I’ve written an introduction to self-regulation, what it is, and why we should be interested in it. Please have a look and let me know what you think.
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.
Crafts and activities
Crafts involving cartoon and animé characters: http://www.dltk-kids.com/crafts/cartoons/zoo.html
Recipes with step-by-step pictures: http://www.kids-cooking-activities.com/
Lego with step-by-step pictures (have to enter keyword describing the object or the number of the set): http://service.lego.com/en-us/buildinginstructions
Fun paper airplanes: http://www.funpaperairplanes.com/
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:
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.
Self-regulation starts with the brain, with executive functions. Brains work 24 hours a day and move into high gear when you’re working on self-regulation. This is especially true when you’re first learning.
So what’s your tummy got to do with it?
Well, your brain needs fuel to function and that fuel comes from food. Not just any food but good quality foods that have lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (1). A balanced diet includes a variety of foods that contain nutrients necessary for good health …. and for brain function.
We know that up to 90 per cent of children with autism have selective diets (2). That means they have strong preferences for just a few favorite foods. Those favorite foods are usually carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and highly processed snack foods (3, 4, 5, 6). Favorites I’ve seen are goldfish crackers, chips/crisps, dried fruit snacks, and noodles. Those foods don’t fuel brains or bodies very well or for very long.
Food and mood are also linked. That is, the better the food you eat, the better your mood. Children with autism who have selective diets (limiting the amount of protein and fiber they eat) are more likely to have temper tantrums (7). And it’s not just children with autism! Non-autistic boys whose diets are low in vitamins and minerals are more likely to have behavior problems (8). I worked with a lot of children who were selective eaters. You can almost predict their ‘mood crashes’. It seemed that they soared on the sugars they ate and then just fell apart when their ‘fuel’ ran out. Two hours after they ate, they’d become irritable and angry and couldn’t do much of anything.
Watch them carefully and know what they eat. If we expect them to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions, their brains need lots of good quality ‘fuel’ from food. If we want them to interact positively and consistently, their mood needs food too.
In spark*, I emphasize the importance of fueling the children’s brains when working on self-regulation. Young children trying to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions should eat nutritious foods every 2 to 2 1/2 hours to keep their fuel levels up. But how do you get them to eat something other than ‘the usual’?
Selective eating in children with autism is related to sensory issues and to their preference for sameness. Food texture, appearance, taste, smell, and even temperature can figure into food choices (9). I’ve heard of children who’d only eat yellow food or crunchy textures. The way food is presented (such as food packaging, how food is placed on a plate) and eaten (fingers, spoon, fork) can affect whether they’ll eat them (10) – they prefer the same old things. Our children aren’t keen to try anything new.
We know that straight behavioral approaches (like rewarding acceptance of new foods) have limited success (11). They resulted in children eating more food but not a larger variety of foods. Other approaches, like desensitization and reducing sensory issues, haven’t been well-studied so the jury is still out.
There is one approach that is really appealing to children with autism. That’s The Eating Game (stands for Get Awesome Meals Everyday). It’s visual and structured. It makes meals predictable and, best of all, children learn to self-regulate their eating – they know when they’ve had enough and when they need more of certain types of foods. The Eating Game presents a visual plan for each day that shows the number of servings for each major food group. The food groups are color-coded as are pictures of foods within each group – of course, you can add personal favorites. Children match the color of each food option and see when they have the right ‘balance’ of foods. I’ve tried it. Children love it and it helps ensure they get the brain fuel they need.
(1) antioxidants protect your brain from oxidative stress or the “waste” (free radicals) produced when your body uses oxygen. Free radicals can damage brain cells.
(2) Ledford J. & Gast D. (2006). Feeding problems in children with autism spectrum disorders: a review. Focus Autism Other Dev Disabilities. 21, 153-166.
(3) Schmitt, L., Heiss, C. J., & Campdell, E. (2008). A comparison of nutrient intake and eating behaviors of boys with and without autism. Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 23(1), 23–31.
(4) Ahearn, W. H., Castine, T., Nault, K., & Green, G. (2001). An assessment of food acceptance in children with autism or pervasive developmental disorder—Not otherwise specified. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 505–511
(5) Schreck, K.A., Williams, K., Smith, A.F. (2004). A comparison of eating behaviors between children with and without autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 13(4), 433-438.
(6) Williams, K. E., Gibbons, B. G., & Schreck, K. A. (2005). Comparing selective eaters with and without developmental disabilities. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 17, 299–309.
(7) Dominick, K., Davis, N., Lainhart, J., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Folstein, S. (2007). Atypical behaviors in children with autism and children with a history of language impairment. Res. in Dev. Disabilities, 28, p. 145-162.
(8) Robinson, SL, Marín, C, Oliveros, H., Mora-Plazas, M., Richards, BJ, Lozoff, B., Villamor, E. (2018) Iron Deficiency, Anemia, and Low Vitamin B-12 Serostatus in Middle Childhood Are Associated with Behavior Problems in Adolescent Boys: Results from the Bogotá School Children Cohort, The Journal of Nutrition, 148, 760–770,
(9) Schmitt L, Heiss C, Campbell E. (2008). A comparison of nutrient intake and eating behaviors of boys with and without autism. Top Clinical Nutrition. 23, 23–31.
(10) Williams P.G., Dalrymple N., & Neal, J. (2000). Eating habits of children with autism. Pediatric Nursing. 26, 259–264.
(11) Marshall, H., Ware, R., Ziviani, J., Hill, R., & Dodrill, P. (2015). Efficacy of interventions to improve feeding difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Care, Health & Development, 41, 278-302.
Self-regulation is about making conscious decisions in relation to your executive functions – planning and organizing, controlling your impulses, engaging your memory, self-monitoring, and thinking and acting flexibly.
Here are five things you can do to encourage self-regulation in everyday life.
- Prompt children to plan and organize activities. Start with one or two steps in a familiar activity and then gradually move to more complicated, less familiar things. Start an activity and ask the child, “What do you think we should do next?” No matter what the child says or does, give it a try. If it doesn’t work, that’s a learning opportunity – you can gently guide him into rethinking the approach. When it works, ask him to choose “the next step” and the one after that. This helps children to start thinking ahead and develop more independence.
- Teach children they are the masters of their own brains and bodies. I found that when I used ‘self-distancing’, children were more likely to start self-regulating. Self-distancing is a simple but powerful tool – children are prompted to step back from their brains and bodies and tell their brain or body part what to do. I (Heather) teach children to talk to their brains, hands, feet, voices, etc. so “you can help them learn”. By using this simple distancing process, emotions are removed and children become their own teachers. Try it! Telling your brain or body what to do is remarkably powerful.
- Model ways to help yourself remember. When you’re trying to remember something, talk out loud about what you’re doing: “Okay, now what was I going to do? That’s right, I’m going to the kitchen to see if we need more milk from the store.” That shows your child a way to ‘remind’ your brain about plans. Another strategy is to visualize: “Let me make a picture in my head. I want to go to the bedroom, get my shoes and then get my jacket …. It’s like making a movie in my head!”
- Make checking progress part of every activity. After you start an activity with your child, stop and say, “Let’s see how we’re doing. Are we following the plan? Does it look like the picture in our heads?” Model how you can stop and change things if the activity isn’t proceeding as you expected. Have your child evaluate the progress too so he can learn to self-monitor on his own.
- Change your mind. This is part of learning cognitive flexibility, a sometimes challenging thing. Once you have a plan in place, announce “I’ve changed my mind”, and change one small part. You might change the order of doing things – “I’ve changed my mind, let’s read a book first and then watch the video” or “Let’s put on your shirt and then your socks”. Progress to larger changes – “I’ve changed my mind. How about we go to Safeway/Tesco/Hyper U instead of our usual store today?” Make small changes part of everyday and be sure to reassure your child, “We can change our minds. That’s okay sometimes.” Be sure to let your child make changes too. It’s important to help him take a more flexible approach to life.
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.
We all hear that you should work on certain skills or use a particular program. Before diving in, we need to ask ourselves what we really are looking for. What do we want for children with autism?
From the spark* viewpoint, we want quality of life for people with autism, not just social skills, imitation skills, play skills, etc.
Quality of life (QOL) refers to a person’s general feelings of well-being, positive social involvement, and opportunities to achieve personal potential. QOL for individuals consists of eight hierarchical factors (1):
- Physical well-being – health, nutrition, exercise, activities of daily living, leisure and recreation
- Material well-being – financial security, employment, shelter
- Rights – being treated with respect, dignity, equality, privacy as well as having legal rights observed
- Social inclusion – the feeling you are a valued and important member of society
- Interpersonal relations – being able to participate with others in your community
- Self-determination – making your own choices and decisions, having a sense of personal control
- Personal development – having opportunities for education and purposeful activities, feeling competent and fulfilled
- Emotional well-being – including freedom from abuse and neglect, feeling happy, having a sense of security, having friends and caring relationships, feeling of contentment
Overall, QOL rejects a deficit approach to autism. It focuses, instead, on strengths, human diversity and human rights.
Self-regulation weaves through all aspects of Quality of Life. Physical well-being, for example, is achieved through planning and organization, balancing impulses (controlling the amount of chocolate cake you consume), remembering your goals and ways of achieving them, monitoring your progress and state of being, etc.
What are executive functions?
Executive functions are brain processes that are mainly contained in your frontal lobes (just behind your forehead). They make it possible to turn your ideas and goals into actions. Those can be things you do or things you say.
Have a listen to Dr. Adele Diamond, Canada Research Chair Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Diamond has studied executive functions for over 30 years and is the leading expert in developmental cognitive neurosciences.
So how do executive functions work?
Have a look at the maze below. If I want to complete it, what do I need to do?
I have to get myself organized – what do I need? – a pencil and, thinking ahead, an eraser would likely be a good idea.
I need to control my impulses that make me want to add a sun to the sky and some bigger flowers.
I make a plan to start by drawing with my finger first, moving to the right to see where it leads me.
I have to keep my plan and my goal in my working memory as I move along.
Oops, I keep running into dead ends. Self-monitoring made me realize I need to stop and adjust my plan. I need to be flexible enough to stop what I’m doing and try a new approach.
Those acts used five key executive functions:
- Flexibility (cognitive flexibility) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out
- Inhibitory control – keeping myself from doing the same old thing over and over again or from leaping at the first thing I notice or give up if I run into problems
- Memory (working memory) – keeping my plans and ideas in my memory while I work away
- Monitoring (self-monitoring) – checking to make sure I’m following my plan and that it’s working out okay
- Planning (planning and organization) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out
That’s F.I.M.M.P. for acronym lovers.
Connecting self-regulation & executive functions
Self-regulation is the ability to consciously (deliberately) control your executive functions. That is, I remind myself to develop a plan and organize what I’m doing before starting. I tell myself to stay on task, keeping important things in my memory bank, and not get distracted. I also keep checking to see how I’m doing and change my plan if things aren’t working out.
Self-regulation is taking control of your executive functions and making them work for you – not just leaving things to chance.
By developing self-regulation skills:
- your behavior, thoughts and emotions don’t rule you
- you become more self-directed, planful, adaptable – not having to have another person hanging over you all the time
- you understand the relationship between effort & achievement; that is, what it takes for you to gain what you want or reach important goals
I recommend using action songs of all sorts to teach self-regulation.
Learning to stop, start and change movements to music and songs is a lot of fun. Not only that, it’s a great way for them to learn how to manage their behavior, thinking and emotions. Bonus! That also leads to greater success in school.
All of this from playing Simon Says? Well, not completely but action songs are a fun way to start. When you play Simon Says (here are step-by-step instructions), children have to pay attention, listen carefully for the words “Simon says” before doing the action. Add in distractions and excitement and you have a great way to firm up your self-regulation skills.
Change how slowly or how quickly you sing each song or play each game. Change your voice to loud or soft or your ‘everyday voice’. Clap, stomp, jump or move quickly, softly, hard … any variation that helps children control their bodies. I’ve had a lot of fun when I asked the children to decide how they want to vary each song or chorus. Give them a chance to be leader and see if your self-regulation skills are up to snuff.
Any songs and games where you have to start and stop (that is regulate your attention and body) are excellent ways to work on self-regulation. Just make sure to stop while it’s still fun.
Here are some resources to help you get started:
For preschoolers and early elementary-age (Primary through Year 2) children
Nicky’s Nursery Rhymes: http://www.nurseryrhymes4u.com/NURSERY_RHYMES/
Early Years Experiences Songs and Rhymes – Action Songs http://www.bigeyedowl.co.uk/show_songs.php?t=3
Mama Lisa’s World International Music and Culture Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes http://www.mamalisa.com/?t=heh
Kiddles Kids’ Songs Complete List http://www.kididdles.com/lyrics/allsongs.html
Elementary School Music Early Childhood Songs and Rhymes
Action songs http://www.songsforteaching.com/movement.htm
Action songs: http://preschoolexpress.com/music_station.shtml
Action songs http://www.kididdles.com/lyrics/busy.html
Clapping games, songs, and rhymes http://funclapping.com/about/
Songs and rhymes for older children
Scout Songs http://www.scoutorama.com/song/
Action Camp Songs http://www.my-favorite-camping-store.com/action-camp-songs.html
Dragon’s Campfire Songbook http://dragon.sleepdeprived.ca/songbook/songbook_index.htm
Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Lyrics http://www.educationdx.com/songs-nursery-rhymes-and-lyrics-elementary-school.html
lntimate Campfire Resource: http://www.ultimatecampresource.com/site/camp-activities/songs-with-motions.page-1.html
It’s not just children with autism or other conditions who need help with self-regulation. Every child could use a little help but some need more. Most children will need help at different stages in life. Self-regulation doesn’t just happen for many children.
As we talked about in February 2018, learning self-regulation takes a long time. Developing and refining self-regulation takes at least the first two decades of life. And, each of the five key executive functions develops at different paces; some maturing earlier, some later.
So who needs help?
Do you find that you have to remind your child over and over and over to:
- Put his things away (like his jacket or toys)
- Calm down
- Slow down
- Use a quiet voice or speak a little louder
- Listen carefully
- Not hit or push other children
- Do something on his own from beginning to end (like homework or chores)
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, your child could benefit from working on self-regulation.
Often we get used to patterns of behavior and don’t really notice if a child is different from others his age.
The Executive Function Survey will help you summarize your day-to-day experience and let you look at some of these patterns. Go ahead and complete the survey. Once you’ve finished answering all the items, add up each column from pages one and two. There are a total of 25 items but, even if your child does three or more things ‘very frequently’ or ‘always’, you should start working on your child’s self-regulation.
I’ve had parents say, “Oh, he’s just a busy boy.” and pass off the behaviors as just being a kid. That’s not really helping him. We all know what can happen if we just wait and see.
Start now and don’t wait for failure or bad experiences.