The Power of Reframing

Looking back over my last post brought fond memories of time spent in the forest and surprise at how long it has been since I have given myself the joy of writing.

Much has happened in life and learning over the past several months that has stopped me from writing. I have travelled far and wide while teaching internationally, tackled new courses in my college teaching at home, developed and facilitated professional learning in Forest School, finished my Foundations Certificate in Self-Reg and have become a cancer survivour. Through all of these life experiences I have found myself engaged in the process of reframing.

Shanker SelfReg® always begins with reframing. The concept of reframing is grounded in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Reframing constitutes an “aspect-shift” in how we see and categorize the world around us. Perceptual, experiential and creative components are all involved. 

My original plan for my final project of the Self-Reg Foundations course was to develop training modules for Early Years Educators. A few months before my course completion, I found out that I needed major surgery. I worked around this unexpected life event in all avenues of commitment, but being a “class-half-full” type of person, I believed that in 6 to 8 weeks I would be fully recovered. I was not prepared for a diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. Many things changed, including how I might finish my course and my chemotherapy. Having been inspired by the idea of reframing (later in this post I have shared other examples of reframing in my practice) I revised my final assignment to combine my knowledge of self-reg and my emotionally charged concept of chemotherapy.

Finding balance in the forest

reframing chemotherapy

In hindsight the experience was in some ways not nearly as frightening as I thought it might be and on the other hand a terrifying life experience I couldn’t possibly have imagined. I am no longer the same person I was but both before and now in my recovery after treatment, reframing has had a profound impact on my worldview, my appreciation of life and my role in having cognitive, social and emotional control and perspective of my own life experiences. I feel less “carried along by life” and much more like my own agent of change.

Having recently listened to the Beyond Words podcasts of @ThinkInEd on voicEd, I was inspired to give the word reframe some deep consideration, particularly as I considered the importance of my “shift”, in thinking, perception and experience. I did a bit of googling and discovered the following definition:

To reframe, then, means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning.

I loved the idea of changing our viewpoint in relation to a situation by placing it “in another frame.” But, not just any frame we chose, specifically a frame which “fits the facts” equally or in a way that might be better. The facts remain, it is the way that we view, conceptualize and then respond to them that changes. Chemotherapy is awful but improving my chance of survival by 40% (actually 25% but I filled my cup full to 100) is pretty awesome! In an instant this life experience moves from one of pain and suffering to a “better frame” of healing, resilience, growth and strength. I will continue to reframe. I will need to continue to reframe. It is an ongoing process.

Earlier in the Self-Reg Foundations course I utilized a reframing lens to consider one of my earlier blog posts, documentation as research and an invitation to reflectI think there is great power and value in returning to our reflective teaching moments to consider them again, particularly with a new-found idea or discovery. In this case, I was particularly interested in reframing my understanding of a particular child. The revised post is shared below with an explanation of the new self-reg insights.

The original text is in black and the new self-reg reflections are in red. The self-reg steps are inserted in green. 

1. REFRAME (originally my view on teacher as researcher bias, now on my view of behaviour and stress)

We must, as researchers (and as “stress detectives”) be open to the unknown (the varied, complicated and individual processes of self-regulation), the unexpected (attractors and stressors are unpredictable), to the possibility that our unspoken assumptions (about the behaviour of others, particularly children) will be proven incorrect (behaviour as a manifestation of stress not intent). Of course we are human (and so we all have stress, triggers, attractors, and different self-regulation pathways), we have researcher bias (and so we forget that what causes stress for one person does not for another) and we all can only hope for “partial sight” in our study of learning (we will find lenses that work but there is no “one size fits all” and this sight must come with a reminder to ourselves to see with “soft eyes” and that our lens must be constantly scrutinized and changed), but shouldn’t we begin the process with full commitment to impartiality and the possibility of discovering the unknown? (as we are in relationship in self-reg we cannot be impartial but the journey most certainly is filled with the unknown) We know we see with a lens but can we be more cognizant in naming that lens (will this process perhaps help the self reg paradigm revolution)?

2. RECOGNIZE the stressors (the story of one child below focussed on the SOCIAL and PROSOCIAL domain)

So what does this mean in practice?

Last week, I was documenting a group of children in our Forest School. The picture below captured my attention.

the professional gaze: developmental significance

The moment pulled me in (and that of another teacher) instantly. The child in the middle struggles for less than a moment to move the large heavy log and within seconds, children appear from around the forest to help him (this particular child was in a constant state of stress. Indoors he was alone, isolated, played with no one. I am not sure he is able to ask for help. He has special rights).

No one asked why, or where the log was going, they merely followed his “back up beeper” sound (a noise made by this child whenever something large is being moved in the forest, an idiosyncratic habit that is extremely practical and highly safety conscious) to the directed location (the sound this child makes whenever he is indoors, caused the other children PROSOCIAL stress as they found it annoying. In turn, this highly sensitive child experiences this stress and becomes more stressed himself. Outdoors this stress is gone and this same sound is an adopted practice of safety).

3. REDUCE the stress

My “developmental lens” was front and centre if I am to be honest. As an early childhood educator, I now have a permanent developmental checklist etched in my mind, and this one zoned in on “personal, social development.” I was enamoured by the caring of the children, the willingness to help and support, the trust given to one child whose ultimate goal was unknown. Of course there is nothing wrong with this lens, it serves me well and helps me to be a better observer of children and their learning. But what if I ended my documentation here? (what if I ended my stress detection here, without considering the other self-reg domains for this child?)

Later in the morning, I walked over to see what had become of the large log and I was greeted with a half completed (at least that is my theory) collection of materials, arranged in compositional research (Reggio-inspired terminology for a process children engage in where they place materials in relationship to each other in a manner analogous to writing a sentence, a mathematical equation, notes on a music scale, any process that involves placing symbols together in a meaning making format). Here of course, as I thought about my thinking, I realized that my “Reggio inspired lens” had awoken and was now influencing my documentation. The work can be seen in the image below. (now with my self-reg lens I am thinking of the importance of considering stressors for this child across all domains. His SOCIAL and PROSOCIAL stress is so much more obvious that I think I may have stopped there. What insights might I gain in the COGNITIVE domain)?

compositional research

As I stepped back to get another picture, I realized that there was an almost identical triangle shape at the opposite side of the log composition. One triangle (on the left) is formed with a forked stick and the large log, the second triangle (on the right) has been created by placing two sticks in relationship to the large log to form the triangle shape.

triangle log composition

I just re-read this part of the blog and remembered another story I had documented about his child. Putting the two together gave me a new insight about his stress in the COGNITIVE and EMOTIONAL domain. Below is a story about this child and relationships:

One forest school morning one of the children sat down beside me on a log and I asked what he had been up to. He replied, “visiting the lonely Trilliums.” Despite my commitment to the pedagogy of listening, the belief that to teach is to listen, not to talk, and my commitment to giving children the space to make and share their own meanings, I almost blurted out, “oh, because their heads are drooping” (as these plants reach the end of their lives, the flowers bow their heads, like saying one last goodbye). I didn’t say anything however, bit my tongue and said, “why are they sad?” These were his words: “Trilliums grow in threes and in ones. The threes are happy because they have two friends. The ones are sad because they have no friends. They are lonely and so I visit them.” I was speechless, awed, intrigued, amazed and had a new insight into this very young little boy.

So when I put these two stories together, the expression of relationship through geometry in the sticks and log and the expression of relationship through the numbers of trilliums I have new insight into possible COGNITIVE and EMOTIONAL stressors for this child! His affect is flat when he is calm and hard for others to read. When he is stressed his emotional response is extreme and causes others to distance themselves from him. Relationships are hard for him. BUT he can see another’s perspective and be reached himself through MATHEMATICS! He sees relationships very literally but as the trillium story illustrates with emotional insight as well. His pathway to connections with others (which reduces his stress as documented in the first story above) is not “typical” but is clearly there.


I marvelled at the children’s relationship with materials, with shape and with space and then as I took one more step backwards, I realized where the logs had been placed. Although we have no visible boundaries in Forest School, these logs mark the exact place on the path where our Forest School ends, and our “walking adventures” begin. Here is the spot that marks the end of “personal freedom” and the beginning of “supervised excursion.” (at this point I wondered about the only domain I had not REFLECTED on as I revisited my documentation. BIOLOGICAL stressors are so abundant for this particular child that I just realized I stopped thinking about them. I think that relationships with this child have become so strong in the Forest that these particular stressors and noticed and a self-regulation pathway is well underway BUT, no I also think there is much more to reflect on).  I asked myself…how might these logs represent independence? Relationship to place? (and here I wonder about the bigger picture in the BIOLOGICAL domain. What behaviours have become entrenched, for this child? For me? Here I think there is much “unwiring” to be done. For him, a pattern of stress response. For me, a lens still highly attuned to a child development paradigm).


…and so, I had taken several steps backward, to gain a better “view through my lens” both literally and metaphorically. I had, in a similar manner, travelled back and forth in my reflections, and in my research from my initial query of social cohesion and the willingness of children to come to the aid of one another, to questions with a far greater scope, ones that invited a lens akin to a magnifying glass. I knew I needed to keep looking and to keep looking closely. “Looking closely”, another lovely lens! I had no answers but was left with the challenge and joy of many compelling questions. (and now my self-reg task is to respond to these questions. I have come full circle to my goal in taking these courses. To change the way we “teach” child development so that it has a self-reg lens and then this child, and many others will be seen, cared for and taught within an entirely different  paradigm).

And as I re-read and re-reflect on this particular re-written piece I am reminded of the power of reframing through a paradigm shift. I think we need to use reframing as an invitation to re-think some predominate questions and views we might have with respect to children and the ways that we teach and parent them. During the self-reg course, Dr. Stuart Shanker made a comment that stayed with me:

We really want to get rid of that question: how do we socialize a child? It’s a question that sets us up to have some sort of a power dynamic. It’s a question that is, without our realizing it, pushing us towards seeing our role either as a parent or a teacher as forcing these little brutes to become social. In fact, there’s another body of research and this is Bruner’s whole approach.

The mention of Jerome Bruner, one of my education heroes, inspired me to write about him and his call for a revolution:

I have a few heroes in education and Jerome Bruner is one of them. He left this world in 2016 at the age of 100, the same year he spoke at his last conference. When I think of socialization, society, community, education and story, he always comes to mind. Jerome Bruner, an honorary citizen of Reggio Emilia, described the city as his “second home”, and the Reggio approach to education as being “devoted not to a product but to a process. It is not about accumulating know-how or knowledge, but about how one uses mind and heart. The first and most revolutionary principle in the Reggio approach is both that individuals are not, as it were, isolated from one another, and that human sensibility is based on sharing of minds and hearts in dialogue and interaction” (p. 30).

I started a Forest School a few years ago and we began our research with the ideas of well-being and mindfulness. One of the resounding findings we discovered was that the forest, when seen as a classroom, is missing the dynamic of power. In the forest the children made their own discoveries, measured their own ability to take risk, chose to honour invisible walls, acted collaboratively and kindly toward one another and quickly built a culture of learning and being. Bruner had a beautiful way of describing learning as a self-created culture.

“A method of instruction should have the objective of leading the child to discover for himself. Telling children and then testing them on what they have been told inevitably has the effect of producing bench-bound learners whose motivation for learning is likely to be extrinsic to the task – pleasing the teacher, getting into college, artificially maintaining self-esteem. The virtues of encouraging discovery are of two kinds. In the first place, the child will make what he learns his own, will fit his discovery into the interior world of cultures that he creates for himself. Equally important, discovery and the sense of confidence it provides is the proper reward for learning” (Bruner, 1979, p.123-124).

Bruner of course is famous for the ideas of “discovery learning” and the social constructivist theory of “scaffolding” and so his contributions to our understanding of what it means to learn and teach in the early years is immeasurable. His famous publications focus on what we might understand as a traditional classroom environment. Much of his public speaking focussed on the child in the earlier years of education. During an international conference in Italy, Bruner shared his thoughts in a speech called, Each place has its own spirit and its own aspirations. He started his speech with the following thought:

“I believe that we are living in a revolution. It is not just a revolution about schools but a revolution about the nature of society and how we want to live our lives. If I had to choose a distinctive name for this revolution, I would call it the “inward turn”. It has taken a long time for us to recognize that the condition of human dignity is not only from the point of view of objective freedom, but also from the point of view of our subjectivity.”

Bruner’s reference to a revolution in our lives, our education and our way of being in culture with each other reminds me of the frequent invitation I hear while taking this course to join a self-regulation revolution. Paradigm shifts, re-framing, re-storying are terms we have all heard while taking these courses together. There is great power in re-thinking a framework.

In 1996 Bruner wrote in The Culture of Education, “All stories begin with shared premises.” In education we start a story, one that has very deep roots. I wonder if we forget to continue the story? Bruner’s work provides pedagogical narration for one of my favourite panels in the Wonder of Learning, an international travelling exhibit documenting the work of Reggio Emilia preschools. The panel documents a project called, shadow stories, the poetics of an encounter. The story shares a beautiful meeting between children and shadow and the meaning they make of the encounter. On the panels that recount the shadow story, Bruner’s thoughts on story are also shared. “Every story starts with the assumption there is some acceptable, canonical state of the world. What starts the story going is that the expectable, the predictable, canonical state of the world gets violated” (2006). We start education with ordered expected, accepted, predictable assumptions and then the children arrive. I think at that point the story is really meant to get going, but does it? Do we have the courage to violate the canonical state of education?

In my readings of the work of Jerome Bruner I am always struck by his dedication to the possible. In 1998 he gave a speech at an international conference in Naples called “The City of the Possible”. I shared the beginning of his speech above. At the end of this speech Bruner shared his thoughts on how we might come to a better understanding of our world and who we are as humans within this world by starting with children. His ideas of the importance of self in the early years remind me again and again of what I am learning about self-regulation.

  • “A preschool should create some degree of self-esteem. But what is so interesting about self-respect is that you can’t just respect yourself. To respect yourself, you also need to respect others. Now I don’t think there will ever be a curriculum in self-esteem. But, on the other hand, it’s in the way you conduct a class that allows children to feel that they are recognized, to feel that they recognize others, that they are individuals.”
  • “The preschool should make a child feel “located”. That is to say, you want him to feel in a place, you want him to feel related to others who are in that place, you want him to have a sense that where he is located is where he can do things with other people, where he can collaborate with somebody. It’s a place where you live, where you collaborate with others, where you get angry at others, where you love some things, you hate some things – it’s a place, there.”
  • “What we want schools to do is to make children feel that they have a sense of agency; that is, the children feel that they know how to do things and can depend on themselves, that they can succeed in doing something well” (Bruner, 1998).

I am profoundly inspired by Jerome Bruner. One of my greatest regrets was that I never saw him speak in person. His last public speaking event was in New York at the Wonder of Learning Exhibit. One of the things he spoke about was possibilities. Below is part of his introduction to the exhibit call, the pursuit of the possible:

“What is unique about human learning is its dedication to possibility. When we human beings learn, the act of learning carries us beyond what we have encountered and propels us into the realm of the possible. The human learning process is not simply about acquiring knowledge about what we have encountered: it is dedicated to “going beyond the information given.” There is no other species on the face of the earth so dedicated to the pursuit of the possible” (2011).

Pursing the possible is at once both inspiring and daunting but also what I think makes teaching, parenting and connecting with others in meaningful relationships worthwhile and life affirming. First we connect, and then we might teach.

And so I leave you with a few questions:

  1. How can you reframe your own life experience?
  2. How might a reframe change the trajectory of a child in your life?
  3. What power does a reframe paradigm shift hold for education and our image of the child?
  4. How will you pursue the possible in your life, your teaching, your relationships?



2 Comments Add yours

  1. ksbeth says:

    what a wonderful and informative post. i plan to learn a lot from you – best, beth

    1. Louise Jupp says:

      Thank you for the kind words. It would be an honour.

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