Self-regulation resources on the internet for arts & crafts

There are lots of amazing resources available on the internet. Here are a few sites for games and activities that can be used to teach self-regulation.

Games

http://preschoolexpress.com/game_station.shtml

http://www.gameskidsplay.net/

http://www.topics-mag.com/edition11/games-section.htm

http://www.estcomp.ro/~cfg/games.html

Here’s a list of 30 classic children’s games from WIRED magazine. And here are more from Wikipedia.

Crafts and activities

Crafts involving cartoon and animé characters: http://www.dltk-kids.com/crafts/cartoons/zoo.html

Recipes with step-by-step pictures: http://www.kids-cooking-activities.com/

Lego with step-by-step pictures (have to enter keyword describing the object or the number of the set): http://service.lego.com/en-us/buildinginstructions

Fun paper airplanes: http://www.funpaperairplanes.com/

Q: What things can I do during holidays to help my child practice self-regulation?

A: Emily Jupiter wrote an excellent article in the ASHA Leader magazine (1) on this topic. Here are some of her suggestions along with a few of my own:

For preschoolers: 

Play games like Red Light/Green Light, Freeze Dance, and Simon Says. These help inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility. 

Practice yoga and Turtle Breathing. These help children learn how it feels to be calm. 

Planning adventures and excursions. Planning helps children learn about planning and setting priorities. It also helps them with inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring and cognitive flexibility.

For school-aged children:

Plan a party or get-together. Brainstorming helps with cognitive flexibility. Then the planning help with organization, working memory, and inhibitory control. Self-monitoring will be important as you review the plan as the even gets closer – how are we doing?

Play games like Rush Hour, Uno, Rat-a-tat-Cat. Mazes and “Rush Hour”. These help with planning, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-monitoring. 

Make sure whatever you do it’s fun.  


Jupiter, E. (2017). Put the Fun Into Executive-Function Skills Practice This Summer. ASHA Leader. 

What’s a tummy got to do with self-regulation?

Self-regulation starts with the brain, with executive functions. Brains work 24 hours a day and move into high gear when you’re working on self-regulation. This is especially true when you’re first learning.

So what’s your tummy got to do with it? 

Well, your brain needs fuel to function and that fuel comes from food. Not just any food but good quality foods that have lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (1). A balanced diet includes a variety of foods that contain nutrients necessary for good health …. and for brain function.

We know that up to 90 per cent of children with autism have selective diets (2). That means they have strong preferences for just a few favorite foods. Those favorite foods are usually carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and highly processed snack foods (3, 4, 5, 6). Favorites I’ve seen are goldfish crackers, chips/crisps, dried fruit snacks, and noodles. Those foods don’t fuel brains or bodies very well or for very long.


Food and mood are also linked. That is, the better the food you eat, the better your mood. Children with autism who have selective diets (limiting the amount of protein and fiber they eat) are more likely to have temper tantrums (7). And it’s not just children with autism! Non-autistic boys whose diets are low in vitamins and minerals are more likely to have behavior problems (8). I worked with a lot of children who were selective eaters. You can almost predict their ‘mood crashes’. It seemed that they soared on the sugars they ate and then just fell apart when their ‘fuel’ ran out. Two hours after they ate, they’d become irritable and angry and couldn’t do much of anything.

Watch them carefully and know what they eat. If we expect them to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions, their brains need lots of good quality ‘fuel’ from food. If we want them to interact positively and consistently, their mood needs food too.

In spark*, I emphasize the importance of fueling the children’s brains when working on self-regulation. Young children trying to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions should eat nutritious foods every 2 to 2 1/2 hours to keep their fuel levels up. But how do you get them to eat something other than ‘the usual’?

Selective eating in children with autism is related to sensory issues and to their preference for sameness.  Food texture, appearance, taste, smell, and even temperature can figure into food choices (9). I’ve heard of children who’d only eat yellow food or crunchy textures. The way food is presented (such as food packaging, how food is placed on a plate) and eaten (fingers, spoon, fork) can affect whether they’ll eat them (10) – they prefer the same old things. Our children aren’t keen to try anything new.

We know that straight behavioral approaches (like rewarding acceptance of new foods) have limited success (11). They resulted in children eating more food but not a larger variety of foods. Other approaches, like desensitization and reducing sensory issues, haven’t been well-studied so the jury is still out.

There is one approach that is really appealing to children with autism. That’s The Eating Game (stands for Get Awesome Meals Everyday). It’s visual and structured. It makes meals predictable and, best of all, children learn to self-regulate their eating – they know when they’ve had enough and when they need more of certain types of foods. The Eating Game presents a visual plan for each day that shows the number of servings for each major food group. The food groups are color-coded as are pictures of foods within each group – of course, you can add personal favorites. Children match the color of each food option and see when they have the right ‘balance’ of foods. I’ve tried it. Children love it and it helps ensure they get the brain fuel they need.


(1) antioxidants protect your brain from oxidative stress or the “waste” (free radicals) produced when your body uses oxygen. Free radicals can damage brain cells.

(2) Ledford J. & Gast D. (2006). Feeding problems in children with autism spectrum disorders: a review. Focus Autism Other Dev Disabilities. 21, 153-166.

(3) Schmitt, L., Heiss, C. J., & Campdell, E. (2008). A comparison of nutrient intake and eating behaviors of boys with and without autism. Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 23(1), 23–31.

(4) Ahearn, W. H., Castine, T., Nault, K., & Green, G. (2001). An assessment of food acceptance in children with autism or pervasive developmental disorder—Not otherwise specified. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 505–511

(5) Schreck, K.A., Williams, K., Smith, A.F. (2004). A comparison of eating behaviors between children with and without autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 13(4), 433-438.

(6) Williams, K. E., Gibbons, B. G., & Schreck, K. A. (2005). Comparing selective eaters with and without developmental disabilities. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 17, 299–309.

(7) Dominick, K., Davis, N., Lainhart, J., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Folstein, S. (2007). Atypical behaviors in children with autism and children with a history of language impairment. Res. in Dev. Disabilities, 28, p. 145-162.

(8) Robinson, SL, Marín, C, Oliveros, H., Mora-Plazas, M., Richards, BJ, Lozoff, B., Villamor, E. (2018) Iron Deficiency, Anemia, and Low Vitamin B-12 Serostatus in Middle Childhood Are Associated with Behavior Problems in Adolescent Boys: Results from the Bogotá School Children Cohort, The Journal of Nutrition, 148, 760–770,

(9) Schmitt L, Heiss C, Campbell E. (2008). A comparison of nutrient intake and eating behaviors of boys with and without autism. Top Clinical Nutrition. 23, 23–31.

(10) Williams P.G., Dalrymple N., & Neal, J. (2000). Eating habits of children with autism. Pediatric Nursing. 26, 259–264.

(11) Marshall, H., Ware, R., Ziviani, J., Hill, R., & Dodrill, P. (2015). Efficacy of interventions to improve feeding difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Care, Health & Development, 41, 278-302.

Q: Why don’t you work on eye contact in spark* and spark*EL?

Eye contact needs meaning to make it useful and natural. Telling someone to look at you isn’t natural or particularly useful.

Eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication. It involves looking into or in the direction of another person’s eyes. Most people don’t look directly at another person’s eyes. Instead, they look around the bridge of their nose and near their eyes. Eye contact doesn’t last very long: each gaze is only three seconds and when people look directly at each other, it’s for less than a second! Also, when talking to another person, we look at them 30% of the time or less.

We adults make eye contact for five main reasons:

  1. Giving and getting information – Eye contact lets the other person know we’re listening and understanding what they’re saying.
  2. Regulating interactions – Eye contact helps organize and control when each person speaks. Interestingly, it’s when we’re finished talking that we tend to look at the other person.
  3. Expressing emotion – Eye contact helps us flirt and show attraction and general interest in another person or it can show our anger or disapproval.
  4. Exercising social control – Eye contact helps show hostility and aggression but it also can be used to convince or persuade someone (picture the salesperson who makes a lot of eye contact as he tells you the merits of his product)
  5. Helping achieve goals – Eye contact helps you get assistance (at a restaurant, when you want your bill, you try to catch the waiter’s eye across the room so you can signal what you want).

Eye contact ‘gone wrong’ is when a stranger looks at you too long. That can feel downright creepy. If you avoid eye contact, others may think you don’t care, you’re trying to avoid something, or maybe you’re defensive or embarrassed. Darned if you do and darned if you don’t!

Photo by Gabby Orcutt on Unsplash

We know babies like human faces and respond to direct eye contact from an early age. 

Preschoolers figure out that eye contact can help them start and stop interactions with others and get what they want. They can look at something and then at Mom or Dad to signal they want it.

As children mature, they learn to use eye contact to share enjoyment. It’s not until children are about 11 years old, that they start using eye contact for the reasons outlined above. They begin to understand that eye contact gives feedback to the person they’re talking to. They recognize that, by making eye contact, they can gather important information about the other person, like does he understand or cares about what you’re saying?

One of the first things that people notice in children with autism is their weak or inconsistent eye contact. There are two plausible reasons for that:

  1. Processing language is demanding. When you speak, you need to plan and organize your ideas, communicate them and then see if the other person understands. These are all demanding from a processing point of view. Most people, autistic or not, look away when doing it. If you have to make eye contact and process language, it might just throw you into overload.
  2. Eye contact is overstimulating. Many people with autism find it over-stimulating to look at another person’s eyes. Some say that it literally hurts. Read more here.

So back to the question of why we don’t work on eye contact.

When helping children develop skills, I believe we should use main criteria: the approach must be

  1. developmentally appropriate,
  2. culturally grounded, and
  3. respectful of the experience of the person being taught.

We don’t expect the adult uses of eye contact to emerge until middle childhood. Use what’s culturally appropriate; in some cases, not all five of the reasons outlined above will be appropriate. And, we have to understand that it can hurt and overload the person with autism if we push them to make eye contact.

We don’t work directly on eye contact within spark*, spark*EL, and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life. We use it as a meaningful social and communicative tool. We make sure children understand why we make eye contact with other people. We also help them understand when and where it’s necessary and appropriate. We work on eye contact so the children will use it in ways that don’t produce cognitive or sensory overload …. or make them seem ‘strange’ to others.


5 ways to promote self-regulation everyday

Self-regulation is about making conscious decisions in relation to your executive functions – planning and organizing, controlling your impulses, engaging your memory, self-monitoring, and thinking and acting flexibly.
Here are five things you can do to encourage self-regulation in everyday life.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash
  1. Prompt children to plan and organize activities. Start with one or two steps in a familiar activity and then gradually move to more complicated, less familiar things. Start an activity and ask the child, “What do you think we should do next?” No matter what the child says or does, give it a try. If it doesn’t work, that’s a learning opportunity – you can gently guide him into rethinking the approach. When it works, ask him to choose “the next step” and the one after that. This helps children to start thinking ahead and develop more independence.
  2. Teach children they are the masters of their own brains and bodies. I found that when I used ‘self-distancing’, children were more likely to start self-regulating. Self-distancing is a simple but powerful tool – children are prompted to step back from their brains and bodies and tell their brain or body part what to do. I (Heather) teach children to talk to their brains, hands, feet, voices, etc. so “you can help them learn”. By using this simple distancing process, emotions are removed and children become their own teachers. Try it! Telling your brain or body what to do is remarkably powerful.
  3. Model ways to help yourself remember. When you’re trying to remember something, talk out loud about what you’re doing: “Okay, now what was I going to do? That’s right, I’m going to the kitchen to see if we need more milk from the store.” That shows your child a way to ‘remind’ your brain about plans. Another strategy is to visualize: “Let me make a picture in my head. I want to go to the bedroom, get my shoes and then get my jacket  …. It’s like making a movie in my head!”
  4. Make checking progress part of every activity. After you start an activity with your child, stop and say, “Let’s see how we’re doing. Are we following the plan? Does it look like the picture in our heads?” Model how you can stop and change things if the activity isn’t proceeding as you expected. Have your child evaluate the progress too so he can learn to self-monitor on his own.
  5. Change your mind. This is part of learning cognitive flexibility, a sometimes challenging thing. Once you have a plan in place, announce “I’ve changed my mind”, and change one small part. You might change the order of doing things – “I’ve changed my mind, let’s read a book first and then watch the video” or “Let’s put on your shirt and then your socks”. Progress to larger changes – “I’ve changed my mind. How about we go to Safeway/Tesco/Hyper U instead of our usual store today?” Make small changes part of everyday and be sure to reassure your child, “We can change our minds. That’s okay sometimes.” Be sure to let your child make changes too. It’s important to help him take a more flexible approach to life.


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).