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

Teaching resilience to children

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Resilient people are aware of their thoughts and can do something to help themselves.

There are so many worries today. Children, and their families, are worrying about climate change, political upheavals, war, migration, etc. We need to help children become more resilient. They need help coping with day-to-day worries  and uncertainty in healthier ways. 

Here are some ways parents and other important adults can help:

  1. Build self-regulation in the children. This includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional self-regulation. Through self-regulation, children learn to control their impulses and moderate their thinking and emotions. 
  2. Nurture feelings of optimism. This is a difficult one because of all the going on in the world. Find something positive about things the child worries about. What are some things being done to alleviate the problem? This means that you need to deal with your own feelings and make sure the child isn’t feeding off your anxiety.
  3. Develop beliefs in their own resilience. Help children understand how strong they are and how well they cope with problems. 
  1. Teach ways to cope with anxiety and worry. Use strategies like Distracting, Dismissing, Displacing, and Distancing (spark* News, July/August 2019). Sometimes, thinking about other, more pleasant things (Distracting) can give a few moments of relief. Putting the worries away for a while (Dismissing and Displacing) can let the child think about other things. Thinking like someone else (What would Greta Thunberg or Sir David Attenborough do?) can help put the energy from worry on a more productive road. 
  2. Look for role models for positive action and support. This can involve the person used in Distancing worries. It helps the child think beyond themselves to people who are trying to do something to remedy a problem. Encourage the child to communicate with the role model.  
  3. Find social networks. Look for family members, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders who can foster optimism. These people provide perspective and support in times of need. There may be groups doing things to help, like cleaning up litter, feeding homeless people, or even lobbying legislators.

Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Some sensory resources to help regain self-regulation

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Here are some examples of objects that can help children regain self-regulation. There are many possibilities but I’ve included a few of my favorites. All are available on line from a variety of vendors – please do comparative shopping to get the best price and quality. 

  • Tents – indoor tents let children feel the comfort of a small, pleasant confined spaces. 
  • Lava lamps – watch the bubbles gurgle through
  • Liquid timers – watch the bubbles move up and down and around
  • Hammocks – get a soothing squeeze and move back and forth or side to side
  • Weighted blankets and objects – give soothing, centering pressure 
  • Earphones – block out sounds or channel favorite music/sounds 
  • Trampolines – get deep pressure by bouncing on the trampoline; get one with a handle bar so your child is less likely to fall
  • Ball pit – feel the balls enclosing around your body
IKEA HEMMAHOS Children's tent
Image result for indoor hammock child
Image result for weighted toys for kids
Image result for home ball pit for kids

Q: Why does my child fall apart the moment he walks in the door after school?

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A: Let’s think about the school day. The child spent anywhere from three to six hours at school, usually sitting, listening, interacting with others, trying to keep from being overwhelmed by sensations around them. That’s a lot of self-regulation for anyone. By the time they get home, they’ve had it. Their capacity for self-regulation is gone. They can’t do it anymore. That’s why they fall apart. They’re telling us they’re done. 

What can you do? Regardless of whether your child growls past you, welcome them warmly and tell them you’re happy to see them. Don’t judge and don’t be offended.

Suggest they go to a quiet place to recharge because it’s been a long day. Don’t be too wordy. They’ve probably had too much talking already.

Let them go to a quiet place where they can listen to music, watch a favorite video, or read a favorite book or just be quiet. Have some sensory objects available – hammocks are wonderful, ball pits are a favorite of many children, squishy objects are good as are favorite toys or stuffed animals. Give them uninterrupted time alone, time to recharge. Some ideas are presented below in Resources.  

After a while, offer them a snack that is both a sensory experience (maybe something crunchy or chewy) and nourishing. Don’t push. Just offer. Leave the snack close by.

After a while, if your child isn’t coming around, offer them something enticing. You might suggest more snack, a meal, watching television with the family, playing a sport …. You want to make sure they’ve recharged but don’t stay in isolation.

In a funny way, you can look at your child’s falling apart when they arrive home as a positive thing. It’s an indication that they feel comfortable and safe enough to let go. That is, home is a safe place where I can be myself.    


Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash

How much is enough? When to keep going and when to switch gears

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I was watching a podcast a while back. The speaker talked about results from research into their self-regulation program. She said that, after three years, improvements were found. THREE YEARS??? That’s a long time. Children change and develop no matter what you do – the improvements they saw might have happened just because the children are three years older. Also, she said ‘improvements’ were found, not statistically significant improvements, just improvements. Unless something is done in a carefully controlled study and results are statistically significant, they’re essentially useless. 

Lots of parents have told me about how their children had worked on the same things year after year at school. Their IEP (Individual Education Plan) or IPP (Individual Program Plan) looks the same year after year, only the dates change. Why is this? It’s likely because the goals weren’t achieved. So why is that? And why do they keep flogging the poor child with the same things over and over? It may be that the goals aren’t appropriate but, more likely than not, the way they’re teaching the child isn’t working.

So, how much is enough? At what point should I change what I’m doing? In my experience, if a child hasn’t shown progress within three months of starting a program or plan, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing. You should see change and improvement before that but three months is the limit. If a child hasn’t learned what you’re trying to teach STOP. You haven’t found an effective and meaningful way for that child to learn.
The same thing goes for research projects like the one I mentioned in the first paragraph. If they hadn’t found any changes within three months of starting the project, don’t keep going. Stop. Evaluate what you’re doing and make meaningful changes. Face it, you’ve hit a brick wall. 

If you truly believe in the goal and what you’re trying to teach the children, try changing one or more of the following:

  • Content. Is the content interesting or is it the same old stuff again and again? Inject the child’s favorite topic area or affinity. Make that math lesson about counting, adding and subtracting Thomas the Tank Engine’s friends. Divide the train loads in different ways for Thomas’ friends. Categorize dinosaurs, flags, or computers, looking for similarities and differences. A colleague was telling me about a child who showed no interest in books. She tried a variety of different types but the child lasted about 10 seconds. Then she took him to the library and guided him to books about cars – his passion. He chose a fairly mature and complicated graphic novel about car repair. He can now listen to this book for up to an hour and he’s learning from it. What a difference passion makes to anyone’s ability to stick with a task.  
  • How you want the child to respond. Many children have fine motor problems so asking them to use a pencil or pen can make things more difficult. Offer to act as the child’s scribe so you write what they say. Give the child three or four options for answers so they can choose by pointing. You can also use speech-to-text apps – on a mobile phone, just tap on the microphone symbol beside the space bar and talk away. It’s a fun and easy way to help children respond to activities that bypass areas of difficulty. Work on fine motor skills separately. Don’t mistake children’s reluctance to respond for lack of knowledge.     
  • Amount of practice. Sometimes, practicing a skill three or five times and doing it well are much better than making the child do it ten times. Don’t make it tedious. Also, know when to move on. Some days are not as good as others. If you see a child struggling with an activity they can normally do, cut it short and try again another day. Keep it as positive as possible so the child will want to come back to it.
  • Structure of the activity. Does the student have time to look over the activity and ‘warm’ up to it? Are the instructions clear? How does the activity look to the student? Does it look too busy or too long? Does the student have any choice about which things are done first, second, etc. or how quickly they need to be completed? Timed tasks can be destructive with some students – you can lose them before you start.  
  • Assessment of progress. What’s progress? Is it 80% correct? 75% correct? Sometimes, it’s 55%. If you see a child’s ‘got it’, why press for more? Celebrate the achievement and move on to something new and/or more challenging. Repeating the same old thing again and again is mind-numbing for the best of us.

Remember, three months is maximum. If you don’t see progress, change what you’re doing. 


 Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

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.  


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