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

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)

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

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

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?

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. 

Resources to help children become calm

Here are some resources for helping children become calm and centered.


Resource books on yoga

Wiertsema, H. (2001). 101 Movement Games for Children: Fun and Learning with Playful Moving. Alameda, CA: Hunter House

Chryssica, M. (2006). I love Yoga. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Garabedian, H. (2008). Itsy Bitsy Yoga for Toddlers and Preschoolers: 8-Minute Routines to Help Your Child Grow Smarter, Be Happier, and Behave Better. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

Mainland, Pauline (1998). A yoga parade of animals. Boston: Element Children’s Books

Purperhart, H. (2007). The Yoga Adventure for Children: Playing, Dancing, Moving, Breathing, Relaxing Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Purperhart, H. (2008). The Yoga Zoo Adventure: Animal Poses and Games for Little Kids. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Bersma, D. & Visscherm M. (2003). Yoga Games for Children: Fun and Fitness with Postures, Movements and Breath. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

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

A: We actually do work on attention while we focus on the different executive functions.

First let’s look at a few different kinds of attention:

  1. Selective attention – this is where attention is paid only to the most important information available. We choose what to focus on – sights, sounds, smells, taste or feel – whatever is most important. This means paying less attention to or ignoring other things.
  2. Sustained attention – this is where we sustain or continue paying attention. 
  3. Shifting attention – this is where we move our  attention from one thing to another. It’s really important when we have to keep a few things in mind at the same time. We have to move our focus from one thing to another.

When we work on executive functions, we’re working on all  types of attention.

Take inhibitory control for example, children have to focus on just the most important things. At the same time, they have to ignore things that aren’t important. This takes selective attention, sustained attention, and sometimes, shifting attention. 

When planning and organizing, children have to pay attention to just the most important things, keep their focus while making their plan, and shift their attention from one item to the next.

As you can see, attention is an important focus to our approach. But it’s integrated into the total program rather than being worked on separately.

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

What a difference a little calmness makes to self-regulation

We’ve talked about calm adults and how important it is to be calm around children, especially those with autism. But how about the children?

We know that anxiety is a huge issue for most people with autism. Around 80% experience mild to severe anxiety on a daily basis (1).
We simply can’t remove every source of anxiety and stress.

In fact, anxiety can sometimes be helpful. Being a little bit anxious can keep us on our toes and  alert to what’s going on. If there’s a total lack of stress, it’s easy to slip into boredom – not great for learning.

But too much anxiety pushes children with autism into distress. Distress can be caused by an unscheduled change, too much stimulation, anything unknown … all sort of things. Check out my adaptation of the Groden Stress Survey to see what things stress out your child with autism.

Our goal should be to expand the range of optimal stress. That’s the place where our children are alert and interested. They need effective strategies so to help them expand that region and regain it if they start heading into distress.
About the worst thing you could do is to tell a stressed child, “Just calm down”. That’s like adding fuel to a fire. It can make things worse.

We need to teach child how to be calm when they’re calm. First, our children with autism need to experience what calm feels like. Many of them have no idea what their bodies and brains feel like in a state of calm. That’s where we start – we have to help them understand what ‘calm’ is.

Using a simple technique like Turtle Breathing (slow mindful breathing) is powerful. You help them focus on the inflow and outflow of air through their nose or mouth. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. Think only of your breath. Let ideas that sneak into your brain float away and think only about the air coming in and out of your nose or mouth. Do that for just a few minutes to start. Help your child understand that this is what ‘calm’ feels like. Being calm helps your brain and body work better.

In spark* and spark*EL, we practice Turtle Breathing until children learn they can do it themselves (the Awareness of Ability phase of learning). Then we help them understand where and when it can be helpful (that’s the Awareness of Need phase of learning). After carefully establishing those things and practicing, we’re ready to take it on the road and into action in everyday life.

(1) Tariq, A. (2014). Asperger’s Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury: The role of Anxiety in Executive Function and Theory of Mind Deficits and Clinical Research Portfolio. University of Glasgow. Retrieved from

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.


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:

Recipes with step-by-step pictures:

Lego with step-by-step pictures (have to enter keyword describing the object or the number of the set):

Fun paper airplanes:

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.