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.

Self-Regulation takes time to develop

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Executive functions and self-regulation typically develop and mature over a fairly long period of time.

Developing and refining self-regulation takes place over at least the first two decades of life. Each of the five key executive functions develops at different paces; some maturing earlier, some later.

Check out the diagram below. It shows that self-regulation starts developing from birth and doesn’t reach a mature level until at least the mid-twenties. That’s a long time but there are a lot of things going on.

We see the infant sucking his fingers and thumb to regulate and soothe himself and that’s just the beginning.

Preschoolers show an enormous surge in their abilities to control their bodies. Regulating their emotions also matures quite a bit. Attention skills become less scattered and children can pay attention to things for longer periods of time.

In the later preschool years, cognitive self-regulation improves. Children are better able to plan and organize themselves and things they want to do. Their working memory improves and they’re checking how they do. Their improved cognitive flexibility means that they can change plans and approaches to things more easier.

One really important change in the later preschool years is the emergence of meta-cognitive awareness. That is, children become aware of their thinking, things that help them remember, and things that make it harder to learn.

All three areas of self-regulation (behavioral, cognitive and emotional) continuing improving during the school years. There’s a small dip during the teen years – ask any parent of a teenager what that’s about –  but it’s followed by continuing refinement.

After the mid-30s, self-regulation starts a decline. Those readers who are seniors will appreciate the changes in working memory and attention – “I’m in the kitchen, what was it I was going to do?”

Self-regulation develops over at least the first two decades of life. This long period of development means two main things:

  1. we have a wide window of time to help our children develop and improve their self-regulation, and
  2. we shouldn’t expect self-regulation to appear overnight.

Our brains are plastic in the sense that they can change and mold to new experiences. New nerve pathways are developed when we learn and practice new things. Keep in mind that learning to self-regulate takes time and daily practice. This is especially true for children who need to un-learn old ways of doing things and develop new approaches.

How is spark* different from Social Thinking®?

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When therapists are asked how they address self-regulation and executive functions in their intervention, the answer is often that they’re using the Social Thinking® (ST) Program, in particular Zones of Regulation®.

Although these are good resources, there are crucial differences between the ST programs and spark*.

Most importantly, spark* focuses on building children’s foundation skills – body, cognitive and emotional self-regulation.

Many teachers and therapists want to leap in to deal immediately with the most obvious social and emotional issues in their students. That’s understandable. But the children don’t have the body and cognitive self-regulation skills to be fully successful.

Children need to have control of their bodies, learn to self-calm, take in information systematically, decide what’s most important, construct and express meaning, etc. before heading into complex social problem-solving. For example, if children don’t know what’s most important to look at or how to put pieces of information together, they’re less likely to benefit from instruction in social or emotional self-regulation.

Work on body self-regulation first, then cognitive self-regulation and finally emotional self-regulation before social skills training.

ST has some great handouts or materials but they assume that children have already mastered body and cognitive self-regulation as well as strong language and thinking skills.

It’s little wonder that outcomes of social skills training programs have been less than we’d hope. Children who’ve had social skills training typically use them only sporadically in everyday life++ It’s like there’s a disconnect between the social rules and behaviors and their application in daily life.


++ Bellini, S., Peters, J. K., Benner, L., & Hopf, a. (2007). A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Social Skills Interventions for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 153–162. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280030401

++ Rao, P. A., Beidel, D. C., & Murray, M. J. (2008). Social skills interventions for children with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism: A review and recommendations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(2), 353–361. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-007-0402-4

++ White, S. W., Koenig, K., & Scahill, L. (2010). Group Social Skills Instruction for Adolescents With High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(4), 209–219. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357610380595