Self-Regulation in the Classroom

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Teachers (and therapists) sometimes feel like they can’t work on self-regulation with a group of children. There are challenges to doing it in groups, but it is possible. It can also be a lot of fun.

Let’s get a few things clear first. Always start with body (behavioral) self-regulation. Everybody seems to  want to start with emotional self-regulation. That’s down the road. Help children become masters of their bodies first. If they can organize their movements and bring them under their control, you’re a long way to helping them regulate other areas.

Self-regulation activities focus on conscious, deliberate control of executive functions. Think of activities that will help children use their:

  • planning and organization skills
  • inhibitory control
  • working memory
  • self-monitoring
  • cognitive flexibility

Talk about the executive functions with students. Help them understand each of the five key executive functions and how they can learn to control them.

  • Planning and organization – Explain that we develop an agenda, like at school, in our brains that helps us plan and organize things we do.
  • Inhibitory control – We also have brakes that help us stop, start, and stick with things.
  • Working memory – Our memory helps us keep ideas in our brains, like the memory in a computer, so we can think about and organize them.
  • Self-monitoring – We also have a supervisor in our brains who watches what we do and helps us fix things up if they’re not the way we want them.
  • Cognitive flexibility – Our brains can be like supercars that don’t get stuck – if it runs into a wall, it just turns around, and finds a new way to go. 

Explain specific activities in terms of the executive functions, like the descriptions above – “This one helps put on our brakes when we need to.” Make sure they understand that the goal is to help them become masters of their own behavior, thinking, and emotions.

1. Body self-regulation. These activities can be done any time during the day.
Focus on planning and organization as well as working memory by using activities that involve a sequence of actions, like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. With older children, you can do the same actions to more age-appropriate music, like Lady Gaga. By slowing the speed and whispering/muting the song (doing the action without words), you’ll challenge inhibitory control. Change the words or actions to something new (head and shoulders, hips and knees) and challenge their cognitive flexibility. 

Try walking between places within the classroom or within the school in different ways. Walk very slowly, hop, move quickly without running, etc. Have the children do other activities at different rates. Make up a deck of cards with different speeds (fast, slow, in-between), intensities (soft, hard/loud, in-between), and manners (like a rock star, butterfly, ghost) so students can draw a card and move in that way. 

Do Turtle breathing (mindful breathing) to calm and centre their brains and bodies before and after an activity.

2. Cognitive self-regulation.
Prompt all students to stop, think, make a plan before starting activities (that focuses them on inhibitory control plus planning and organization). Model this in your own activities so the children can see everyone uses this approach and it’s helpful. Ask them, “What should we do first, next, next …?” Encourage them to help you plan and organize activities.

Talk about noises or other distractions that are making it hard for you to think. Ask the students, “That noise is really bugging me, what can I do to help myself?” If you see a student having difficulty controlling their impulses, quietly chat with them about telling their brakes to start working. Again, ask them what they can do to help themselves.

Prompt students to talk to themselves (“say things in your brain”) to help working memory. Other strategies for improving working memory are visualizing (“make a picture in your brain”), and writing/drawing information they read or hear. It’s important to point out these are not cheating. Strategies are smart ways to make your brain remember important things.

Self-monitoring can be worked on by developing checklists for things that need to be done. Also, include criteria so the student can know they did a good job. This checklist can include things like, “I put my name and date at the top”, “I read the directions before I started and checked to make sure I know what to do”, “I finished all activities.”

Cognitive flexibility can be a fun area to work on but a little frustrating for some students. Ask questions like, “What’s another way we can do this?”, “How else could we look at this?”, “Why don’t we ….?” These questions are meant to shake up the usual order a little bit, just enough to open students’ minds to other possibilities. 

3. Emotional self-regulation. 
An important first step is helping students identify moods/emotions in others and understanding why. It’s easier and calmer to look at someone else’s emotions first.

While reading a story, ask students how the characters feel and why. Prompt discussion of as many emotions and reasons as possible so you build in flexibility and understanding. Then work on planning and organization – What can the character do to help themselves? What steps can they take?  Inhibitory control can be introduced by asking what the characters should do to help themselves so they don’t deviate from their plan. Working memory can be worked on by having students develop a mantra for the character to remind them about how to proceed. Self-monitoring can incorporate “how will I know if my plan is working/worked?” Cognitive flexibility will be challenged on many fronts as you help the character navigate the emotional path and then compare this to how the author unfolded the story.   


ALWAYS make sure children get recess and other breaks. They need a chance to move and interact with other students. NEVER use loss of recess/break as a punishment – it’s counterproductive.  


Photo by Ty Lagalo on Unsplash

Q: Aren’t checklists just making self-regulation weaker?

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A: Over the years, lots of people have said, “He doesn’t need a checklist. He knows how to do everything and, if he forgets, I remind him.” Parents, teachers, therapists, and other people seem to resist checklists like they’re some kind of weird device only for people with special needs.

They’re not. Let’s think about what checklists are. They make us plan and organize ourselves before we do a task or activity. That’s a good thing. They make sure we work systematically and don’t miss anything. That’s another good thing. By having checklists, we don’t have to use so much working memory to do things. That’s another positive point for checklists. They help us monitor our progress in completing a task or activity (“O

kay, I’m at step #3, only three more to go.”). Yet another good thing. These are the executive functions that make up self-regulation. So instead of weakening self-regulation, checklists are making it stronger.

Now, let’s look at the social stigma of using checklists. Do they make someone look less able? Do they look stupid or open you to ridicule? Have a look at the video below and you be the judge. 

Checklists can make all of us better organized, more systematic, and more accurate and are a powerful life skill. 

Not yet convinced? Watch this video


Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Some books for teaching the 4 D’s for regaining self-regulation

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Here are some examples of books that can help children learn strategies for regaining self-regulation presented in this blog last Monday through Thursday. There are many possibilities but I’ve included a few of my favorites.

Distract
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn –
this is a delightful children’s book about a raccoon who was worried about starting school. His mother gives his hand a kiss so, if he feels worried, he can look at his hand and remember his mother loves him.

Dismiss
The LIttle Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams – delightful story about a woman who was confronted by scary objects but she told them to go away.
Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley – simple little book thatteaches ‘power language’ (“Go Away”) to each scary element.
Chester the Brave by Audrey Penn – in this book the Little is nervous about trying things. His mother teaches him to talk to himself and say he can do it.

Displace
The Queen’s Feet by Sarah Ellis – this is one of my favorite books because it deals positively with a problem behavior (the queen’s busy feet). The final resolution is to let her feet be busy at certain times only.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Little – everything seems to go wrong for Alexander but he learns that somethings like this just happen (even in Australia). 

Distance
The LIttle Engine that Could by Watty Piper
– this is a good book to help children think like the Little Engine – it kept going and telling itself “I think I can”.

You can find more books in a wonderful database of children’s books at Miami University. Search by keywords like ‘bravery’, ‘challenges’, ‘determination’, ‘courage’, ‘persistence’. Books on these themes will be shown along with a short summary about each story.  

You can also ask your local librarian who’ll likely steer you in the right direction.

Regain self-regulation with Distancing (part 4 of 4)

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The goal with Distancing is to help children learn to stand back from a situation or problem. Then look at it like an outsider, with fewer emotions.

Sound odd? There’s lots of science behind it. Self-distancing has been used for decades to help people get better perspective on problems. You’ve heard people say to themselves, “What would Mom/Dad do in this situation?” That’s distancing. It helps them step back, cool down, and evaluate things with less emotion.

Children can be taught to do the same thing. A delightful study was done to look at how distancing helped preschoolers self-regulate. Some were taught to talk to themselves by name (“Okay, Heather, what are you going to do now.”). Others were taught to take the perspective of a favorite media character and ask themselves, “What would Batman do?” For good experimental control, another group was left to do what they usually do. The results were clear: talking to yourself was pretty good in helping self-regulation. But, thinking like a media character was most helpful. They found, though, for children to benefit the most, they needed to have stronger Theory of Mind (that is, be able to think how someone else thinks).

Lots of children with exceptional learning needs are delayed in developing Theory of Mind so what can we do? I use another form of distancing that doesn’t need much Theory of Mind. I found that, by prompting children to talk to their brain, feet, hands,

mouth, they can more calmly control them. It started one time when a child ripped up a craft. I said, “Oh, look what you did.” The child looked at me ready to dry. I felt horrid. My job was to teach him, not make him cry. I quickly corrected myself and said, “Look what your hands did. They forgot to be gentle. Let’s teach those hands to be gentle.” It worked! He looked at his hands and said, “Be gentle.” He continued to work with a new sense of pride and command over his hands. If a child puts their hand in paint, what can you do to get them to regain self-regulation? Prompt them by saying, “Oh my goodness, look what your hand did. It forgot that brushes are for paint. Tell your hand that brushes are for paint.” This encourages children to distance themselves and act as the ‘control central’ (teacher) of their body. It helps them stay calm and take control of their bodies.

I’ve used distancing with swearing and mean words (“Those swears/mean words just slipped out of your mouth. How can you help your mouth?”),  running (“I think your feet forgot to walk. What can you tell your feet”), gentle touching (“What do we tell your hands when you pat the kitten? That’s right, be gentle, hands.”), and in many other situations. By putting our children in the driver’s seat with their own self-regulation, they feel a greater sense of power and are more likely to use it.

Regain self-regulation with Displacing (part 3 of 4)

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The goal with Displacing is to help children put a worry or problem away for a another time.

I found myself working on a project the other day. I realized that my frustration was increasing. Things were not heading in a good direction. What was my solution? I decided to try again tomorrow. That’s displacing the activity. I wasn’t going to abandon it. I just thought a little break would help refresh my enthusiasm.

We can help children do this too. When you see children becoming worried or frustrated, introduce the idea of leaving it for right now. Suggest “How about we put that away for right now?” Follow this with an explanation, like “It’s pretty late in the day to do something like this.” or “I think your brain needs a little break.” or “I think we need ____ to help do this because they’re an expert.”  Make a plan for when and where you’ll try again. Then calmly put the worry, thought or activity away and do something relaxing or refreshing.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Regain self-regulation with Dismissing (part 2 of 4)

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The goal with Dismissing is to help children get rid of the worries and concerns.

The idea is that you can take the things out of your brain so they don’t bug you anymore.

I’ve used this strategy mainly when worries come up. I’ve also used it when thoughts are buzzing around in the child’s brain making it difficult to think of anything else. I say, “It looks like that’s really bugging your brain (referring to a thought or idea). How about we take it out. That way it won’t bug you anymore.” Then reach up and pretend to pull the idea out of the child’s head.

There are a few different things you can do with the worry you now hold in your hand. I always ask children what they want to do. I ask if they want to put it in the garbage or flush it down the toilet. Another option is to shred it or destroy it in some way. The third option is to put it away for later. I always have a Brain Box for this. A 

Brain Box can be any special container where ideas can be kept. I usually buy them at the dollar store and decorate them. We put the ideas/worries in the box, sometimes printed or drawn on paper. They’re then closed in the box. 

Brain Boxes are amazingly powerful. I told a preschool teacher about it and she thought I was mad. One day, however, a child came to preschool singing a song over and over. The teacher couldn’t stop him. Then, she remembered the Brain Box. In desperation, she said to the child, “It looks like those words are making it hard for your brain to think. How about if we take them out?” He was okay with that idea so she reached over and  motioned  to pull them out of his head. She then put them in her pocket (she didn’t have a Brain Box yet). The child stopped singing the song … for the next 2 1/2 hours! His bus came for him at the end of class and he left. Suddenly, the teacher heard him screaming. She rushed to him and he said, “i need my words back!” The teacher put her hand into her pocket, pulled the imaginary words out and placed them back in his head. The child left happily singing his song once again. 

There are other ways to dismiss ideas and worries. One of them is to use a shield

to hold something away. I’ve made shields with children to help them know that they could keep some things from bugging them just like soldiers and warriors and knights. They can hold up their shields and things just bounce right off. They can’t even get near them.

You can also use other barriers, like traffic cones. I used traffic cones with a child who was afraid of monsters coming to get him during the night. I talked to him about a few strategies and he liked the idea of traffic cones the best. We bought some

 at the dollar store and he helped set them up around his bed. He slept soundly after that. 

These simple devices help dismiss concerns. They help children feel in control of things that are making it hard for them to learn and think. 

Regain self-regulation with Distracting (part 1 of 4)

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The goal with Distracting is to help children switch their focus from some worry or concern to something more pleasant and calming.

You can use modeling, like “When I’m feeling worried, I think about my favorite things.” You can also prompt the child, “Let’s think about something you love. How about ….?” 

I’ve taught children to think about their favorite Pokemon, their pet, a favorite person or anything/anyone who makes them feel happy. I recall one boy who became  agitated because he saw some Pokemon stickers and couldn’t get them out of his mind. Pokemon was his favorite thing in the world. He got more and more agitated. He kept saying how Pokemon was all he could think about. He couldn’t do anything else. I sat calmly with him and told him how sometimes thinking about my dog made my brain feel calmer. I knew he also had a dog he adored. He stopped and started thinking about his dog. He soon forgot about Pokemon.

Mischel, famous for the marshmallow test, found that some children were effective in waiting for their treats. He noticed that some thought other something else. They might distract themselves by imagining the marshmallows were fluffy clouds. These were the children who showed stronger self-regulation. 

Introduce the idea of thinking about a favorite thing. Make a thought bubble with a picture, drawing or photo of the child’s favorite thing. Practice looking at and thinking about the favorite thing and making your brain calm. Combine this with Turtle Breathing to enhance the effect. Then when you see them becoming upset, remind them to think of the favorite thing. 

Watch this video  (it’s 41 seconds of a  video by Bianca Giaever that will download) to see how one child helped distract herself. She decided that scary things were afraid of the things she liked. So, when she thought about her favorite things, the scary things disappeared. 

Ways to help regain self-regulation

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We’ve talked about the importance of being calm, alert and nourished to self-regulation (see spark* News March, June, July and August 2018 and January 2019). We all can regulate our behavior, thinking and emotions when we’re rested and feeling well.

Self-regulation simply isn’t going to happen all the time. We’re people, not robots. So what can children do when they find themselves in the eye of the storm. What can they do when they’re feeling frustrated, frightened, or angry? How can we help them regain a sense of calm and equilibrium? When they’re calm again, they can make better choices. 

We can try to reduce the amount of stress, anxiety, frustration, etc. children experience. That’s not always realistic. Stress happens. We have to prepare them for dealing with more difficult times.

There are four main ways to help children self-regulate more effectively in tough situations. They include:

  1. Distracting themselves. This involves thinking about something pleasant. 
  2. Dismissing the source of concern. This means getting rid of the thing that’s causing distress.
  3. Displacing the concern. The child decides to put the problem or worry away until another time.
  4. Distancing themselves from the situation. This means stepping away from the problem mentally and looking at it like an outsider.

Next Monday through Thursday, we’ll go through each strategy and how to introduce and practice it. 

Generally, it’s best to teach the strategies when the children are calm and rested. Choose a quiet time and space to introduce and to practice each one. But, be careful about how you present the idea. You don’t want to remind children about a worry (for example, “You remember when that big dog growled at you?”). 

Be sure to use these strategies yourself. They’re effective for everyone.

Self-regulation around the house – the power of chores

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I really don’t like calling them chores because it makes helping around the house sound really boring and pretty much of a burden. That’s the last thing we want to communicate. I prefer calling them tasks or even jobs – they’re just things that need to be done so we can all live together in comfort. So let’s call them ‘jobs to be done’. 

Living together in a household means everyone needs to help it run smoothly. Even young children can do household jobs. Being responsible for even simple things builds children’s self-regulation. Being involved in ‘jobs to be done’ is helping children become more responsible adults. It’s never too early to start.

Let’s look at household jobs to be done for children from two to eight years of age. You’ll notice younger children need more supervision. They can star off helping you rather than doing some things on their own. Over time, stand back and let them try things out. Don’t expect perfection at first. With lots of practice, you’ll see improvement and more independence. Most children feel proud that they can help.

How much self-regulation is too much?

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In the very first spark* News (December 2017) I mentioned I was criticized for having a child doing handsprings on the cover of spark* and spark*EL. The criticism came from a parent of two children (now young adults) with autism. She said she didn’t want her children doing handsprings. I, in my sometimes less-than-tactful manner, said that I want kids on the spectrum to have times when they can let loose. I want them to know there are times when they can feel the joy of standing on their heads, kicking up their feet, yelling at the top of their lungs, flicking pieces of string, flapping their hands and fingers. Those are exciting and really enjoyable. Why would we want to squelch them?? Talk about joyless childhoods! 


Self-regulation is a limited thing. Your ‘self-regulation’ battery can keep going and but it will run out. Children just learning to self-regulate will find it even more draining. After working on self-regulation, children will mentally and physically tired. Their ability to self-regulate will drop off. They’ll develop the ‘grouchies’ and become more distractible. Researchers find this in everyone, not just children with autism.

So what can you do? First of all, make sure the child C.A.N. self-regulate. We’ve talked in previous editions of spark* News about making sure children are Calm (the “C” in C.A.N.), Alert (the “A” in C.A.N) and nourished. Do a few moments of Turtle Breathing before you start. Make sure you’re asking children to practice self-regulation only when they’re well-rested and feeling okay. If they didn’t sleep well the night before or aren’t feeling well, you should either forget practicing self-regulation or do an activity that was successful before. Children’s brains and bodies need well-balanced diets to function (check the June 2018 spark* News for more information). So … this means you need to check if children C.A.N. self-regulate before starting. Teach children to check for themselves – “Am I calm? Is my brain alert and ready to work? Did I eat some good food?” Make a checklist for the children, like the one below, so they can check for themselves.

Second, use activities that include their areas of high interest. That can be computers, flags, clocks, maps, Thomas the Tank Engine … you name it. It’ll make practice more fun and enjoyable and they won’t fatigue as quickly. 

Third, don’t practice too long. I recommend working on new things for no more than two minutes for every year of the child’s age. That means, a two year old should practice no more than four minutes. And an eight year old should practice for no more than 16 minutes. You want to stop when children are still keen to do more. You can practice for longer periods once the children become stronger self-regulators. That is, their ‘self-regulation batteries’ expand their power limits. 

Fourth, give every child times and places when they don’t have to self-regulate. They need to just be themselves and let loose. Select places where children can be un-regulated – the backyard/garden, the playground, bedroom, whatever works. Also, choose times when it’s okay. Post the rules so children know when they can release the brakes and do handsprings if they want.