Self-regulation happens all day, every day, for everyone. You might need something like gum or a mint to stay alert during those last 10 minutes of a lengthy meeting, or there might be a loud, repetitive sound that makes it impossible to maintain focus or something else entirely that creeps in through another sensory system.
Your arousal can be impacted by external factors like the environment, people, or activity/events going on around you. Or by internal factors such as your mood and temperament.
The goal is to be cognizant of the things that move you away from an optimal state of arousal, recognize when they sneak in and be able to adapt accordingly or use tools/activities to get you back to baseline AKA zen.
Most adults do this subconsciously
Think about it. In a single day, how many of these things you do?
- Take a shower to wake you up?
- Drink coffee to keep you alter throughout the day?
- Suck a smoothie or a milkshake through a straw to calm?
- Click your pen to stay alert?
- Stretch when you’re feeling lethargic?
- Go for a run to relieve stress?
- Turn away from your computer when your eyes start to bother you
- Chew gum or a mint to refocus?
- Put on sunglasses on or use a visor if the sun’s in your eyes?
- Diffuse essential oils to lift your mood?
- Seek a comforting hug from a loved one?
- Sleep with white noise (fan, sound machine, tv, etc.)
For me, I count at least 8! How about you?
“Using sensory stimulation to improve functioning dates back to our earliest civilizations. Whether the goal is to enhance pleasure, increase focus, improve health, or decreased pain, the intent of the sensory activity is to manipulate the body’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral systems in pursuit of that greater state of being.”Fidget to Focus (Rotz and Wright, 2005)
Too much or not enough?
When children perceive any input as too much or not enough at any given moment, it can quickly lead to a spiral of dysregulation. This leads to adverse effects such as behavioral outbursts, missed instructional opportunities, being benched for recess, negative social feedback, loss of familial privileges, and more.
Unfortunately for a child, they often don’t have an intuitive bag of tricks (self-regulation) to counteract the intense incoming sensory stimulation. Instead, they require co-regulation or the feedback and support from an adult to identify the external and internal factors that impact their environments and the typical response patterns that go along with those.
As parents and educators, we have an obligation to properly equip children to combat these challenges. We need to help them create awareness regarding their state of arousal; what causes them to get antsy and what helps them to cope. We then help them organize a set of tools and activities they can access in order to change and maintain an optimal level of regulation.
When we operate with appropriate self-regulation and alertness throughout our day, we are more productive. Increased productivity can lead to improved confidence, success, and overall well-being. And isn’t that what we want for all our kiddos?
First, start by helping a child recognize the ways their brains receive and interpret the different kinds of information that constantly streams in and out throughout a day. This input comes through our senses: touch, pressure, sight, sound, taste, smell, body position/movement. This is known as co-regulation.
A child might not automatically know and interpret how certain sensory inputs affect them. It might be helpful to walk a child through these experiences by verbalizing what you witness in them as they process the world around them.
Some of the scenarios may sound like this: “I noticed when there were too many children around you, you appear scared and looking for a way out of the crowd,” or “when the fire alarm went off, you covered your ears,” or “I noticed you rock in your chair continuously during math lessons.”
These are all examples of a child attempting to self-regulate in order to avoid over-responding (aka making a scene) to the noxious stimuli they have trouble processing.
Take a Perspective Inventory
If you are a teacher, take a moment to consider the “annoying” behavior a student is exhibiting and see if you can link it to something within the environment that might be too much for that student. Is there a lot of classroom chatter? Did the bell just ring? Is the sun shining brightly into the room?
If you are a parent, think of your child’s possible scenarios. Has your child had adequate amounts of movement and outdoor playtime? Did they miss their nap? Have you denied them access to a preferred activity?
Always try to consider what led up to the dysregulated state and work backward.
If the child is too worked up, a rational conversation will be irrelevant. They must first return to baseline before talking it out.
This might look like providing access to preferred sensory choices to help them regulate. Try setting up a Calm Down Corner or Chill Zone in the classroom or at home. This can be as simple as a small box of items known to be calming and organizing that any child can access.
If this sounds like something you could use for your child or classroom, then head over to this blog to get ideas on strategies and tools to curate the perfect Self-Regulation Tool Kit to get your kiddo on the path to independence with self-regulation.
Do you feel like you need more help determining your child’s sensory patterns and what they mean? First, I encourage you to identify the parts of your child’s day and specific activities that are impacted.
Then decide, are the reactions preventing the family from going on outings? Do they disrupt typical daily activities such as school drop-off and mealtimes? Next, take those observations and seek the guidance of a professional such as your pediatrician or an occupational therapist. They will appreciate all the background information you can give them to determine the next steps in helping you properly support your child.