the CEO of a US company who was receiving an honorary doctorate. While I don't recall his name, some of his words have stuck with me.

To be a true expert, you have to know your specific subject area inside out. You also need to know associated areas well, along with knowledge about things that have little direct connection with your expertise. For without that your specific knowledge doesn’t have context and therefore has limitations.

I think more and more problems arise for schools and other settings when there isn’t a joined up ‘whole-school approach’ that is supportive of plans and individuals. Fragmented practice and provision can fuel dysregulation and increase stress; consistent, calm approaches are hugely effective.

Corporate responsibility

I wrote about the concept of corporate responsibility in David Bartram’s excellent book Great Expectations. This is where everyone within a school or setting shares responsibility for agreed aims or goals. For schools this is often established through strategic school development plans for the year and further ahead. Basically, it’s about ensuring that pockets of ‘good practice’ are not undone by inconsistent whole-school provision and systems.

It isn’t any good having a really calm, consistent, purposeful learning environment in one classroom, if when the bell goes for break or lunch there’s a stampede down the corridor. This just creates a very dysregulated experience and environment and adds significant stress for students who find these less structured times extremely challenging. It’s also stressful for the staff who end up in reactive mode, trying to calm students and get them to stop running or shouting.

Constant consistency

Consistency has to be constant for learning to take place. This is one of my biggest ‘takeaways’ from my work with many schools in both the UK and internationally.

One of the key elements of the Saturation Model is ensuring a clear link between policy and practice; a disconnect creates opportunities for fragmentation with regard to provision and structure.

No-one is harmed by calm, consistent, positive approaches

I often talk to students about their experience of their whole day – not school and home separately, or lessons and break/lunch as different times, but considering the whole day or week and how they engage with it.

Having pockets of calm and consistency (certain lessons, before school, in the taxi home etc.) simply gives a moment of relief from other, more chaotic times of the day. Creating a continuous, positive experience is the key to unlocking success for all: no-one is harmed by calm, consistent, positive approaches, whereas many can experience significant distress from noisy, hectic and dysregulated ones.

Considering the whole day (especially transitions to and from school) and how to pro-actively ensure these low arousal approaches is fundamental for me and the key to understanding why this is so important for learning.

If I am in a peaceful lesson before lunch, but I’m worried about the stampede to lunch afterwards and the noise in the canteen, I will be less well placed to perform at my best in that lesson, even if it is a really well established and accordant environment.

Furthermore, the effort required to address these concerns personally can be exhausting. This might mean fewer coping mechanisms at my disposal later in the day, or when I arrive home. This often fuels the ‘they’re all right in school, no idea why they’re so difficult at home’ narrative or negative language and a fundamental failure to understand the core issues of emotional regulation.

Three recommendations for action

Firstly, the key to successfully improving the experiences of young people throughout their day is effective co-production (see the ‘further reading’ section at the end for more on this). This has to involve the young people and families in jointly identifying areas of challenge and finding solutions. Working collaboratively to understand a young person’s route through their whole day is a vital foundation for this approach.

Rather than adults or professionals assuming what is needed, we need to gather robust information and use this to inform provision. We can then then build school systems and approaches that are based on analysis and an understanding of the community rather than assumptions and our perceptions of others.

Sometimes a small change in a school system can make a big difference to an individual and enable them to thrive. But you won’t know if you don’t gather information collaboratively.

Secondly, ensure high quality teaching and learning for all – providing calm, consistent and robust environments is important. I think there is a growing body of evidence now as to what is a good investment in learning, which is something I’ll address in more detail in a future blog. Great teaching for all has to be a core element of education.

Thirdly, make sure that whole-school policy and systems are also calm, consistent and in keeping with good classroom practice. Getting rid of bells, promoting orderly transitions (for some students at slightly different times may also be beneficial); staff eating lunch with students and modelling expectations – all of this feeds into this corporate responsibility model of shared expectations and consistent, inclusive ideals.

From some recent experiences in international settings particularly, I know there are some very simple things that can be changed that have massive impact; the key here is listening to the voices of young people, finding out what is challenging for them and designing solutions together. Approaches that assume what the challenges are often leave some falling behind or even unable to attend school as a result.

Reflection is key

I grew more and more as a reflective practitioner as my time in schools developed; thinking about things that happened, what we might do differently, why things didn’t have the outcomes we wanted and so on. I was, I think, my own worst critic and really did, as I am often quoted in saying, try to own my own fragility with regard to my influence and ability to ensure positive change.

As I develop this series of blogs over the summer months, I hope they add something to the reflection of others. My aim, as ever, is to stimulate thinking and explore some of the key challenges to providing calm, purposeful learning places that support the individual throughout their day and enable all learners to have opportunities to be the best they can become.

Context counts

Remember that every environment and community is unique. While there may be some things that have good utility, developing provision and thinking around your specific context is the key to success, based on my experiences. A small rural primary school, specialist setting, large comprehensive secondary school, international school, home-learning environments – all have unique and different challenges, even before we consider locality and other factors.

However, good systems often develop from similar foundations. I hope these blogs help in underpinning that approach, particularly with the significant additional challenges faced in recent times.

Further reading

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