Tag Archives: Sander




The second subject that my mothers’ group asked that we discuss is that of “habits”. When I use the word “habit”, I mean a pattern of behavior that is hard to break even when you try very hard. We usually refer to the patterns we want to break as “bad habits”, but of course there are good habits, too. I like to use the principles of nonlinear systems theory to understand the establishment and maintenance of habits. That is not as complicated as it might sound.

Nonlinear systems theory says that “organization”, or patterns, emerge from the interactions of the component parts of a system (von Bertalanffy, 1968). In a family system, this would mean that when family members (parents, children) interact with one another, they create particular ways of behaving (patterns of behavior) that include characteristics of the individuals involved, their home environment, and the time (of day, month, and year). For example, what Sander calls the infant’s first organization, the diurnal sleep cycle, is established through the repetition of small caregiving acts – nursing, burping, bathing, and changing – that the caregiver and infant experience together, as they are repeated in the same order each day over and over again (Sander, 2008). When the baby grows older, the family establishes bedtime routines that parents and children tend to follow every night. Of course these rituals change with the age of the child and the time of the year, so that during school vacations the patterns usually loosen. Whereas families can typically describe to you their bedtime routines, they are usually not aware of the powerful significance of routines in their lives until something happens – houseguests, illness, a family trip – that disrupts the routine. It is then that the family recognizes the role of these patterns in the coherence of family life.

There are two other dominant characteristics of habits. The first has to do with motivation, or intention. Why would anyone intend to establish a bad habit or be motivated to maintain it, you might ask. Well, there are actually many reasons, and not surprisingly, most of them are out of awareness. Some of them are “non-conscious” in that they were never represented in language or other symbols in the brain and most of the time never will be. They usually have to do with efforts to escape perceived threat and are generated by the central nervous system in parts of the brain below the cortex (thinking part of the brain), such as what we refer to as “fight or flight”. You may wonder how fight or flight could qualify as a habit since it doesn’t happen all the time. I would respond that in highly stressed families, individuals feel threatened much of the time, and they develop a “habit” of reacting with aggression or running away (the flight may be a form of withdrawing or tuning out). People make up reasons to explain to themselves why they are behaving that way. For example, “I have to get him to school!” or “I am too tired to deal with this right now.” Even more insidious, they make up stories to explain why the other person (these “habits” originate in relationships) is causing them to behave that way, for example, “He is a little monster!” (Fonagy et al, 2005). Continue reading

More About the School



The second day, Ginger and I observed pre-K and K, in two different classrooms. In both classrooms we observed the same excellent practices. First, each teacher began the day with an extended regulatory exercise. In the first classroom, teacher and children performed several kinds and rhythms of jumping, hopping, and “swimming”. In the second classroom, there was a long dance, led by the teacher. In each class, all the children were happily involved in the activity. They were not standing in rows, but were in a loose structure. However, the fact that the movements were organized (not “free form”) and led by the teacher, seemed essential to the regulatory function. During the dance several of the boys formed a united front and decided to not participate, and the teacher ignored them for a couple of minutes. Eventually she motioned to them and they went back to their original spots and danced, though one never did. 


Also, in each class there was a story. The lower K teacher told the story without reading it; it was long and animated and she spoke with a compelling voice. She told us later it was the story of two friends. The other teacher was an excellent readers in that she used a lot of animated facial expression and hand gestures, her vocal tonality had variety. Both teachers engaged the children in finishing sentences and answering questions about the story. Interestingly, the children were not expected to raise their hand to be called on, but instead, the teacher responded to them when they began to speak. There didn’t seem to be a problem with taking turns. Another observation we made was that the teachers seemed to concentrate their attention on positive behavior. When certain children became somewhat disorganized and their attention strayed, the teachers appeared to not notice and focused more particularly on the students who were following the lesson.  This had the effect of drawing the stragglers back into the fold. I noticed a couple of instances of physical conflict between two boys; the teacher seemed not to see this, but I imagine she did notice and chose not to intervene. In fact, the boys desisted within a short time and did not resume their conflict for the rest of the morning. Also, the teachers tolerated disengagement from children during the lesson. When a particular child strayed from the group, they did not call him back, but let him roam a little. This seemed to give the child a chance at self-regulation, and these children all eventually rejoined the group activity. 


There was a “boat” – a structure like a rocking chair but one that children could sit in like a rowboat – and once in a while a child would enter it and rock, then return to the lesson. The major part of the curriculum was organized around a project. For example, in the second room the teacher was showing the children how to fold squares of newspaper so they could then blow into them and shake out the folds, making a pop. The children seemed to love this activity, and all children were engaged. The children assembled themselves in small groups or pairs, though some worked alone (and those who worked alone seemed to do that rather consistently, making me think that solitary working was more effective for them, at least at this time in their development). At the end of the day, the teachers were assembled in the resource room, and Ginger and I finished what we began the day before, this time focusing on the “classroom interventions” for children who show the signs of early trauma or neglect. We pointed out that the teachers were already doing most of what we had recommended, and we described what we had seen during the day. Then I showed my video of a little boy from El Salvador illustrating the benefits of responding to a child’s initiative at his level of competency (Vygotsky, 1967) and then “recognizing” (Sander) his change in status (from one who does not know how to do something to one who does know how to do that something).

A colleague directed me to this excellent article about self regulation in the classroom. https://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/self-regulation-calm-alert-and…

Vygotsky, L. (1967). Play and its role in the mental development of the child, Soviet Psychology, 5: 6-18. 

photograph by Ginger Gregory


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