How do I explain that?

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Planning what you say – the next step in cognitive self-regulation

We’ve looked at strategies for helping children take in and integrate information. The know to work systematically, select and remember the most important information, and check that they understand.

Now it’s time to teach them how to plan what they say so others will understand. 

We give the children lists of key information to include when they describe objects, people, and events.
Here’s one for describing objects:

If we want the child to describe an apple, they’d say, “It’s small and round and red with some yellow and it’s in your fruit bowl.” The order of the words is typically the order used in English – “three big, round, orange balls are on the table.”
We add more features once children get used to describing with the first list of features. This is the list:

This list allows for more detail to be added, especially around events, The comparison feature can let children describe something even when they don’t have the vocabulary – “His nose is long and looks like a pickle.”

We use these features in games like I Spy and Hedbanz. 

I find that children really enjoy barrier games. They’re are a great way to work on describing. They involve having two players sit across from each other with a barrier between them. Each player is given the same picture but can’t see the other’s. It’s similar to the board game Battleship. Using the key features list, each person describes how to color the picture. For example, “Color the leaves on the big tree on the left side of the picture green.”  or “Color the dog that looks like a sausage brown.” After a turn or two, compare the pictures to see if the instructions were clear and if the other person was listening carefully. Any errors are noted and misunderstandings are cleared up before moving on. There are lots of coloring pages online that you can use. Here are a couple of options: and

All executive functions are needed when working on describing objects, people, and events:
Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to plan their thoughts and don’t just blurt out whatever comes to their mind. 
Planning and organization – arranging ideas in an order that is understandable to other people. 
Working memory – keeping information in their working memory while they explain each feature.
Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they include all important information and the other person is understanding.
Cognitive flexibility – change what they’re saying or the order so as to help their listener.

You’ll learn much more about how to work on Cognitive Self-Regulation skills in The Autistic Child’s Guide books about spark* and spark*EL listed below.

What to do if your child refuses to do an activity

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Sometimes, you have a great idea of something to do with your child. Sometimes, they’ll refuse. What do you do?

Here are a number of things you can try:

  1. Don’t give them a chance to say “no”. Use phrases like “Let’s do this.“ rather than “Do you want to do this?” The second question can give them a chance to say “no”. Using “Let’s ….” is positive and inviting without being too demanding.
  2. Cite an expert or outside authority. A lot of children will respond to the idea of an outside authority – “The teacher says we’re supposed to do ten of these before tomorrow” or “The Minister of Education says …..” By citing an authority, it takes it out of your hands – “What am I supposed to do, X said we have to.”
  3. Inject your child’s favorite character from videos, books, movies. Insert the name(s) of favorite characters and use picture so them. Here’s an example maths problem where I substituted the word Pokémon for passengers:

                    There were 46 Pokémon on the bus.
                    19 Pokémon got off at the first stop.
                    15 Pokémon got off at the second stop.
                     How many Pokémon were left on the bus?

  1. Show your child how enjoyable it is. Invite your child to join you twice. If they don’t join you after two tries, go ahead and do it yourself. Make sure you show how much enjoyment you’re having—just don’t get frustrated or, at least, let them know you’re feeling frustrated.
  2. Prompt your child to correct you. While you’re doing the activity, make a mistake and wait for your child to correct you. If your child doesn’t correct you after a few seconds, correct yourself: “Oops, I meant ….”
  3. Offer your child choices about how many items they want to do or how long you’re going to practice.  You’ll notice this doesn’t give your child the choice of no items. Give your child a choice of, say, five or eight items or 15 minutes. Letting them choose will make your child feel more like they have some ‘say’ in the activity.
  4. Let your child be ’teacher’. Being ‘teacher’ puts your child in the ‘driver’s seat’. They can feel more in control of what’s done and how. Take turns with them so everyone gets a chance to be ‘teacher’.

The main ideas here are to be creative, think like your child, and don’t back yourself into a battle of wills.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

When self-regulation falls apart

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There will be times when a child has meltdowns. Even when they’ve learned self-regulation skills and strategies, meltdowns will happen. It’s unlikely you can stop one once it’s started. Try to introduce strategies as quickly as possible but if that doesn’t work, what do you do?

Sometimes, trying to intervene can just make things escalate. Sometimes, the meltdown just has to play out.

The acronym R.E.S.T.O.R.E. (1) can help you remember what to do to help get back to a state of equilibrium. Here’s the process:

Relax and get rid of any thoughts about the possible reason(s) why the child behaved the way they did. Reframe the child’s behavior in neutral terms about what happened, NOT why!
DO NOT start thinking about what you may or may not have done correctly or what errors you made  – this isn’t the time.
Take a deep breath, count to five and calm yourself. Remember that children can be ‘emotional sponges’. If you become agitated, your stress is likely just to add to John’s state. 

Empathize with them and express your concern for the child and their feelings – “I’m sorry you’re upset. Sometimes things just get difficult.”
Don’t talk too much. Keep your discussion short and simple.   

Soothe them silently, say little or nothing; sense their heart rate and breathing to track the child’s stress reaction. If the child responds to back rubs, try that. 

Time alone helps the child calm down; allow them to do nothing or do something that’s less stimulating. You can give them the option of going some place else but it may be too much for them to handle at that moment. You might offer them some water or juice or a piece of food. 

Organize a task or activity into smaller, more ‘do-able’ pieces while they’re calming down. Decide what would constitute ‘done’. You can change the number of things he needs to do (“Let’s do one more”), the difficulty of the task (“How about we try this one.”), the amount of time he needs to spend on the task (“Let’s do this for one more minute and then you’ll be done). Change whatever is needed to give them (and you) a sense of accomplishing something.  It’s usually wise to organize the task/activity out of the child’s line of vision so sight of it doesn’t set them off again.

Reinforce  their feelings of competence, tell them in as few words as possible how they’ve been successful before; prompt them to tell themselves how well they can do and how it takes time to learn.   

Entice them to the task or activity, such as by asking them for help, talking about interesting things about the activity; if they’re calm, encourage them to think about what they could do next time to help themselves.

The ‘Crisis’ Plan

Sometimes, you simply don’t have the time or you’re not in a good location to try these techniques. You may be in a time crunch and not have the resources available to restore the child’s equilibrium. You may be in a busy place and don’t want to embarrass your child or receive advice and judgement from people around you. The child’s behavior may also be causing distress for other people.

You should always have a ‘crisis plan’. If the child is melting down in the middle of a public place, try clearing the area as much as possible. Remove anything that might hurt them. Tell onlookers to move on. Try your best to ignore well-meaning ‘critics’ and ‘advisors’. Some people seem to need to give advice or criticize the child and you. Just tell them the child has special needs and you know what you’re doing.

Don’t talk too much or try to reason with the child. Once they’re distressed, their ability to process information is compromised. Talking too much can make things worse.

The Aftermath

Once the melt down is over, it’s over. I’ve found that most of the time, children don’t remember what happened. It was like a huge storm blew in and now it’s done.

Temple Grandin, an adult with autism, said that her temper tantrums weren’t expressions of emotions. More often than not, they happened when her ‘circuits’ overloaded – when she’d had enough. Once her outburst was over, all of the emotions faded away.
I’ve found that, once the outburst is over, to the child, it’s like nothing ever happened. If you try talking about it, the child may look at you and have no recollection.

Keep that in mind when you de-brief your child. They might not remember much about the outburst. They also may have no insight into why it happened. If that’s the case, move on. Don’t dwell on what just happened. You can work on that another time. Then you can work it into a self-regulation strategy.

Thank you to Marlene Holmgren-Lima for helping me come up with the R.E.S.T.O.R.E. process and acronym
Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Great News!

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great-news - Doctors At Australia Fair - Vantre Health

I’ve just revamped and updated the spark*EL program. There are new resources and everything is refreshed. Check out the updates.

You can buy your own copy of spark*EL (Self-Regulation Program of Awareness & Resilience in Kids – ELementary version) for 9 to 14 year olds through Amazon worldwide in both paperback and Kindle formats

Do I really understand? Comprehension monitoring – the next step in cognitive self-regulation

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We’ve already looked at how we help children learn to take in information (see the diagram below). The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention on one thing at a time. The next step was to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information. Then we helped them look for things that can guide their responses, using signals, clues, and models.

Next, we moved on to helping them put the information together. They learn strategies for ‘constructing meaning’ from information they hear.

This time we’re looking at the second major part of putting ideas together  – comprehension monitoring. It involves checking to make sure they understand what’s going on. If a teacher gives an instruction, the child needs to check to make sure they know what to do. Did they hear everything? Can they remember what was said? Do they understand the words and terms the teacher used? These are all part of monitoring comprehension.

Comprehension monitoring isn’t talked about a lot except in teaching reading. But, I’ve worked with too many children who let information just wash over them. They don’t know they should be checking to make sure they understand.

Picture a typical classroom. Children are chatting and moving around. Messages are broadcast from the office. Buzzers are sounding. The teacher is trying to keep the children’s attention. It all can be too much. This is why we work on taking in information first. We need to help children learn what to focus on and what to ignore. Now we need to help them figure out when they understand, when they need help, and how to get it.

Comprehension monitoring is a lot of fun to work on. The easiest way to start is to miss out key words in an instruction. Make up or find a list of simple directions (I’ve attached one for you to use). Read them out one at a time. Don’t say a key word. For example, “Say your first ___.” Cough, make a noise, or just swallow the key word so your child can’t hear it. Then let them try to do the task. Ask, “Are you sure you know what to do?” In the beginning, lots of children will do something even when they don’t know all the key information. This is when having a written list is helpful. Some children won’t believe you. You’ll have to show them the sentence you read. Once you’ve established not all key information was given, ask “What can you do to help yourself?” Prompt them to ask you to repeat the instructions – “Can you say that again, please?”.

Another approach is to use words you know they don’t know. You might give an instruction like “Color the tree cerise.”, “Make the car chartreuse.” or “Find the marsupial.”. The idea is to get your child to stop and check if they understand what you’re talking about. Ask, “Are you sure you know what to do?” Prompt them, “You can say, “What’s a marsupial?” That’s a smart thing to do. Not everyone knows what that means.” It’s important to let them know it’s meant to be a challenging task.

Another way to work on comprehension monitoring is to give a hugely long instruction. The idea is to help your child know that it’s okay to ask someone to repeat what they said. Try giving a direction like, “Stand up, turn around three times, find a yellow cup, put it on the table, and then say your first name.” Let the child try to do what you said. If they have difficulty, prompt them with “If you’re not sure, you can ask me to repeat it. That’s the smart thing to do.”

As with all activities, let children take on the role of teacher. Let them give directions and have you follow them and monitor your own comprehension. It’s a lot of fun and let’s children be in the driver’s seat every once in a while.

All executive functions are needed when working on comprehension monitoring:

  • Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to listen and check their understanding and not just leap ahead with whatever they think you might have said. 
  • Planning and organization – managing the incoming information and check if it makes sense.
  • Working memory – keeping information in their working memory while they check if they understand it.
  • Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they understand the information and then are following a direction correctly.
  • Cognitive flexibility – as they check their understanding, children may have to change their ideas about the meaning.

You’ll learn much more about how to work on Cognitive Self-Regulation skills in The Autistic Child’s Guide books about spark* and spark*EL presented on this site.

10 Myths about Self-Regulation

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At the moment, we seem to be plagued by tales of conspiracies and cover-ups. So I decided now is a good time to address some myths about self-regulation.

Myth #1: Self-regulation is just about managing stress and anxiety. Becoming calm, reducing stress and anxiety, is a first step to self-regulation … but that’s it. Calmness opens doors to developing and practicing all forms of self-regulation. Children with self-regulation problems have difficulty figuring out what to do once they’re calm. They need help learning to engage their executive functions. Then they can plan and organize their behavior, thinking, and emotions. They can control them and monitor how they’re doing. They can remember more and be more flexible in their thinking. Self-regulation involves controlling and modulating what you do with your body, your brain, and your emotions.

Myth #2: Self-regulation is just another word for ‘self-control.’ As you know, self-regulation involves all the executive functions – planning and organization, working memory, self-monitoring, cognitive flexibility as well as inhibitory control. Being able to stop yourself (inhibitory control) is just one part of what’s needed. It’s an important part … but only part. Self-regulation involves learning to control, plan, monitor, etc. behavior, thinking, and emotions. Importantly, it also involves learning when to let loose and just be yourself.

Myth #3: Self-regulation is just for managing emotions. To deal effectively with emotions, children need to learn how to regulate their behavior and thinking. They must calm and center their bodies and brains. Then, they need to figure out what’s going on and what’s most important and relevant. We’ve all seen children wrongly blame someone or something for an event they don’t like or want. This means they weren’t able to stop themselves and figure out what really went on. Those are important contributions from behavioral and cognitive self-regulation. Learning them needs to come first.

Myth #4: Self-regulation can’t be learned by some children. All children can learn self-regulation. That means young children, children with learning c

hallenges, gifted children … everyone can improve their self-regulation. Some children will need more support and practice but every child can benefit from learning and refining their self-regulation skills.  

Myth #5: Self-regulation has to be taught early or not at all. Self-regulation takes more than two decades to develop. Children are still learning and refining their self-regulation into their mid-twenties. This means we have a wide window of time for teaching self-regulation. The old notion of ‘critical period’ doesn’t apply here. But, if we start later in development, children will need to unlearn some old habits while developing new skills.

Myth #6: Self-regulation turns children into ‘tiny tyrants’. Children learn how to regulate their bodies, thinking, and emotions in ways appropriate to each family and culture. We make sure children learn when they can let loose and just do what they want – like do handsprings in the park. They also learn when that’s not okay and how to channel that desire. The goal is for children to understand their own behavior, thinking, and emotions and modify their responses in different settings. It doesn’t mean that they can do anything they want. Children will still need adult guidance but with less close supervision.

Myth #7: Self-regulation is just a form of behavior management. Behavior management is directed by an adult who rewards desired behaviors. Its goal is to decrease problem behaviors. Children may or may not be involved in the decision-making but the major source of control is the adult. Self-regulation involves teaching children they can control and direct their own bodies, thinking, and emotions. It also includes helping children understand when and where they need to self-regulate. They learn how to deal with distractions and stresses – that is, to become more resilient and advocate for themselves. In self-regulation training, children aren’t taught to modify specific problem behaviors. Instead, they learn to consciously exercise their executive functions so their thoughts and ideas are translated into actions. This is self-directed with adult guidance when needed … but not adult control or reward systems.   

Myth #8: Self-regulation lets parents and teachers be permissive. So Jonny is climbing the curtains and the parent says, “He’s just trying to self-regulate.” No, I don’t think so. That’s not the idea with self-regulation. We want children to learn they can control their bodies and that there are appropriate times and places to do different things – climbing is appropriate for playground equipment but not curtains. Adults in each child’s life act like coaches, encouraging and prompting them. It’s not a matter of letting children do whatever they want whenever they want.  

Myth #9: Not being able to self-regulate is a ‘moral failure’. If a child forgets to regulate their behavior, thinking, or emotions it’s not because they’re bad, being manipulative, or some other ‘moral failure’. The majority of children I’ve known acted in inappropriate ways not because they were trying to be bad. Their behavior was more often than not a result of curiosity (how does this toy come apart?), finding something funny or strange (for example, making fart sounds), by accident, or induced by stress. These are not because they’re mean or trying to irritate someone. 

Myth #10: Only children need to learn self-regulation. We all need to work on our self-regulation skills. Executive functions change throughout our lives so we need to adjust to them. This conjures up the image of my mother and how, as she aged, she became more likely to say whatever was on her mind – terribly embarrassing at times! Also, when we’re teaching children to self-regulate, we need to act as positive models for them. We have to plan and organize, control our impulses, remember important information, monitor our behavior, and be flexible in our thinking. These are huge asks but they’re critically important for us and our children.  

Photo by Justin Young on Unsplash

Putting information together – The next step in cognitive self-regulation

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The first part of cognitive self-regulation was helping children be systematic and focus their attention on one thing at a time. The next step was to help them figure out and focus on just the most important information. Then we helped them look for things that can guide their responses, using signals, clues, and models.

Next, we help them put the pieces of information together. We teach strategies for ‘constructing meaning’ from information they hear. It’s like taking the pieces of a puzzle and putting them together into a whole scene or object. Each piece is important but they need to be put together to get the full meaning.

Children with self-regulation difficulties tend to gather pieces of information together as if they were twigs – they’re bundled together but they’re every which way and the child doesn’t make a whole picture out of them. This means they often can remember details but not the complete meaning.

The ability to build a clear and complete picture out of information is critically important to understanding conversations and stories and for reading comprehension. 

We practice constructing meaning by telling the children short stories that they need to make into a picture. They’re helped to draw what they hear or to arrange objects to show the story.  A simple story might be: “A little brown rabbit hopped into a garden. He saw some delicious carrot tops. He ate all of them. Then he hopped home happily. He had a full tummy”. This story can be easily pictured – brown bunny, garden, carrot tops, no carrot tops, full bunny leaves.

I’ve found a lot of children focus on one detail and miss the main story. The child might draw rows and rows of carrots and forget the rest of the information. We gently guide children to listen again for other important details. Eventually, through repeated coaching, we help them arrive at a complete picture of the story. Then the final question is normally, “What ‘s a good name for this story?” This helps the child focus on the most important theme and put it into words.  

We don’t stop at simple stories. We need to practice with longer and more abstract stories. The goal is for children to construct meaning when talking to other people, when reading, and when writing their own stories.

All executive functions are needed when working on construction of meaning:

  • Inhibitory control – making sure they take the time to listen and don’t get distracted by small details. 
  • Planning and organization – being systematic and organizing details into a complete picture.
  • Working memory – keeping information in their working memory while they work to construct meaning.
  • Self-monitoring – checking to make sure they understand the story.
  • Cognitive flexibility – being ready to change their ideas about the meaning of the information as the story unfolds.

Free time doesn’t always feel free

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When a child has problems with self-regulation, they can find so-called ‘free’ time stressful. They probably have difficulty planning. 

Organizing themselves and figuring out what activities to do is hard if not impossible. This will increase their anxiety and, as they feel more stressed, their ability to plan and organize gets worse.

What can you do to help?

First, help your child calm down. Use some of the suggestions from our posting.

Then narrow their options. Choose two or three activities your child might enjoy. It’s best to choose some they can do on their own. There are lots of activities online. I really like shoebox tasks and file folder activities because they’re well-organized and, just by looking, your child will know what to do. Search “shoebox task ideas” for lots of suggestions. Many excellent file folder ideas organized by grade level can be found here.

Show your child the options. Either use printed words or pictures plus printed words – visual information is easier to remember and deal with, especially when they’re stressed. Let your child choose which one to do first.  
Remember, you can include making shoebox or folder tasks as one of the activities you choose with your child.

Put time limits on each activity. Even though your child really enjoys an activity, you don’t want them to become so immersed in it that it’s all they focus on. Agree with your child how long they should do an activity. Set a timer and stick with the agreed time – your child can always do the activity again later.

Lay out the two or three activities so your child can finish one and more on to the next. The more organized you care the easier will be the switch from one activity to the next.

For more information on organizing activities, see this posting and this

Keep in mind that free time can be anxiety-inducing in children with self-regulation problems. It means something very different for them.

We all need feelings of connectedness

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The current pandemic and confinement to our homes has made us aware how connections to others are such an important part of life. Regardless of whether we’re mainly introverted or extraverted, we need a sense of being connected to others in this world.

Connectedness is how close or related we feel to other people or groups. It’s a feeling of being loved, cared for, valued, and respected. We can feel connected to our families or friends or to organizations, like schools or clubs. We can also feel connected through pets.

These connections give us a sense of belonging. They make a big difference to our wellbeing. Children who feel connected to their families and schools are less likely to have behavior and mental health problems (1,2).

Connectedness with others not only makes us feel good about ourselves, it can open doors to learning and new relationships. Feeling connected in one part of our life can compensate for lower levels in other areas. So, if a child doesn’t have a sense of connectedness at school, they can gain their sense of value from family or community groups.

How do you find out where your child feels connected?
There are three main ways to figure out connectedness in your child.:

1. Watch your child. The simplest way to figure out your child’s sense of connectedness is to watch them. Does your child gravitate to certain people or places? Do they protest if they have to spend time with some people or in some places? Be sure to include family members, other children, neighbors, teachers, education assistants, therapists, other school staff, staff at clubs or community groups. Sometimes children develop a connection to kindly bus drivers and cleaning staff – don’t forget them,

2. Watch the other people. Another thing to watch for is how other people treat your child. Do they show that they care about and value your child? Do they respect your child as a person?

3. Ask your child. Make a list of people and places you think your child feels connected to. Ask your child:  
“If you’re worried or sad about something, who do you go to?”
“I feel happy when I’m with ______.”
“_______ is important to me.”
Since most of us are confined to our homes, you’ll have to skip to #3 above or try to picture past encounters. I’ve had some sweet moments with children when I asked them, “Who makes you feel happy when you think about them?
Here are two responses I received:

I thought I’d get a grandparent or friend but one child wanted Bear, his dog, and the other wanted Mickey Mouse. I’m fine with that if thinking of those things makes them feel happy. Go with what you get.

What do I do with this information?
Now use this information to help your child feel more connected while in confinement. Here are some ideas:
Make a picture or collage of the person, things, or people who make your child feel connected. Put it up on the wall or wherever your child wants so they can look at it and feel happy. I like to make thought bubbles out of cardboard, put a drawing or picture of the person on them, and put them in a prominent place.
Contact that person by video (for example, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom) or telephone and let your child chat. It’s usually best to help your child organize what they want to say and show the other person beforehand.
Have your child make something for the other person that tells them how they feel. This could be a paper hug like the ones below – you can find other ideas on the internet. Mail it to the special person.  

  • Encourage the other person to make a paper hug for other small gift for your child and send it by.
  • Ask your child what makes them think of the other person or animal. It might be an object – my grandma always wore a brooch which by looking at it or holding it makes me feel comfort. It could also be a certain aroma (like baking bread) or particular dish. I listened to a podcast the other day where a person in confinement made dishes his mother used to cook. They helped remind him of his deep connection to his mother.
  • Online interactive games can also give your child a feeling of connectedness. If these activities are well-supervised, they can be positive experiences.
  • Tell your child you love them and how much you value them. Do it every day!

Make sure you help yourself feel connected. Contact important friends, family members, and colleagues – the ones that make you feel valued, loved, and respected. Do things that remind you of those people. These things will help you stay healthy and you’ll be able to help your children even more.

Do you have other ideas? Please share them

1. Foster, C. E., Horwitz, A., Thomas, A., Opperman, K., Gipson, P., Burnside, A., Stone, D. M., & King, C. A. (2017). Connectedness to family, school, peers, and community in socially vulnerable adolescents. Children and youth services review, 81, 321–331.
2. Marraccini, M. E., & Brier, Z. (2017). School connectedness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors: A systematic meta-analysis. School psychology quarterly32(1), 5–21.