Every family and service agency needs this

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I’m a big fan of AuKids magazine that comes out of the UK.   

It’s one of the richest and most accessible resources I’ve found. They address important issues in highly readable ways. The co-editor, Debby Elley, is the parent of twins with autism who provides perspective and good humour to the journey.

Have a look for yourself and subscribe or give a subscription to someone who needs a boost.


Disclaimer: yes, I do contribute to AuKids from time to time purely on a voluntary basis. I think it’s that good.

Q: My child is considered ‘lower functioning’. How can I possibly work on self-regulation?

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A: Grrrrrr, I so dislike it when children are labelled as ‘low’ or ‘high’ functioning. It’s really annoying and can get in the way of finding the best in children.

That aside, let’s look at where you can start.

Making choices is a great place. Your child undoubtedly has preferences for things to eat, drink, play with, etc. Self-regulation is learning to make decisions for yourself. That’s where choices come in.

If you find your child will accept just about anything you offer, let’s give them the option of a preferred thing and a dud. By ‘dud’, I mean something that your child wouldn’t choose at the best of times. Let’s say they’re thirsty, offer them two options – a cup of juice and a sock. The sock is the ‘dud’ – not something they’d choose. Prompt with: “You choose.” Then praise the choice – “Good choice. Now you can drink.”

Remember to put just a wee bit of drink in the cup so they come back for another round.

If that went smoothly, try it a few more times. Give them a break. Then try two more similar options, say juice versus water. Just make sure that one is something they usually like more. Prompt: “You choose. Which one do you want?” 

Extend making choices to other drinks, food, toys, clothing, places to visit … and so on. Do choices a few times a day. We want to keep choice-making fresh and positive.

The more often you can get your child to choose, the more self-regulation they’re learning. They’re making decisions on their own …. and you’re listening. 

Teaching children to be systematic – one step in cognitive self-regulation

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Children, especially those with learning discrepancies, need to develop thinking skills at the executive function level. That is, they need to learn cognitive self-regulation.

The first area we address is being systematic. That means doing one thing at a time and working from beginning to end. Explain to them that, by being systematic, we won’t miss anything. A lot of our children don’t know where to start. They don’t systematically work on one thing and then the next. And they don’t know when they’re done. These are the focus of being systematic.

Teach children to figure out where to start an activity. In the beginning, they need help. I like to place a green ‘go’ dot in the upper left hand side as the place we always start*. Then they learn to complete one step before moving to the next – always moving left to right and top to bottom*. Put a red dot at the end so they know when they’re done.

Most children find it challenging to have a lot of tasks in front of them. Prompt them to cover up the rest of the activity if it overloads them. Comment: “It looks like that’s hard for your eyes. How about we cover some of them up?” Sticky notes are perfect for covering up anything that’s distracting them. I’ve found that most children ask for sticky notes once they’ve tried them. They’ve told me it really helps them stay focused. It’s a small investment for improved attention and learning.

Another important helper is the ‘finder finger’. Tell students that they’ve already got something to help them work systematically … and it’s attached to their hand. It’s their index finger. Index fingers can point to things and track along a line to help their eyes (and brains) stay focused. 

When you look at being systematic and these simple strategies, you can see how they help children gain control over their executive functions.

  • Planning and organization are enhanced by teaching children where to start, how to move on to the next item, and how to tell when they’re done.
  • Inhibitory control is improved by teaching children how to proceed from one thing to the next, from beginning to end. Children overcome impulses to stop and/or jump around to other items.
  • Working memory is improved by having to remember what they’re trying to accomplish, what they did on the items before, and what didn’t work. They learn to remember information that’s important to new items. Also, they find how clearing old unhelpful information out of their memory bank can make it easier to think. 
  • Self-monitoring skills are developed as children make sure they keep moving along with the task, left to right and top to bottom – right up to the end. They also learn to make sure they’re not repeating the same unhelpful strategies again and again.
  • Cognitive flexibility is developed as children shift from item to item and task to task.  They have to switch from one thing to another and keep their thinking flexible. 

* of course, the direction would be right to left for Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, and Sindhi speakers.

To help or not? Become a coach instead

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I came across a research article that really made me think. It was entitled: “When Helping Hurts: Children Think Groups That Receive Help Are Less Smart.” In the study, preschool children were shown short video animations. In them, an ‘expert’ offered help to one group of children because it looked like they needed it. For the other group, the expert said, “Looks like you don’t need help. I’ll come watch you.” Children watching the video were asked how smart they thought the groups in the video were. They were significantly more likely to say the group that received help was less smart. 

Intuitively, I knew this was true. I’ve worked with and observed enough children to know this is the way things go. But we know that helping someone can improve their success.

The study showed that helping can serve as a social stigma. Other children believe that, if you get help, you aren’t as smart. The helper-child relationship is inherently unequal. The helper is the authority. The child is seen as being unlikely to succeed on their own.

This is at the core of my passion for improving behavioral, cognitive, and emotional self-regulation in children. If they learn to self-regulate and make more decisions on their own, they won’t need us hovering so closely around them. Then other people won’t think they’re ‘less smart’.

But teachers, therapists, and assistants are hired to help students. What does this mean for day to day practices at home, in therapy settings, and in schools?

For starters, it’d help if everyone viewed themselves as coaches. Like coaches, we need to:

  • Teach children foundation skills.
  • Make sure each child has a basic understanding of the goals and skills needed in each activity.
  • Practice step-by-step with the children.
  • Let the children try out the skills on their own.
  • Continue to encourage and remind from the sidelines.
  • Allow the children to experience some failures. That’s part of learning.
  • Help each child refine and advance their skills.

How could this work in traditional settings? At home, in therapy, and at school:

  • Teach the children behavioral, cognitive, and emotional self-regulation skills. That’ll help them manage their own learning more effectively.
  • Set up a rule that getting help is the smart thing to do. It means you want to learn more. Praise children when they ask for assistance.
  • Don’t single out children who need help. Instead, work with them in private.
  • In group settings, give help to all children. Every child can improve how they do things.

The coach mindset can help us make good strides in reducing the stigma many of our children experience. Teach foundation skills and then learn to stand back. 

What you can do to help your child during holidays

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Children who have difficulty with  self-regulation and executive functions usually find holidays challenging. All the things that make up holidays (bright twinkling lights, crowds,  parties, loud music) can make it too overstimulating. 

Children become overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, and people. All the usual things they rely on, like routines, are gone or changed. Stress abounds!

When your child is stressed, their self-regulation will be at a low point. It’s hard for them to plan and organize so they can’t easily figure out how to help themselves. Working memory may not be strong so that compounds the problems. Under stress, flexible thinking is a real challenge. Often, children will do familiar things over and over in an attempt to keep themselves focused away from sources of stress.
But there are things you can do to help your child.

What you can do

1. Help your child be Calm, Alert, and Nourished.
Get lots of exercise but be sure to make time for calming and enjoyable sensory activities. Take the time to relax with Turtle Breathing. Do some yoga. Let your child enjoy some quiet time with things they enjoy – warm baths, flashing lights, sounds of nature, spinning fans … all those sensory experiences they enjoy. Schedule them in so you catch your child before stress mounts up too much. 

Remember that wearing ‘dress-up’ clothes can be a sensory nightmare – those itchy pants, scratchy tags. Help your child choose clothing that’ll be comfortable and still appropriate to the events. You can also just decide to go unconventional and let your child wear sweatpants. You have to judge if dressing for the relatives is really worth it. Consider your child first.

Keep bedtimes as close to normal as possible. Make sure your child has lots of rest. It’s one of the best defenses against stress.

Also, if your child isn’t feeling well, don’t push for self-regulation. Just ease off and try again when they’re feeling better.

Make sure your child eats regularly (every two to three hours). Try your best to have a balance of protein, fruit, and vegetables. The holiday season is often packed with lots of sweets and carbohydrates. Do your best to sneak in foods that fuel real energy and better moods.

2. Recognize your child’s difficulty with planning and organizing.
Help them plan out their days so there’s some predictability. Make a list of things your child enjoys. Include some they can do on their own as well as some where they need adult input. Indoor activities can include crafts, coloring, playing with playdough, enjoying car or train collections, trampolining, sand/rice table, board or card games, computer or video games, drawing, reading, or watching videos.  Outdoor activities can include swimming, bike riding, skating, skiing, bowling, running, or horseback riding. Show your child the activities available for that day (you choose) and let them select what they do and when. Make a visual plan like the example to the right. That way your child will remember what they’re doing and in what order. If you want, you can add times to the plan. That way, they won’t over-focus on just one activity. Even if you think your child will remember what’s on the plan, always make it visual. It takes minutes and will make like simpler for everyone.

Add activities that’ll prompt your child to help around the house. What are some things they can do to help get ready for a party or for dinner? They can make guest lists, set the table, sweep the floor, make place cards, and on and on. Even small things can help you while helping them. 

Get them to help make lists of things you’ll need for traveling or visiting friends. What things should they pack for their holiday? What things do they want to take to Bobby’s house? 

Another area for planning is small talk at gatherings. You and your child can anticipate some of the questions that’ll be asked. Make up lists of these questions (“What grade are you in now?”, “How’s school going?”) and comments (“Boy, you’ve really grown.”). Then put together some responses with your child. Typical small talk topics include weather, sports, movies, family, school, and food. Practice asking and answering these questions. It’ll make it so much easier for your child.

The more you engage them in organizing and planning ahead of time, the calmer and more engaged your child will be. It takes time but the investment is worth it.

3. Understand that change makes it more difficult for your child to control their impulses and be flexible. Changes in routine, activities, and diet during holidays make it hard for your child to self-regulate. Plan ahead for glitches. Write plans for “What will we do if …” our plane is late, our flight is canceled, Johnny can’t come over to play, I didn’t get the present I wanted, …. Get your child to contribute ideas. Put them in writing. Act out the situations, reversing the roles so sometimes you’re the child and your child is the adult. Play acting will help prepare them for the actual event.

Help get them ready for dealing with situations involving lots of people. You may be visiting a shop or mall, going to a family gathering, or going to a party or community event. Help your child anticipate what they’ll experience – lots of people close by, noise, music, smells of different foods, etc. Prepare them for these sensory experiences and also for what they can do to help themselves. Ask them: “What can you do if you don’t like a smell/crowd/noise?”

Make sure you help your child advocate for themselves. If they’re feeling overwhelmed by the sights, smells, etc., what can they do, where can they go? Bathrooms are often good retreats. They can be used by your child to calm themselves and prepare for returning. Give your child a timer so they spend only a limited time in the bathroom. Put together a ‘take five’ bag with your child (example to the left). A ‘take five’ bag contains things your child enjoys eating, drinking, looking at, and doing. If they’re starting to feel stressed or out of place, they can go to a quiet place and enjoy their ‘take five’ bag. The contents are calming and will focus their attention on positive things.

Yes, this all takes pre-planning and organization on your part but it’ll make the holiday season much more pleasant for your child. And, if your child is more at ease, the holidays will be more enjoyable for everyone.

Q: Why are you asking children to talk to themselves? Isn’t that a little weird?

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A: Talking to yourself (‘self-talk’) is a powerful strategy. It helps children regulate their behavior, thinking, and emotions. There are other functions, such as practicing speech, but the primary focus in spark* is self-regulation.

Most use self-talk from about two years of age when their expressive language skills are emerging. They often comment about what they’re doing. They also remind themselves about rules and about how to say certain things. As children reach middle childhood, a lot of the self-talk goes undercover. They begin to whisper to themselves or think it silently. There are still times when they tend to talk out loud to themselves. If a task is particularly difficult or complicated, you’ll hear children talking themselves through it. This is the same for many adults – “Now, what do I do next. Oh right, I have to add some color.”

I enjoy watching the Junior Bake Off, a BBC/Channel 4 program featuring nine to 15 year old children who compete in baking challenges. The amount of self-talk by the children is fascinating. They use it to help themselves remember what to do, stay on task, remain positive, and acknowledge struggles. You might be interested to watch for yourself – check out Junior Bake Off on YouTube.

In spark*, we use a combination of picturing things in your brain and talking to yourself. Talking to yourself is encouraged to help

 children stay focused – “I’m looking for a brown bear, I’m looking for a brown bear.” Self-talk also helps them remember instructions. By repeating directions over and over, they keep refreshing their working memory. We also encourage children to remind themselves of strategies – “Now, I have to check my work to make sure it’s complete.”, “If someone is bugging me, I need to ignore them.”  Self-monitoring is a critical part of self-regulation so we encourage children to ask themselves,  “How did I do?” and “Did I do okay?”. This helps remind them to look at what they did and evaluate it. 

So, self-talk is normal. It’s used by most children and many adults to help them regulate their behavior, thinking, and emotions. In spark*, self-talk plays an important role in helping children focus, stay on task, remember information, self-monitor, and remind themselves of rules and strategies. Over time, children are encouraged to ‘say it in your brain’ rather than out loud.

Why do we need to work on cognitive self-regulation?

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Cognitive self-regulation focuses on helping children use their brains more effectively.

Many children, particularly those on the autism spectrum, can have a rather fractured view of the world. They notice lots of details, some important and some not. They might not notice the bigger picture and don’t chunk together the myriad details they noticed. This can lead them to learning lots of facts

 but not how to they come together. Think of an ever-expanding pile of collected bits and pieces. The number grows but they’re all in a jumble. Soon the pile reaches capacity and no more can be added. When things are in a jumble, it’s hard to find something when you want it. Unless those pieces can be organized, we’re pretty much at a standstill. 

Well, that’s what happens when you don’t have strong cognitive self-regulation. When we teach cognitive self-regulation, children learn to look carefully and systematically – doing one thing at a time. They learn to figure out the most important and relevant information. This means also that they have to learn to ignore some bits. 

Then they learn to put the bits and pieces together. They connect some of the new bits to other things they already know. They also form new concepts and categories of information. By organizing it, they can hang onto the information more readily. Also, it’s easier to find it when you need it. This is just like organizing things at home. If you put all mittens together, it’s easier to find a pair when you need them.

During this process, children are prompted to ask themselves if the information makes sense. This step involves checking if they understand – “Do I already know that?”, “Do I know what to do?” If they’re not sure, they’re taught to check things again and to ask for help if needed. 

What we’ve described to this point helps make sure children take in complete, accurate, and relevant information. They learn to check it out to make sure they understand,. And they put it together in ways that make storing and remembering easier.

Cognitive self-regulation also involves learning how to talk about ideas so other people can understand. Children are taught how to organize their thoughts so they can explain their ideas and talk about things that happened.
In the coming months, we’ll describe each of these processes in greater detail.

Learning is like interval training

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Just like any exercise, learning can’t go full blast all the time. Interval training in sports and fitness is highly effective for developing endurance and ability. It’s the same for learning. Do short high intensity workouts. Then, rest with lower intensity activities in between. 

Think about these cycles like chances to breathe in and breathe out. Children need a rhythm when learning. Bursts of learning occur where they breathe in, focus, and absorb. Then they need to have periods of breathing out and easing up. 

Some children can tolerate longer and longer periods of high intensity (breathing in) learning. This is okay … to a point. Don’t exhaust them after the first bit of high intensity learning. Keep it short. There’s more to come and you want to keep them positive about the activities. 

For the warm-up, present an idea or concept. Once the child warms up to the idea, the first interval can begin. The high intensity (breathing in) segment is relatively brief. You’ll come back to it again in another cycle.

Use this simple rule: total learning time with a child is no more than twice their age. For a two to three year old, that means your teaching/learning times are four to five minutes. But for a 10 year old, total learning time within a cycle is 20 minutes. Within that time, about one-quarter is for high intensity activities and the rest is for lower intensity activities. This is the exact ratio used with interval training for sports – in a four minute period, one minute is used in high intensity training and three minutes are for lighter intensity.

So how does this look for teaching children? Have a look at the table below. You can see that each “Total learning time” is two times each child’s age. Within that time, one-quarter of the time is high intensity (new) learning. This is when you introduce a new activity or concept and try it out. Then you back off for three-quarters of the total time to do an activity that requires less intense thinking and focus. It may be a practice session for the concept you introduced. If you incorporate the child’s special interest

s, it’ll feel more like a ‘breathing-out’ break. It can also be a complete down time where you just relax and do some Turtle Breathing. This choice depends on the child and the concept you’re introducing.

Some children may not want to to start a practice session. If you show them on a timer how short the practice session will be they might be more willing to try. Show them they’ll work hard for X number of minutes (say, four minutes for an eight year old). That’ll help them feel that an end is in sight and i won’t be long. 

As with interval training, this cycle can be repeated up to four times. It takes time to build this up, though. For the first few times, do just one cycle (Total learning time for the age group). As your child becomes a stronger learner, you can introduce up to four repeats of the cycle.

Use this model in teaching and practicing self-regulation skills, as well as other things. If your child has homework from school, make sure your sessions are no more than the total learning time for their age. Break that up into one-quarter high intensity work where they have to concentrate and think hard. Then have intervals for three-quarters of the time where lighter intensity is needed. You could have your child do another part of the homework that’s ‘easy’ for them. It might also be a break to do something your child enjoys.

By using this interval training model, you’ll find children are more willing to try new things. They also solidify their learning. This is because they’re not being exhausted by practice. Think of yourself during exercise; it’s easier to commit to more strenuous exercise for a minute or two, knowing it’ll be short and will be followed by a release. 


Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Q: My child gets upset when the teacher uses the Clip Chart. What can I do?

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A: Clip Charts are used in classrooms and perhaps at home to change behavior in children. The teacher has a chart with six to eight different categories of behavior on it. Typically, at the top is Super Star, followed by Outstanding, and Great Choice. The middle category is usually Ready to Learn or I’m doing my best to learn. The lower categories are labels like Reminder, Stop and Think, and Contact Home. So they run from positive praise to reprimanding and calling in the parents.

Each child has a clip or clothespin with their name on it. Children are expected to move their clip up and down the Clip Chart through the day based on their behavior. 

Clip Charts are viewed as tools that allow students to be rewarded for positive behavior and discouraged for negative behavior. It seems more like public shaming. Who’d want to have their clip on the negative squares for everyone to see? – Oh look, Bobby’s off task again. It shows the teacher’s the ‘boss’ of the classroom. But it doesn’t do much that’s constructive, like helping the children learn self-regulation.

People using Clip Charts must believe compliance is a goal. NO! We want children to be engaged and excited about learning, not fearing their clip might move down. Charts don’t teach self-regulation. They just punish less desirable behavior, that is, if the child even car

es. These charts really can hurt children. Even if the child with the clip in the bottom section doesn’t care, other children will consider them the ‘problem’ student. 

If teachers and parents really need to have a chart, try making all behaviors positive ones. Ones they can aspire to. Let’s encourage positive learning behaviors in all the children. Here’s an example of a Clip Chart that focuses on positive learning behaviors. Move a clip anywhere on this chart and it’s still positive. No child would be shamed by having a clip on the bottom of this chart. 

Please ask your child’s teachers to reconsider using Clip Charts that shame children. If children really need to stop and think, the teacher should have a private chat with the child. This will let them find out what’s going on for the child and how things could be made better. If the teacher needs to talk to the parents, don’t make it a threat. What a horrid idea! Have a chat with the parents AND the child together to work things out. 

There are lots of articles on this topic. Try out these (you might want to share them with your child’s teacher):

The power of one simple question – “What do you think?”

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In any classroom or group or family, there will be diversity. Some prefer the world to blister along, Others prefer it to take a slower pace. Some prefer to listen. Others prefer to watch. Regardless of the diversity, all students, all children, all learners benefit from time to think. It’s about taking the time to encourage children to explain their thinking.  It’s about them feeling safe to express their thoughts. 

Teachers are often pressed to accomplish a certain number of things each class or each week. Parents too feel a need to get a certain number of things done. You have to ask yourself: “Do I want to help the child learn how to think? Or do I just want them to comply with what I’m telling them to do?” That ‘s the difference. You can push ahead and get things done or you can help the children think.   

A parent reminded me of one phrase I use a lot: “What do you think?” That’s what I say to children, even low verbal children. I ask them to show or say what they think about … how to start an activity, what to do next, how they did something, what a problem might be, how well they did, etc. It’s simple. It’s powerful but it takes time. 

By asking this question, you’re doing a number of things:

  • You’re prompting the child to think
  • You’re showing the child they can think
  • You’re showing you believe the child can think
  • You’re showing you value the child’s thinking
  • You’re showing you value the child
  • You’re helping the child make their learning more solid 
  • You’re helping to enrich the child’s thinking

That’s pretty powerful stuff … just by asking a simple question. 

In the beginning, you’ll need to help children deal with the question. They’re used to people asking ‘test’ questions. Those are questions 

adults ask when they know the answer but want to see if the child does. Kids are usually pretty nervous about answering those questions because they risk being ‘wrong’. Children need to know that whatever they say will be looked at positively. Regardless of what the child says, the adult has to be willing to answer with “That’s a good idea.”, “Hmm, I’m not sure, Can you help me understand?”, “That’s interesting. Should we try it out?” These responses all indicate that the adult values the child’s ideas. The ideas may be way out there but the teacher must respond positively. What’s the harm in trying out a really different idea? I remember I posed a problem about a boy who fell down and scraped his knee. I asked a group of children what we could do. Some suggested getting his mom. Others said we could go to the doctor. One child said we should call for an ambulance helicopter. I dutifully wrote everything on the whiteboard. I acknowledged each idea. After all, they all focused on the injury. The children just needed more help in scaling back their ideas to the size of the injury. With more questions we figured out that it was just a little scrape and probably needed to be cleaned and covered with a bandage.  

What do you do if a child is unwilling or unable to answer your question? Start by narrowing down the options. You can ask the child to show you. You can point to or name a part the might be helpful – “What about this part here? Do you think it might be helpful?” or “Let’s look at your work and then look at the model? Do you think yours looks the same?” You can also comment on how you did an activity and ask if that’s okay. Ask questions that can have a positive outcome, ones that give the child credit for something they did well.

Over time, when the children learn you’re not out to catch them up, they’ll get bolder and more confident in answering “What to you think” questions. 

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash