Social Self-Regulation, Sensory Regulation, Self-Regulation – what’s the difference?

spark* News

Increasingly we’re seeing the words ‘regulation’ and ‘self-regulation’ used in different places with very different meanings. So what are people talking about?

First, let’s talk about what regulation means. It is the ability to adjust or balance something. It’s not just controlling or hiding something. It’s adjusting or changing so it works better for you.

Self-Regulation in the spark* sense is conscious (deliberate) control of your executive functions (see spark* News from December 2017 for more information on this). That is, you learn about inhibitory control, working memory, planning and organization, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility (your executive functions) and how and when you need to adjust them. This way the child becomes the master of his/her own frontal lobes – recall that the executive functions are housed in the part of the brain just behind the forehead, in the frontal lobes.

Social Self-Regulation. The term “social self-regulation” is popping up more and more. It’s defined as the ability to regulate your body, thinking and emotions in social situations while reading social cues and responding appropriately. This is hugely complicated!  Most of us can think of adult friends or co-workers who struggle to self-regulate their body, thinking or emotions and end up misreading or responding unexpectedly or awkwardly in social situations. Proponents of social self-regulation seem to assume you already have conscious control of your body, thinking and emotions so you can dive directly into social skills. Clearly, they’re skipping critical underpinnings. See How is spark* different from Social Thinking? below.    

Sensory Regulation. Sensory regulation is the ability to regulate the sensory information in your body. Sensory regulation therapy focuses on having children feel sensations in their bodies and then move in specific ways until they appear regulated. The focus of sensory regulation is sensations and actions to modulate those sensations (for example, jump on a trampoline, carry something heavy, sway in a swing).  This approach assumes that, by working on these things, you are addressing children’s feelings and emotions as well as behavior. Again, there is no focus on executive functions critical to higher level skills.   

Regulation. The term ‘regulation’ is used to refer to many skills. It’s often unclear who is regulating whom – the child or the adult. Adult guidance and prompting are usually pretty central. Many people believe they’re helping the child develop self-regulation when the child can identify how high or low his/her ‘engine’ is running and then calm him/herself. This is NOT self-regulation – it focuses on the child’s energy level and involves self-control rather than all executive functions.