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  • Writer's pictureDeirdre Azzopardi

We are Getting Self Regulation Wrong and What to do Instead

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

I hear from therapists over and over that they teach self regulation tools but children aren’t able to use them when needed. Their students know what to do when they are sad/ mad/ too excited but they never respond using these tools in the moment when big emotions occur.

Teachers are begging therapists to help with student’s behavior. We just know that this self regulation piece is driving behavioral difficulties but nothing seems to be working. The sensory diet is not sufficient and the child won’t use the tools that they have learned when they need to. What is a therapist to do?

First, we all need a wake up call to realize that the vast majority of ADULTS are unable to do what we have been asking children to do. Let's put yourself in a scenario. You come home from work after seeing 15 students that day. You barely had time for lunch and you know you have to get your kid to soccer practice but you can’t find their cleats. You have nothing for dinner and your dog needs a walk. At that very moment your youngest daughter wants to show you their drawing from school and you just lose it and start screaming. Your daughter is crying and you feel like the worst mother ever. What did you need at that moment? Do you really think you would have been able to name your zone and pick an appropriate strategy? Do you have the cognitive capacity to even think at all?

Our students also have these types of days. They may have arrived at school without sleep and not having had breakfast. They may have learning difficulties so the worksheet that gets thrust upon them makes them feel anxious and already behind. Perhaps they didn’t remember their homework and they realize that they don’t have anyone to eat lunch with because their best friend is absent. Can a cognitive based program work when they are overwhelmed with emotion?

The problem with self regulation programs is that we are trying to fix a feeling problem with thinking.

This is where simple mindfulness/ movement practices come in. This is not about adding a complicated process. It is truly about simplifying and targeting the real issue in these scenarios which resides in the body- not in the mind.

  1. This all starts with the adults around children. Do we have a way to bring ourselves to a place of calm when we get overwhelmed? A breath, a listening practice or a movement can all work but we need daily practice. We are the models for children so if we cannot find this for ourselves then how can we expect children to be able to do this on their own?

  2. Next, we need to be attuned to children so that we can literally “feel” when a child is too overwhelmed for thinking. This takes getting quiet. Adults talk way too much to children in these situations. We need to just hold space for a child with our presence. That may mean placing our need to be “right” or our need to control on the back burner while we care for the human being in front of us. Making sure that the child feels safe and loved is the first priority. When a child feels this sense of attachment they have a better chance to calm their nervous system and access the higher brain centers for learning. For one child this may mean a hug and for another it may mean just sitting and telling them you are there for them when they are ready.

  3. Teach children one or two simple practices every day when they are calm and regulated- not in the midst of the storm. Yes- one or two is all that is necessary. I present many different ways to move and various mindfulness practices but there are just a few core actions that need to be over-practiced in order to help children to access them in heightened states. As therapists this requires being more concerned about fostering habits rather than a child achieving a discrete goal when it comes to self regulation.

Two very simple practices are in these videos. Each practice takes a minute and children often love practicing them. They require no equipment and restore a sense of calm and focus. Try these WITH your students. Attune to how you feel while participating in the experience and share with your students while they share their feelings. We want children to WANT to return to these states by associating pleasure with the experience. These can be life changing tools but they need to be practiced!!

These may be just the two you need to move the needle on self regulation. If you would like more ideas please consider my online course, The Mindful Sensations Therapeutic Approach . It is AOTA approved for CEU credits and are meant to help YOU and your students. I am also really excited to announce that I am starting a coaching group in the New Year for school based therapists who want to take a deep dive into mindfulness and who also want to serve their students and themselves in a more joyful and purposeful way. Stay tuned for details…..

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