So how do you avoid self-regulation failure?

If your self-regulation is at a low level, can you recover? Of course you can! We’re all pretty resilient in our own ways. There are always things you can do to recover. Self-regulation may be limited in amount but it can bounce back.

You might not avoid self-regulation failure all the time. But there are some things you can do to recover and increase your self-regulation:

1. Get some sleep – the world can seem a more positive place once you get some decent sleep. Make sure your child is well-rested. That alone will help strengthen self-regulation.
2. Practice Turtle Breathing – very often, if you can help children learn to calm themselves, they can regain self-regulation. Of course, you teach Turtle Breathing when they’re calm – not when they’re losing self-regulation. You USE it when they first seem to be losing self-regulation.                       

3. Do/think of something pleasurable – this is a good way to get your child in a more positive frame of mind – “Let’s think about when we were at the beach. You remember the warm sand ….” or “Let’s make a picture in our heads of your dog”. Help them picture something they really enjoy. You can also do something your child really enjoys. Do something sensory – have a warm bath, play with a sensory toy. These things will help them restore some balance and regain self-regulation.
4. Develop a sense of humor about yourself – I often joke with children, “oh those silly hands forgot to …” or “Boy, those swears really sneaked out your mouth like nobody’s business!”Sometimes, you just have to see the humor in a situation and move on. Humor helps to calm and restore a positive mood.
5. Work on self-regulation – self-regulation is like a muscle – the more you practice and use it, the stronger it gets. The other strategies in this list will help you get in a better state to self-regulate. But it’s the direct work you do on self-regulation that really matters.
6. Reward your self-regulation – I’m not a big fan of rewarding behavior but it certainly can help you get through some rough spots. Make a deal with your child (“If you can ….., we’ll go to your favorite …”) that’ll reward using self-regulation. Use it yourself – “if I get … done, I can watch my favorite movie.” It all helps.

Oops! Self-regulation failure

This topic really applies to me this month. Here I am more than half way through the month and still no newsletter. Why? I guess it was a case of failure to self-regulate. 

The amount of self-regulation you have is limited. Each one of us just has so much. You try your best to self-regulate to get things done. But lots of things make you reduce the amount of self-regulation you have available. There are six main things that can shrink your supply of self-regulation:

  1. Tiredness – If you’re tired, your self-regulation is deflated a bit. You just can’t use your executive functions as effectively. You might feel, “(groan) I just can’t make myself do it right now.” 
  2. Stress – If you’re feeling stressed, your supply of self-regulation is smaller. Your emotions are making it harder to regulate your body and thinking. 
  3. Negative mood – if you’re feeling low, frustrated, grouchy or in some other negative mood your supply of self-regulation is reduced. You might tell yourself, “Everything else has gone wrong today, I’m not even going to try this.” The more you try to control your mood, the worse it seems to get.
  4. Temptations – if something delicious or beautiful or fun grabs your attention, self-regulation can go out the window. Let’s say, a friend calls and asks you out for lunch – that’s a lot more appealing than doing laundry or homework or cooking for yourself. 
  5. Behavior of other people – can act like a temptation and draw you in, decreasing your self-regulation. If someone is going shopping or on a trip, it’s pretty easy to start thinking about doing that yourself.  
  6. Overdoing one of the areas of self-regulation – if you have to control your body and behavior for long periods of time, your thinking and emotional self-regulation will drop off.  

So, why was I late in getting this newsletter written and sent out? It was a combination of things. I was working on revising the spark* website. At the same time, I was working on developing online training for spark*. Those are both fun and exciting things to do … but so is the newsletter. If I’m honest, I’d have to stack it up to a combination of being tired from trying to do too much, along with negative mood (frustration – because things don’t get done fast enough). Those things just squashed my self-regulation and the newsletter suffered. My mood also suffered and the ‘crankies’ were released – ask my husband! 

How does this relate to our children? I’m sure that a lot of people have seen children just lose it. They have a complete meltdown ‘all of a sudden’. They lose all or most of their self-regulation. They might act out physically – maybe throw things, hit out, bang their head. They can’t think and use their cognitive self-regulation. And emotional self-regulation went out the window a while back. These meltdowns are due to a few things. Most likely, the child is probably tired from a day at school. They’ve had to ‘overdo’ self-regulation all day – thinking hard, controlling emotions, and managing their bodies. Maybe they started the day in a negative mood. Children may be tempted by ‘goofy’ behavior in a classmate and lose self-regulation. There are so many possibilities. Add to that our children are just developing self-regulation and their executive functions are just beginning to mature.

What’s most important to remember is that self-regulation has its limits – even for adults. The size of your self-regulation gets squished by any or all of the six things listed above. In children, self-regulation is still developing and can be more easily affected by these things.    

Some games and activities for developing stronger Working Memory

There are lots of different games and activities that are good for stretching working memory. They might focus on listening/auditory memory, visualizing, or combinations of strategies.

Here are some ideas to get you started.
Simon game – the device shows a sequence by lighting up colored sections. Players need to remember the sequence and repeat it by pressing the colored buttons on the game unit. Suitable for 8 years of age and older.
Distraction – players take turns drawing number cards and remembering a sequence of numbers. Draw a Distraction card and you have to answer a question before reciting the numbers in order. Suitable for 8 years of age and older.  
Remember 10 with Explorer Ben –  this is a book about a forgetful explorer, Ben. He readies himself for adventures through jungles, caves and deserts. He keeps forgetting things along the way and you’re asked to help him. Different strategies to improve memory are presented. Suitable for 4 to 8 year olds.
Stone Soup board game – this is a game of concentration involving the ingredients of the soup. Each player tries to find pairs of ingredients that can be put in the pot. If you draw a ‘fire-out’ card, you’re one step closer to turning off the stove. Suitable for children 5 years of age and older.
Recallyouplace tiles face down on one of the game board scenes, using cues from the picture on the board to recall which object is on each tile. Suitable for children 6 years of age and older.
I packed my suitcase – this is a classic with no materials required. One variation uses letters of the alphabet. The first player thinks of a word beginning with the letter ‘a’ and then says, “I packed my suitcase with an (object starting with the letter ‘a’). The next player repeats the sentence and adds something beginning with ‘b’ and says, “I packed my suitcase with an (object named by the first person) and a (object starting with the letter ‘b’). Continue adding objects in alphabetic order until you can’t remember any more. Suitable for children 4 to 10 years of age.
Chess – a chessboard consists of 64 square spaces in an 8×8 grid. Each space is  identified by a letter-number combination and each game piece has a specific name and specific move they can make. Players need to remember all this plus recognize and respond to move patterns. Suitable for children from 5 years of age and older.
Concentration – this is a card game also know as Memory, Match, and Pairs, which uses any deck of cards (playing card, picture cards) that has matching pairs. The cards are shuffled and then laid face-down. Each player turns up two cards at a time trying to find matching cards. When a matching pair is found, the player removes it and the game continues. 

Executive functions in everyday life – Working Memory

Working memory lets you keep ideas in your mind. You might need to remember your grocery list, a set of instructions, something you’re reading, or a phone number. These might be things you remember for just a couple of seconds – long enough to dial that phone number. They might also be pieces of information that you need to put together, like the story you’re reading. Working memory makes it possible to remember instructions, look at alternative ways of doing things, multi-task and connect what’s happening with things in the future and things in the past. When you think about all of this, you can see how important working memory is to learning and functioning in everyday life.

People with weak working memory may lose or forget things frequently – “Was I supposed to do that for homework?”, “Where are my shoes?”. They may be people with lots of unfinished activities. Working memory problems can make joining in conversation really challenging – “What did that person just say, oops, I forgot what I was going to add…” You’ll find that they are the people who tend to interrupt others a lot – if they don’t blurt it out, the ideas will be lost. 

Here are some things you can do with your child to work on Working Memory:– Try out different ways to help remember. Some people find it helpful to make a picture in their heads – to visualize. Visualizing tends to be really helpful when you’re reading and putting the pieces of information together. But, you can picture steps in a sequence of activities, items on your grocery list … the possibilities are just about endless. Sometimes, it’s helpful just to say things over and over to yourself until you’re finished the task – “go and get your shoes, coat and backpack, go and get your shoes, coat and back pack, go and get ……”. Putting information into a rhythm or melody can help with certain kinds of information. I find putting phone numbers into a rhythm really helps my recall. Another way of helping your memory for information is to act it out. For example, you can act out directions or steps taken by a character in a story. Chunking is another strategy – group information together into chunks and it’s easier to remember. For

example, a phone number can be 289 778 212 – three chunks rather than nine numbers – it also helps to know that the first three numbers usually relate to an area of a state, province or department. and – Make connections. This can mean chunking pieces of information together so you have fewer ‘bits’ to remember. For example, help yourself remember things for school by noticing the things you need for school are b+p+l+3s’s – that is you need your books, pens, lunch, snack, and shoes and socks for gym. You might make visual connections between the things – visualize yourself ready for school from head to toe with everything in place. Another technique is to visualize things you want to remember in different locations in a familiar room – in your livingroom, books are on the coffee table, pens are on the couch, lunch is on the desk, etc. Here’s an example of how a teacher is helping children use different strategies to help themselves remember 
– Develop consistent routines. When you use the same routine over and over, it doesn’t take as much working memory. So by developing consistent routines, you’ll eventually work through them without even thinking. 
– Use checklists.  It’s not cheating to use checklists. Just write down the things you need to remember and check each one off once it’s completed. Having checklists also means that you’re not overloading your working memory and can have more capacity for other executive functions.
– Play memory-enhancing games. There are lots of games thatare fun and help you improve your working memory. I’ve listed some in the next section for you to try out. 
– Model your own working memory strategies. Talk out loud in front of your children about how you help yourself remember things. Say things over and over (like phone numbers) so you can help recall them. Talk about making connections and associations to help yourself remember – “Okay, when we’re at the grocery store, let’s make a picture in my head of the fresh produce section … okay, I need bananas, onions, lettuce, peppers, cucumber and tomatoes … That’s six things and it’s b+c+l+o+p+t.” Talk about anyway you help yourself, even if it might seem odd to other people – if it works for you, it might work for them. If nothing else, your children will see that you too have to work to remember things.


Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash

Calmness really isn’t enough

I keep talking about the importance of teaching children about being calm and centered. Being able to calm and center yourself is very important to being able to self-regulate but it’s not enough. Telling how fast or slow your ‘engine’ is running or what ‘zone’ you’re in is NOT all there is to self-regulation. Being able to recognize and respond to stress is not enough. 

Children need to learn what calm feels like, what signals there are in their bodies that tell them of increasing stress or anxiety an then how to calm themselves. Those are excellent lifelong skills but they are just the very start to being self-regulated. 

When you’re calm, you can make better choices. You can exercise more control over your executive functions. These are just a starting point.

Self-regulation involves conscious control of your executive functions – planning & organization, inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility. Self-regulation involves controlling and modulating what you do with your body and your brain and your emotions. It’s not just learning to be calm.

When people talk about self-regulation, make sure they don’t just focus on being calm. There’s so much more to learn in order to be a truly self-regulated learner.

Self-regulation is for everyone

I’m often asked to teach children self-regulation – “Just come and teach him how to do it.” Well, it’s not that simple. 

As you’ve probably noticed in previous editions of spark* News, self-regulation is a family or whole class/group thing. “Fixing” one person isn’t going to happen unless the whole family/group takes part.

Everyone needs to be conscious of their own self-regulation. Everyone needs to remember to exercise their own executive functions. At this time of the year, that becomes even more challenging – schedules change, everyone is end-of-term tired, diets tend to change, sleep patterns change, etc.

Here are some ways to help everyone stay more self-regulated:

  • Practice self-calming – do some mindful (Turtle) breathing every day with your children. Take the time to calm and center yourself. It doesn’t take long and can make the rest of the day run a lot smoother. If you find you or your children are getting stressed, take a few minutes to do some Turtle Breathing and just ‘be in the moment’. This is one of your best safeguards against some of the stress that tends to happen in daily life.
  • Plan and organize activities and events carefully –
    • Make sure you have enough time to do the activity or enjoy the event. Try not to run out of time and leave things unfinished.
    • Make sure you and your child aren’t tired or hungry and are feeling well.
    • Include things the children like and enjoy – don’t just do activities that are “good for them”.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

Some games and activities for promoting Inhibitory Control

There are lots of different games that are good for exercising inhibitory control. Just think about starting and stopping actions and words while being fun.

Here are some ideas to get you started.
BINGO the dog – this is a nice simple song that requires you to clap instead of saying all the letters of BINGO. It is great practice for inhibitory control because you have to stop yourself from saying one more letter on each round of the song. On each successive round of the song, you have to keep yourself from saying a letter/word and doing an action only – (clap)INGO, (clap)(clap)NGO and so on.This helps build attention as well as control of hands and voice. Try varying your speed and loudness of singing to add a bit more inhibitory control.
Simon Says – this is good for following directions as well as for inhibitory control. You have to listen for “Simon says” before doing the action, controlling your urge to follow other directions. 
What time is it Mr. Wolf? – This is another game where you have to listen to the leader (Mr. Wolf) and do what he says but ever so carefully. You don’t want to be caught.
Turn-taking games – take-taking requires inhibitory control – I have to wait for you to finish your turn before I can take mine. Here is a list of 35 possibilities.
Freeze tag – The person who is ‘It’ chases the others trying to tag them. When ‘It’ successfully tags a player, that player has to freeze and stay frozen until another player, who hasn’t been tagged, tags and unfreezes them. The game continues until all players are frozen, and then a new person becomes ‘It’.
Dancing – dance to different music with different tempos. Try songs by Lady Gaga that have a good strong repetitive pattern. Try classical music like Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy that has wonderful lightness and tempo changes. I loved dancing to Swedish Rhapsody as a child.
Drumming – beating and tapping on drums, quickly, softly, slowly, are good ways to practice inhibitory control. You can make drums and other instruments or download free drumming apps

Are you stopping or starting your child’s thinking?

Our goal in working on self-regulation is to help children think on their own. But how we talk to children either increases their thinking or stops it. It’s really pretty straightforward – tell them what to do and you’re the one doing the thinking. Your child is just following orders. Ask them to think for themselves and you’re on the road to helping them become better decision-makers. 

Let’s see how this works. Here are some examples:

Situation: a child is fussing because their shirt got wet
Thinking Stopper:  “Go and put on a clean shirt.”
Thinking Starter: “That wet shirt probably feels uncomfortable. What can you do to help yourself?”
Comments: inthe thinking stopper, the adult did the problem-solving and the child just followed orders. In the thinking starter, you identified why the child is upset but then you prompted them to figure out what to do. This will help the child to become a better problem-solver and maybe become less upset about a wet shirt in the future.

Situation: it’s time to leave for school
Thinking Stopper: “Put on your shoes and coat, get your lunch and homework and put them in your backpack.”
Thinking Starter: “It’s time to leave for school. What do you need to do to get ready?”
Comments: Remember, our children have difficulty with planning and organization so pictures (like those below) can be a great help to your child. They’re reminders but your child still has to think for themself. 

Situation: one child (Tim) is bugging/annoying another child (John)
Thinking Stopper: “Stop bothering John.”
Thinking Starter: “John, what can you do when someone is bugging you?”
“Tim, John doesn’t like that. What can you do to help him?”
Comments: in this example, we’re prompting both children to think. John can do some problem-solving and decide to move away or ask Tim to stop. Tim can stop bugging John or decide to go and do something else.

Situation: A child is making a lot of noise and is bothering other people
Thinking Stopper: “Stop making that noise.”
Thinking Starter: “John, that noise makes it hard for other people to work. What could you do to help?”
Comments: in the thinking starter, you explain what the problem is and then get the child to think of a way to help. 

Situation: A child is scribbling in a story book.
Thinking Stopper: “Stop! Don’t write on the book.”
Thinking Starter: “Where do we write things? Books are for reading. Pieces of paper are for writing. What can you do?”
Comments: in the thinking starter, you explained what books are for and where writing/scribbling should be done. Then you encourage the child to think about what to do.

Situation: A child is walking toward a busy street 
Thinking Stopper: “Stop!”
Thinking Starter: “Stop!”
Comments: This is a safety situation and not time to work on thinking. Do that before a situation like this. 

Using Thinking Starters takes time and thinking on your part. Look at your efforts as investing in your child’s future. When you use Thinking Starters and guide your child to making reasonable decisions, you’re helping them develop greater independence and better problem-solving skills.

Executive functions in everyday life – Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control involves managing your actions and thoughts. That means you can stop, start, slow down, speed up, ignore, etc. as you need to. 

Inhibitory control is more difficult for some children than others. But all children can benefit from practice.

Here are some things you can do with your child to work on Inhibitory Control:
– Walk at different speeds and in different ways. This will help children learn they can control their bodies. When you’re walking to the car or to school, ask your child how they want to walk – fast, slow, or in-between? I use pictures like those below to help children make choices on their own. Try moving like different animals – like a big bear, a dinosaur, a butterfly, a snail, etc.

– Play a familiar card or board game at different speeds. This willchildren control their bodies and thinking and learn it’s okay to take your time. Count out squares on a game board slowly, fast or in-between. Take your time discarding cards in a card game. 
– Sing action songs – Songs that replace words with actions or silence are great for inhibitory control – you have to stop doing what you did before. Songs like BINGO the dog and Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes are great for practicing inhibitory control.
– Read and act out familiar stories.  Reading a story together means taking turns and waiting for other readers – that’s inhibitory control. Act out familiar stories using different mannerisms and voices to go with each character. Switching back and forth takes control and is a fun way to practice.
– Take up drumming. Drumming to different rhythms and at different speeds is excellent practice. Drums are very tempting – you just want to beat away. But bringing your hands and attention under control to make different rhythm patterns is excellent practice for inhibitory control.
– Work on ignoring. Part of inhibitory control is to keep yourself from being distracted by things that aren’t important. Let you child know what you do to ignore unimportant things – “I’m just going to ignore that phone right now.”. Prompt your child to do the same – “You can just ignore that and not let it bug you. That’s okay.”
– Model your own inhibitory control. Talk out loud when you come find yourself having problems staying on track – “Don’t think about supper. I’m reading right now. I’ll think about supper later.” or “Oh, I’d love some chocolate cake. Don’t think about it. I can have some later.” 

The more you practice inhibitory control in playful ways with your child, the stronger it’ll get. The more you model and talk about the choices you make, the more your child will understand how to control themselves.

Words … more powerful than you think

The words we use around children shape their views of themselves now and in the future. Even if you’re not sure your child understands your exact words, don’t be fooled. Children who are preverbal or who speak very little understand way more than you might think.

We need to support our children to become more independent, confident and willing to try new things. They hear us say, “John doesn’t eat meat.” and that pretty well seals it – John’s less likely to try meat. 

Talk about children in terms of what they can do. If they have setbacks or run into difficulty, there are still options available. If you tell your child they’re a good athlete and they lose a race, how does their self-evaluation change? If you tell your child they’re a really good reader but they misread something, how do they evaluate themselves now? If we put children into categories, like being a good reader, helper, athlete, artist, etc., once they run into difficulties, there goes their image of themselves. But, if you tell them they’re good at reading, helping, running, drawing, etc. they have room for setbacks and for successes without damaging their own image. 

Subtle but surprisingly powerful. A recent study looked at these subtleties. Children were told either they were good helpers or good at helping. That didn’t affect anything until the children ran into setbacks (spilling milk, dropping crayons/colors). The ‘helper’ children gave up – they seemed to think, “Ya, what a great helper I am!” They were also less willing to help other people. The children were left “feeling like they were ‘bad’ members of the helper category” (p. 12). It’s better to focus children on their intentions (to help, read, draw, etc.), especially when things don’t pan out well. This’ll help them understand that difficulties and mistakes are chances for learning and not the end of the world.

The effect of labels doesn’t go away. Children who were praised for trying or working hard as preschoolers were more likely to treat mistakes as chances for learning five years later. But, children who were praised for being a ‘good girl’, ‘big boy’, or ‘being smart’, were more likely to be frustrated by difficulties and give up.    

Here are my rules for talking to children:

  1. Always speak in front of your child as if they understand everything. They’ll understand your tone of voice and whether it’s positive or negative even if they don’t understand every word. Talk about what they do well and how hard they work. 
  2. NEVER talk about your child’s problems and difficulties in front of them. For years, I’ve heard people say, “Well, she didn’t breathe when she was first born so …” and “He has autism so …” That’s just damaging! Of course, we want children to be realistic about their talents and areas of need more help but don’t put limits on them. All children can learn and want to learn. You can talk about challenges but make sure you highlight their strengths.
  3. Talk about children in terms of what they do, not who they are. Use action words to describe them – “You are doing such a good job helping/cooking/reading/jumping.” Find positives to encourage your child so they’re motivated to keep trying.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash