What a difference a little calmness makes to self-regulation

spark* News

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 http://theses.gla.ac.uk/5247/1/2014tariqdclinpsy.pdf

JUST CALM DOWN! – what’s stealing your calm?

spark* News

Written by J. Jaques, edited by Heather MacKenzie

In February’s newsletter, we discussed how calm adults are critical in creating calm children. Despite this, you’ll often see adults trying to help an upset child by telling him, “Just calm down!”. By then, neither the adult nor child is at all calm. I (Joselynne) can become enraged if someone tells me to “just calm down”. So why would we use that phrase with children?

There are many reasons why we might be ‘on edge’ and losing our cool. It’s impossible to be calm if you’re bothered, distracted, exhausted, or feeling unsupported or unloved. It’s also easy to blame other people when something has stolen your calm – for example, that driver deserved to have me yell at him, he cut in front of me!

To teach children how to self-regulate and further develop their executive function skills, we need to rid ourselves of CALM stealers. The CALM acronym was developed to help us remember what it is that can steal our sense of calm and how we can help ourselves.

Read carefully through each feature of CALM and see which ones work for you. Then work on each of the resources included in the fourth column (“So we need to ..”).

Model and discuss the features of CALM (Content, Attentive/engaged, Loved/supported, Mindful of self-care) with your child. Tell them and show them how to develop their own independent CALM traits. These are crucial life skills that lead to greater personal happiness.

Always remember that adults have better problem-solving skills and strategies than children. When two adults don’t agree on something, we need to ask, “Who’s going to be the adult in this situation and take a step to solve things?” With children who are already struggling to self-regulate and problem-solve, the adults need to take the first step to modify the situation so the child can be successful.

Problem-solving takes time and guidance so avoid power struggles. Teach problem-solving in calm, positive ways so that these skills can also be used in more stressful situations in the future. 

Q: I can’t even get my son up in the morning!! How can I possibly work on self-regulation?

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A: Hmm, let’s think about why he might not want to get up in the morning.
Doesn’t he like going to his preschool. No, he loves it.

Does he prefer if you to dress him? No, he can dress himself and he’s quite proud of his ability to do it.

Okay, let’s back up then. Is he just tired? What time does he go to bed – 8 o’clock for a preschooler is pretty good. He has to get up at 7 am so he’d get 11 hours of sleep – that’s pretty good. Oh, so he reads in bed and doesn’t get to sleep until about 11?? He’s definitely not getting enough sleep. No wonder he’s tired in the morning and unwilling to get up and dress himself.

So the issue may be that he isn’t getting enough sleep. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How can we help him wind down at bedtime and get to sleep earlier? Routine and rhythm make a difference. Start at the same time every night. Allow 10 to 20 minutes before he has to get into bed. The sequence of events could be: wash face, brush teeth, put on pajamas, line up favorite bed toys so they can get some sleep too, get a favorite bedtime book, read the book for 10 minutes, say “goodnight” to the toys and tuck them in, lie down and close my eyes.   

That’s all good but how do you help him shut down his brain and body? How about using the Stop, Think and Breathe Kids – an app I reviewed and recommended in last month’s spark* News.

How did it go? His mom said that he dropped off quickly into a deep sleep. It looks like he’s been having problems self-regulating at bedtime in order to shut his brain and body down. 

The world is going to be a easier place for him now. Always keep in mind my acronym: children must be Calm, Alert, and Nourished. This little fellow need help with the Calming part.   

Apps for calming mindfulness

spark* News

Here are a few apps I found that are intended to teach calming mindfulness to children. I tried each one out and gave my evaluation of each. Try them out for yourself.

My criteria for apps include:

  1. they have to be free.  That gives you a chance to try them out before you decide to ‘buy’ into them.
  2. they can’t be too chatty. If they go on and on it’s just plain annoying. I find myself glazing over and can just imagine what it’ll do to our children.
  3. they use regular language. A number of the apps use concepts and images that are just too complicated – they cloud important issues.


Description: guided meditation for beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced users. Sessions are available in lengths of 3, 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 minutes.
Age range: 4 years and up
Format: iOS and Android
Cost: free (some features)
Evaluation: instructions are a little chatty and not well suited to young children and/or children who have language processing difficulties. With proper adult guidance, it could be useful.


Description: offers meditation, guided visualization and affirmations for children and teens.
Age range: 2 years to 18
Format: iOS
Cost: free (some features)
Evaluation: nice feature allows you to add and then control the volume of background sounds; peaceful (not gimmicky) meditations that would be suitable for children from 8 years and up

Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness

Description: offers guided meditation,
Age range: 4 years of age and up
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: a little chatty about all sorts of things other than breathing which may complicate things for kids with autism

**Stop, Breathe, and Think Kids

Description: offers children a fun and easy way to identify and process their emotions. From counting breaths to friendly wishes or frog jumps, each activity brings fun rewards to keep them engaged. Here’s an overview.
Age range: 5 to 10 years of age
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: each lesson is based on what you indicate to be your mood at that moment; nice simple language and concrete way to lead breathing (tracing fingers up and down to breathe in and out), guided meditation is quite sweet where you express gratitude to everyone involved in bringing raisins to you plus mindful eating of the raisin
**From my sampling, I’d give this one a good thumbs-up

Smiling Mind

Description: teaches mindfulness meditation
Age range: 7 years of age up
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: doesn’t really seem suited to children, uses concepts that wouldn’t be appreciated by most children

Super Stretch Yoga

Description: teach basic yoga moves and breathing to children
Age range: 4 years of age up
Format: iOS
Cost: free
Evaluation: effectively uses animated animals and videos of children doing the different moves. I just wish it wasn’t so fast-paced.

**Relax Melodies

Description: Mix and listen to over 52 different relaxing sounds with background sound support — this app can be used while using other apps. Have a look at a brief overview
Age range: 2 years of age up
Format: iOS and Android
Cost: free
Evaluation: able to build interesting combinations of calming sounds that can relax and centre your child’s mind.
** I’ve played with this quite a bit and find it relaxing

How much is too much?

spark* News

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

spark* News

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.

Calm adults, calm children

spark* News

Children, especially those on the autism spectrum, are like emotional sponges; they absorb emotions and feelings of others around them. They may not understand these feelings or why they’re experiencing them. They’ll just feel on edge and agitated.

Stress can shut down your capacity to think. You then lose access to higher level thinking, creativity as well as normal cognitive capacities (1).

It’s critical that, before working on self-regulation, people around the child become calm and centered. Learning and practicing Turtle Breathing , a form of mindfulness, enables you help children you care about remain calm.

Mindfulness isn’t quite as simple as it seems. It takes discipline. You need to cultivate and practice it. Our minds focus on what we should have done and what we need to do. In order to capture our moments in awareness and sustain mindfulness, you have to put in some effort.

Mindfulness is on a continuum. We’re all mindful to some degree at times. We all have the capacity to be mindful but we need to practice in order to increase our ability to exist in the present moment. And not just while practicing, but throughout our daily lives.

Once you’ve experienced and practiced mindfulness, do a few minutes of focused breathing immediately before interacting with children. You’ll be surprised by how smoothly things can go. We worked with a group of university students who were implementing spark*. We noticed that their first sessions were chaotic. We then walked them through 10 minutes of mindful breathing before each session. The difference in the children as well as the adults was astounding. The grad students remarked about how well-behaved the children were. They were beginning to see how their state of calm impacted the children.

Remember, the calmer you are when practicing self-regulation or when just interacting with children, the more likely it’ll be positive and successful.

Take a few minutes to calm and center yourself. It’s important for both you and the children you care about.

Take a few moments to experience Turtle Breathing, described here as mindful breathing. Enjoy the relaxing break it gives and imagine how your child or children you work with could benefit from these feelings of calm and ease. 

(1) https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/371f6f44-45d6-451a-9468-3f7bea648874/Nagel_2009.pdf