JUST CALM DOWN! – what’s stealing your calm?

Written by J. Jaques, edited by Heather MacKenzie

In February’s newsletter, we discussed how calm adults are critical in creating calm children. Despite this, you’ll often see adults trying to help an upset child by telling him, “Just calm down!”. By then, neither the adult nor child is at all calm. I (Joselynne) can become enraged if someone tells me to “just calm down”. So why would we use that phrase with children?

There are many reasons why we might be ‘on edge’ and losing our cool. It’s impossible to be calm if you’re bothered, distracted, exhausted, or feeling unsupported or unloved. It’s also easy to blame other people when something has stolen your calm – for example, that driver deserved to have me yell at him, he cut in front of me!

To teach children how to self-regulate and further develop their executive function skills, we need to rid ourselves of CALM stealers. The CALM acronym was developed to help us remember what it is that can steal our sense of calm and how we can help ourselves.

Read carefully through each feature of CALM and see which ones work for you. Then work on each of the resources included in the fourth column (“So we need to ..”).

Model and discuss the features of CALM (Content, Attentive/engaged, Loved/supported, Mindful of self-care) with your child. Tell them and show them how to develop their own independent CALM traits. These are crucial life skills that lead to greater personal happiness.

Always remember that adults have better problem-solving skills and strategies than children. When two adults don’t agree on something, we need to ask, “Who’s going to be the adult in this situation and take a step to solve things?” With children who are already struggling to self-regulate and problem-solve, the adults need to take the first step to modify the situation so the child can be successful.

Problem-solving takes time and guidance so avoid power struggles. Teach problem-solving in calm, positive ways so that these skills can also be used in more stressful situations in the future. 

Our ultimate goal with spark*: improve Quality of Life for people with autism

We all hear that you should work on certain skills or use a particular program. Before diving in, we need to ask ourselves what we really are looking for. What do we want for children with autism?
From the spark* viewpoint, we want quality of life for people with autism, not just social skills, imitation skills, play skills, etc.

Quality of life (QOL) refers to a person’s general feelings of well-being, positive social involvement, and opportunities to achieve personal potential. QOL for individuals consists of eight hierarchical factors (1):

  1. Physical well-being – health, nutrition, exercise, activities of daily living, leisure and recreation
  2. Material well-being – financial security, employment, shelter
  3. Rights – being treated with respect, dignity, equality, privacy as well as having legal rights observed
  4. Social inclusion – the feeling you are a valued and important member of society
  5. Interpersonal relations – being able to participate with others in your community
  6. Self-determination – making your own choices and decisions, having a sense of personal control
  7. Personal development – having opportunities for education and purposeful activities, feeling competent and fulfilled
  8. Emotional well-being – including freedom from abuse and neglect, feeling happy, having a sense of security, having friends and caring relationships, feeling of contentment
Watch Robert Schalock, an expert in QOL and people with special needs, as he describes each one of the factors.

Overall, QOL rejects a deficit approach to autism. It focuses, instead, on strengths, human diversity and human rights.

Self-regulation weaves through all aspects of Quality of Life. Physical well-being, for example, is achieved through planning and organization, balancing impulses (controlling the amount of chocolate cake you consume), remembering your goals and ways of achieving them, monitoring your progress and state of being, etc.


(1) https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/9bb428e9-e6dd-43b2-9298-f96b679f4079/Schalock_2000_Three_Decades_of_Quality_of_Life.pdf

Self-Regulation takes time to develop

Executive functions and self-regulation typically develop and mature over a fairly long period of time.

Developing and refining self-regulation takes place over at least the first two decades of life. Each of the five key executive functions develops at different paces; some maturing earlier, some later.

Check out the diagram below. It shows that self-regulation starts developing from birth and doesn’t reach a mature level until at least the mid-twenties. That’s a long time but there are a lot of things going on.

We see the infant sucking his fingers and thumb to regulate and soothe himself and that’s just the beginning.

Preschoolers show an enormous surge in their abilities to control their bodies. Regulating their emotions also matures quite a bit. Attention skills become less scattered and children can pay attention to things for longer periods of time.

In the later preschool years, cognitive self-regulation improves. Children are better able to plan and organize themselves and things they want to do. Their working memory improves and they’re checking how they do. Their improved cognitive flexibility means that they can change plans and approaches to things more easier.

One really important change in the later preschool years is the emergence of meta-cognitive awareness. That is, children become aware of their thinking, things that help them remember, and things that make it harder to learn.

All three areas of self-regulation (behavioral, cognitive and emotional) continuing improving during the school years. There’s a small dip during the teen years – ask any parent of a teenager what that’s about –  but it’s followed by continuing refinement.

After the mid-30s, self-regulation starts a decline. Those readers who are seniors will appreciate the changes in working memory and attention – “I’m in the kitchen, what was it I was going to do?”

Self-regulation develops over at least the first two decades of life. This long period of development means two main things:

  1. we have a wide window of time to help our children develop and improve their self-regulation, and
  2. we shouldn’t expect self-regulation to appear overnight.

Our brains are plastic in the sense that they can change and mold to new experiences. New nerve pathways are developed when we learn and practice new things. Keep in mind that learning to self-regulate takes time and daily practice. This is especially true for children who need to un-learn old ways of doing things and develop new approaches.

Self-Regulation & Executive Functions

What are executive functions?

Executive functions are brain processes that are mainly contained in your frontal lobes (just behind your forehead). They make it possible to turn your ideas and goals into actions. Those can be things you do or things you say.

Have a listen to Dr. Adele Diamond, Canada Research Chair Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Diamond has studied executive functions for over 30 years and is the leading expert in developmental cognitive neurosciences.

So how do executive functions work?

Have a look at the maze below. If I want to complete it, what do I need to do?

I have to get myself organized – what do I need? – a pencil and, thinking ahead, an eraser would likely be a good idea.

I need to control my impulses that make me want to add a sun to the sky and some bigger flowers.

I make a plan to start by drawing with my finger first, moving to the right to see where it leads me.

I have to keep my plan and my goal in my working memory as I move along.

Oops, I keep running into dead ends. Self-monitoring made me realize I need to stop and adjust my plan. I need to be flexible enough to stop what I’m doing and try a new approach.

Those acts used five key executive functions:

  1. Flexibility (cognitive flexibility) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out
  2. Inhibitory control – keeping myself from doing the same old thing over and over again or from leaping at the first thing I notice or give up if I run into problems
  3. Memory (working memory) – keeping my plans and ideas in my memory while I work away
  4. Monitoring (self-monitoring) – checking to make sure I’m following my plan and that it’s working out okay
  5. Planning (planning and organization) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out

That’s F.I.M.M.P. for acronym lovers.

Connecting self-regulation & executive functions

Self-regulation is the ability to consciously (deliberately) control your executive functions. That is, I remind myself to develop a plan and organize what I’m doing before starting. I tell myself to stay on task, keeping important things in my memory bank, and not get distracted. I also keep checking to see how I’m doing and change my plan if things aren’t working out.

Self-regulation is taking control of your executive functions and making them work for you – not just leaving things to chance.

By developing self-regulation skills:

  • your behavior, thoughts and emotions don’t rule you
  • you become more self-directed, planful, adaptable – not having to have another person hanging over you all the time
  • you understand the relationship between effort & achievement; that is, what it takes for you to gain what you want or reach important goals

Q: What is modeling?

A: Modeling is a strategy where someone demonstrates a new concept or approach to learning and children learn by watching.

Model ling is a great way to encourage learning without sounding too ‘teachery’. Through modeling, you can:

  • provide examples of behavior or work habits you expect from children.
  • demonstrate strategies for learning using different senses – looking, listening, feeling, moving.
  • show how you think about things, like how mistakes are part of learning and NOT the end of the world.
  • show how to do an activity so the children can see what’ll be expected.
  • model executive functions and self-regulation. 

You can also ask children to model these things for other children. That way they can view themselves as leaders (see more about this in the video below).

Video modeling is a strategy used to show children different ways to act or think. It’s used a great deal with children with autism and related conditions. It’s also used with athletes who want to improve their performance. Videos can be viewed over and over making learning more solid each time. I’ve used video modeling in different ways with children. Sometimes I’ve videoed therapy sessions so children can watch them and practice at home – they loved it! I’ve also had children model different behaviors so they and other children can watch and learn. I’ve had a couple of professional videos made to model social behaviors for children. The impact has been extremely positive (see the Resources below for free downloads).  

Modeling can make things clearer to children, especially children who learn more easily by watching rather than listening. By modeling how to think and use executive functions, children can learn more about their own thinking and learning (that is, they’ll become more metacognitive). 

A: Modeling is a strategy where someone demonstrates a new concept or approach to learning and children learn by watching.

Model ling is a great way to encourage learning without sounding too ‘teachery’. Through modeling, you can:

  • provide examples of behavior or work habits you expect from children.
  • demonstrate strategies for learning using different senses – looking, listening, feeling, moving.
  • show how you think about things, like how mistakes are part of learning and NOT the end of the world.
  • show how to do an activity so the children can see what’ll be expected.
  • model executive functions and self-regulation. 

You can also ask children to model these things for other children. That way they can view themselves as leaders (see more about this in the video below).

Video modeling is a strategy used to show children different ways to act or think. It’s used a great deal with children with autism and related conditions. It’s also used with athletes who want to improve their performance. Videos can be viewed over and over making learning more solid each time. I’ve used video modeling in different ways with children. Sometimes I’ve videoed therapy sessions so children can watch them and practice at home – they loved it! I’ve also had children model different behaviors so they and other children can watch and learn. I’ve had a couple of professional videos made to model social behaviors for children. The impact has been extremely positive (see the Resources below for free downloads).  

Modeling can make things clearer to children, especially children who learn more easily by watching rather than listening. By modeling how to think and use executive functions, children can learn more about their own thinking and learning (that is, they’ll become more metacognitive). 

Mistakes – self-regulation failure or just learning?

First, let’s look at what a mistake is. Lots of definitions paint a negative picture about mistakes, saying they’re caused by bad judgement, carelessness, or poor reasoning. Most definitions of mistakes make them sound bad. No wonder many of us get upset when we make mistakes.

To me, a mistake is something you did, said or thought that produces a result you didn’t want or expect. You end up in a situation you didn’t want to be in. 

Mistakes happen for two main reasons: you’re just learning something or you forget to self-regulate.  

Mistakes happen when you’re just learning 

Some mistakes happen because you haven’t done something before. You might have high expectations but you’ll probably make mistakes when you’re just learning. Few people can do something perfectly the first time. Unfortunately, many people get upset when it’s not error-free.

When you make a mistake, you have two choices: quit or keep trying. In some situations, you won’t have much choice about quitting. At school, you’re expected to keep trying. At work, you can’t just walk away when something isn’t going perfectly.

If you keep trying, things should get better … with enough practice. When starting out, most things are a bit challenging. Persistence and belief in yourself can carry you a long way. If you keep trying and practicing, you’ll get better and make fewer mistakes. You might even become an expert.   

The general pattern looks like this: when you start, you struggle. As you start learning, you improve quickly. After reaching a certain skill level, your rate of improvement drops off. You’ll continue to make gains if you persevere. More importantly, you’ll make fewer and fewer errors.

The idea that you have to practice for 10,000 hours before you’re an expert is just silly. You can master some things in a few weeks. Other things will take many years. In fact, you may never become an expert in some things. Not everyone can become a chess grandmaster, a concert violinist, or elite athlete even after years of practice (1). But, everyone can improve and enjoy the outcome of their efforts.    

Mistakes happen when you forget to self-regulate

Some mistakes happen because you did something incorrectly. You might add up some numbers and miss one. You might forget to add an ingredient to a recipe.

Some mistakes happen because you should’ve done something but didn’t. You might have forgotten to lock the car. Maybe you forgot to pack everything you needed for your holiday.

Forgetting to self-regulate and engage your executive functions can lead to mistakes. You might not plan ahead. You might do something impulsively. You might forget where you’re heading or fail to self-monitor. Failure to use any or all your executive functions can lead to mistakes.

What you can do

Some mistakes are pretty minor, like writing your name in the wrong box on a form – you can just erase it and start again. Other mistakes have big consequences, like not buckling your parachute before jumping out of an airplane. Consequences are important to consider when helping children. Most mistakes are ‘oops’ moments that should be treated like that. For other mistakes that might involve safety, you need to jump in right away and correct the situation.

Here are some things you can do to make mistakes into opportunities for learning:

1. Reduce the emotional impact of mistakes. Tell your child, “Mistakes tell us we’re learning. We need to practice many times* to make fewer mistakes.” Model making mistakes yourself – “Oops, I made a mistake, I must need more practice. Let me try that again.” Help take the shame out of making mistakes. Look at them as learning opportunities, not times to feel guilty or embarrassed. It’s time to buckle up and try again!

2. Make practice deliberate. Practicing isn’t must mindless repetition. It has to be purposeful and systematic. Have your child focus on the activity/task. Help them figure out how to make fewer errors – “Let’s put our brains in gear and try that really carefully again.”

3. Set reasonable goals. some people are simply gifted in an area – they learn quickly and easily. However, not all of us are gifted. Some people need more practice than others to reach high levels of expertise. Your goal may be just to make fewer mistakes. Help children set goals for the number of times (or amount of time) they’re going to practice*. Decide what improvement will look like – for example, I’ll … watch the football all the time we practice, read the directions before starting my homework, do five maths questions correctly, play 30 notes on the piano without a mistake. Hours of practice is not all it takes to become an expert. You have to face the fact that you may never become a world-class chess player, mathematician, musician, or sports star. But you can improve and may even enjoy some things more.

4. Engage executive functions. Sports researchers (2) find if you try many times and watch what happens (that is, self-monitor), you can get better and better. In terms of executive functions, that involves using inhibitory control (controlling how you do the activity) and self-monitoring (what happens when you do certain things). This connects what we did with what happened. Each time we try something, the results might be different. But, if we self-monitor, we can make fewer mistakes. The connection between what-I-did and what-happened goes into working memory and is more likely to become part of your memory bank.  

A great gift you can give to your child and yourself is to feel safe in making mistakes. Consider them as lessons about how to move along the path of learning and not stumbling blocks or objects of shame.   


A great gift you can give to your child and yourself is to feel safe in making mistakes. Consider them as lessons about how to move along the path of learning and not stumbling blocks or objects of shame.   

Mistakes are part of learning – see how computer games can teach us to deal with mistakes

* Some children prefer to have clear expectations so you may need to think of a specific number of times or amount of time for practice. For example, you might say, “You have to do that problem 25 times before your brain can learn it well.” or “You need to do that five times every day for three week before your brain can learn it well.” Be brave, choose a number. You can change it as your child progresses.

(1) Hambrick, D. Z., Burgoyne, A. P., Macnamara, B. N., & Ullén, F. (2018). Toward a multifactorial model of expertise: Beyond born versus made. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423(1), 284–295.https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13586

(2) Howard, I. S., Wolpert, D. M., & Franklin, D. W. (2015). The Value of the Follow-Through Derives from Motor Learning Depending on Future Actions. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.037

Photo by Andre Guerra on Unsplash

Some websites & apps for hand self-regulation

Homemade musical instruments
https://www.howweelearn.com/spectacular-homemade-musical-instruments/
https://feltmagnet.com/crafts/Music-Instruments-for-Kids-to-Make
http://redtri.com/homemade-instruments/slide/1
https://kinderart.com/art-lessons/music/easy-make-musical-instruments/

Musical apps
*Hand Drums – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hand-drums/id476913839?mt=8
Drum Starz – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/drum-starz/id663577587?mt=8
My Baby Drum – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/my-baby-drum-lite/id492478102?mt=8

Apps for varying hand movement and speed
*Balls – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/balls/id303046432?mt=8

* these are lots of fun

Q: What is scaffolding?

A: Scaffolding is a term used in both construction and in education. One of my heroes, Jerome Bruner, an amazing educator, coined the term for educators. 

Let’s think first about what scaffolding’s use in construction is. It’s a temporary structure put up around a building to make it safe for anyone working on it.

So what does it have to do with learning? When children are learning something new, teacher and parents support the children’s learning. The adult uses different strategies to support the children until they don’t need it anymore. Like scaffolding in construction, scaffolding in learning is temporary. Responsibility for learning is gradually shifted to the children.

Teachers and parents start at a level that’s just slightly out of the children’s current understanding. It’s just outside the child’s comfort zone – a bit of a stretch but nothing too scary or uncomfortable.  

Scaffolding, as a teaching tool. is great because it’s positive. Adults meet the children ‘where they are’ in learning, using questions and examples to lead them into understanding. 

Adults who scaffold ask lots of questions. They step back and get the children to do their own thinking. Scaffolding adults don’t just give out answers – the process of learning is more than whether the answer is right of wrong. Questions are usually “how” and “why” – “How could we find out?”, “Why do you think this goes here?”, “How did you know that?” By asking these higher level questions, children are encouraged to think on their own and find solutions to any problem. 

Ways you can help?

There are a number of things you can do to become a ‘learning scaffolder’. 

1. Start where the child is comfortable in their learning – what they already know and can do. Begin gently pushing away from it. Introduce new ideas. Tell and show how it’s connected to other things they already know.

2. Ask questions and give hints, not answers. Questions and hints can point children in the right direction to figure things out on their own.

3. Wait for children to think. Be ready to support them with hints and questions. Don’t feel like you have to rescue them or do a lot of talking. Give them time to think and to work things out. Be patient and supportive – “I’ll let you use your good brain. I know you have great ideas.”

4. If children don’t come up with an idea or solution even after you hinted and waited, give them some possible answers. Let them choose one they think is best.

5. Be positive about any answers children provide. If you don’t understand, tell them so – “I know you’ve got great ideas but you’re gonna have to help me understand this one.” If the idea seems like it’s completely unconnected to what you’re doing, ask – “Can you help me understand this better? We were talking about ……” If you ask enough questions and get the child to show you, often you’ll discover a connection you hadn’t thought of. But, if you can’t find a connection, use the child’s answer as an indication you need to explain things in different ways – it’s back to the drawing board. 

I found the concept of scaffolding quite confusing when I first came across it. Read the information above a few times. Then watch the video below. You’ll see how the teachers in the video are positive and gentle with the children. Also, you’ll notice how they aren’t focused on getting a ‘right’ answer. They guide the children into better understanding, not just correct answers.

Scaffolding takes time and patience. But learning will be more solid and full of joy.


Photo by Chris Gray on Unsplash

Self-regulation works for preverbal & minimally verbal children too

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.   

Q: What is metacognition?

A: Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It’s a term thrown around by a lot of people … because it’s so important.

Metacognition is the ability to think about what you do to accomplish something. It comes from experiences you have – “I need to write this down so I don’t forget”, “I’ll just ignore that so I can concentrate.” By understanding your own thinking, you can choose a strategy or approach to help yourself. Metacognition is about understanding that you can remember as well as forget and that you can do some things on your own and need help with others. It’s knowing when you know and understand something and when you don’t.

It’s also about how you might learn best. For example, you might decide to practice an activity for only 20 minutes because you learned it’s gets too frustrating after that. You learn strategies that make it easier for you to understand, remember and use what you learn.  

Metacognition has an emotional component. That’s because it involves your beliefs about how or what you learn best. You might say to yourself, “I’m really good at learning words” or “I’m not good at maths.” It also includes your beliefs about how you learn best – “If I keep repeating this over to myself, I’ll remember it” or “It’s going to take me a long time to figure this out.” These bits of metacognition can ‘color’ how you think about some things. You might have been frustrated by some kinds of activities in the past. That’ll change your attitude to them and mean you have to pull in extra metacognitive strategies to counteract them. 

As we develop our metacognition, we begin to understand that other people don’t all think the same way. That means we understand that we have to adapt how we explain things and how we check their understanding.   

The video below gives a fast (less than 2 minute) overview of metacognition. The striking thing about the description is how metacognition involves all the key executive functions. You have to think about how to plan and organize your work. You have to be aware of things that might keep you from doing your best work (inhibitory control) and how to watch out for it (self-monitoring). It’s important to learn how you remember best (working memory is involved) and to change strategies  if they’re not working out (cognitive flexibility).

In spark*, we teach children to be more aware of what they do and how they do it. This includes thinking about their self-regulation, including awareness of need and resilience.

Ways you can help?

Probably the simplest thing you can do is to talk about what you’re thinking. Think out loud!

“Hmm, what do I need to do here? Oh right, I need to get some … and don’t forget the …”
“Oh gosh, I forgot about the … I’ll write a note to myself so I can remember.”
“I’ve got to remember that phone number. I’ll write it down, make a picture in my head and say it over and over.”
“I need to make an appointment to get y hair cut. I’ll call right now before I forget.”

The possibilities are endless. The things you talk about will help your child learn about thinking about thinking. Prompt children to do the same thing – “Hmm, what do you need to do to get that done?”, “How can you help yourself remember?”, “What’s another way to do that?”   

Here’s a short video giving an overview of metacognition

Photo by Pietro Tebaldi on Unsplash