Self-regulation works for preverbal & minimally verbal children too

spark* News

I remember talking to a group made up largely of parents. I guess they were getting frustrated with me because they didn’t feel I was addressing their concerns. Many were parents of children with more ‘severe disabilities’ (I cringe at using that term but there aren’t many options). They wanted to learn how to work with their children on self-regulation and had difficulty applying what I was talking about.

I’d like to address the concerns of these parents and assure them that self-regulation can and does work with their children.  

Children who are nonverbal are still thinking and absorbing things around them. Even though they don’t speak, they’re still understanding. A wonderful recent study (1) found that ‘minimally verbal’ children with autism do listen to and understand the meaning of words. They took longer to respond to words – but they did respond. This tells us: never assume our preverbal and minimally verbal children aren’t understanding what’s going on and what we’re saying.

Even if children seem to understand just a few words, they’re still taking in the mood and attitude of people around them. Remember, children are often ’emotional sponges’ – they take in the emotions of other people around them. If you start an interaction with children thinking “I’m going to make your do this”, you’ve probably already lost. You have to be calm and positive and willing to engage children.

So, how do you engage children who are preverbal and minimally verbal? Simply chatting with them isn’t likely to work. Focus on their interests and affinities and what you know they enjoy. Engage them through things they love – just like you would with anyone else. That may be games and videos, characters from books or movies, or certain kinds of music.

At the same time, consider things they don’t like. One way to turn children off and lose their attention is to do or say something they dislike. Think about the games, TV shows, videos, books they avoid or that upset them. What kinds of activities do they stay away from? What sounds and noises turn them off? What words or phrases seem to trigger negative reactions? These are all things you have to plan ahead.

Below is a form to help you collect the likes and dislikes of each child. You can also download the form here.  

Once you’ve done a thorough discovery of likes and dislikes, you’re ready to start working together on self-regulation.

The best place to start is behavioral self-regulation. This involves helping children learn they have control of their bodies. In spark*, we start with hand self-regulation. We help children learn that they can control how fast/slow and hard/soft their hands can be.

If your child enjoys music, that’s a great place to start. Try beating drums, clapping hands to a familiar song, hitting the floor to the beat of favorite music, you name it – there are lots of possibilities. If your child likes technology, find apps that respond to touch (see the Resources section for some app suggestions).

Use the pictures from spark* that show fast, slow, hard and soft. Start with just one. Try an activity (for example, drumming) with your child. Then show them one picture (for example, hard), say the word and show them how to use hard hands. Get them to try – usually it doesn’t take much prompting with musical instruments. Then try soft – show the picture, say the word and use your soft hands. Prompt your child to try. After every try, be a cheerleader – tell your child, “Look, you used hard/soft hands! You’re amazing/You rock!”

Once the child has experienced both hard and soft, let them choose which one they want to do – help them point to one of the pictures. Giving children the power of choosing usually gets them even more interested. You may have to do these activities many times to get consistent responding but keep at it. Make the activities fun, always ending on a positive note.

These are the beginning steps to learning self-regulation but the process does work. Once the child learns they can control their hands, then move on to helping them understand when and where to regulate their hands. Make a poster with your child about times and places where it’s important to use soft/hard (and fast/slow) hands – for example, “I use soft hands when I pat my cat”. Your child has learned what soft and hard hands feel like. The poster can act as a reminder so they can use these new skills in everyday life.   

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