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Dr. Shanker and Pre-Cognitive Self-Regulation

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Dr. Shanker and Pre-Cognitive Self-Regulation

Dr. Stuart Shanker is committed to identifying and addressing the roots of students’ difficulties. He has become the leading authority on the topic of self-regulation, particularly the pre-cognitive self-regulatory skills with which many vulnerable require support. 

It’s clear that educators are committed to ensuring that all students succeed at high levels.  What’s less clear is the recognition that for some students, there are obstacles to achieving this success. Too many students seem to have difficulty accessing content and benefitting from instruction within the core, Tier 1 environment.

Before we can accurately and adequately support students’ mastery of academic content, we may need to explore the antecedents or causes of difficulties. Said another way, some students may lack behavioral prerequisites for learning. The success of some students is compromised by deficits in cognitive self-regulation strategies, such as metacognition, executive functioning, and social-emotional learning. These are critical strategies for all students. They must be planned, taught, modeled, and reinforced. 

Cognitive self-regulation strategies can be thought of the roots of learning academic content. There are also roots to cognitive self-regulation, what Dr. Shanker calls psycho-physiological skills – we may think of these skills as pre-cognitive self-regulation. Psycho-physiological skills represent coping strategies for stressors that, when lacking, will impede students success. Educators have not historically been trained or expected to know about cognitive or pre-cognitive self-regulation. Consequently and understandably, we may not even recognize deficits in most basic and critical of foundations – psycho-physiological skills.

All students will benefit from developing strategies to set themselves up for success and to recognize, anticipate, and successfully navigate stressors within multiple environments. For our most vulnerable students, these stressors are simply much more present. For these vulnerable students, an insufficient catalogue of pre-cognitive self-regulatory strategies, or psycho-physiological skills, may be significantly contributing to their difficulties. One of the major signposts of EFIB is integration, self-regulation, is clearly not an isolated skill; we must integrate the teaching and nurturing of these skills into the fabric of the all supports we provide students. Children must translate what they experience into information they can use to regulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

The unfortunate response of some educators is that there’s something wrong with students, that their parents are to blame, that their parents must do more, and that until the situation is improved, we cannot help these students. We are the answer we’ve been waiting for. We can count on no one else to serve these students. We can equip ourselves with tools to nurture the requisite skills within students. 

Although Dr. Shanker notes that there are over 446 definitions of self-regulation. The “correct” definition is complex and multi-faceted. Let’s start by defining what self-regulation is not, although each of these elements plays a role within self-regulation: 

  • It is not simply self-control or effortful control (the ability to inhibit one’s impulses or ignore distraction).
  • It is not simply Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
  • It is not simply social-emotional learning.
  • It is not simply metacognitive practices.
  • It is not a panacea to “change” student behaviors.
  • It is not a “program” designed to fix students who are not making a sufficient effort.

Dr. Shanker describes 5 domains of pre-cognitive self-regulation, domains that are grounded in the most exhaustive and pragmatic of research. Before describing these domains, let’s define what self-regulation is:

  • Teaching teachers how to read, reframe, and redefine misbehaviors.
  • Assuming that every student has the capacity to change.
  • Teaching, modeling, and nurturing appropriate behaviors as a preventative endeavor.
  • Helping students recognize stressors.
  • Guiding students to master the steps involved in self-awareness.
  • Ameliorating causes of high stress.
  • Reframing misbehaviors as stress-behaviors.

As noted, pre-cognitive self-regulation can be defined through five domains, that collectively represent the ability to stay calmly focused and alert, which involve:

  • The biological – Attaining, maintaining, regulating, and changing one’s level of arousal appropriately for a task or situation, impacted by health, nutrition, sleep, exercise, sensory inputs, and one’s ability to process inputs.
  • The emotional – Controlling, modulating, monitoring, and modifying one’s emotions and emotional responses.
  • The cognitive – Formulating a goal for a task, monitoring goal-progress, and adjusting one’s behaviors while sustaining and switching attention and responding appropriately, all the while sequencing thoughts, inhibiting impulses, and dealing with frustrations, delays, and distractions.
  • The social – Managing social interactions, co-regulating with others in an empathetic manner, and developing pro-social skills
  • The educational – Awareness of one’s academic strengths and weaknesses, with a repertoire of strategies to tackle day-to-day challenges of academic tasks and robust reflective thinking skills.

Each domain is inter-related and inter-dependent, and therefore, self-regulation is best viewed through a dynamic systems theory. Each element is critical to a school’s, a classroom’s, and a student’s success. Implementation in isolation will not suffice – the effect of any domain within each setting is dependent on the rest of the system, making all factors potentially interdependent and mutually constraining.


The challenges for educators, and the promise of self-regulation, is identifying the pre-cognitive stressors that lead to cognitive stressors, which may be observed as academic or behavioral difficulties. Our problem-solving on behalf of students sometimes ends in blame or feelings of hopelessness. At times, problem solving ends in the analysis of causes within the domains of cognitive self-regulation – metacognition, executive functioning, and social-emotional learning – let’s strive to identify and address the roots of the roots.

© 2016. Chris Weber Education. Design by Cleverbirds.