Teaching Self-Regulation

In an attempt to get back to regular posting, I’m starting a new Tuesday Series.  It won’t be necessarily every Tuesday, but my goal is that MOST Tuesdays I’ll be writing about SPD and helping kids that have sensory processing issues, as well as some “From the Heart” type-posts about our own journeys with Becca and the struggles and victories we’ve had.

When I worked on my master’s degree and had a professor who was majorly into brain research that wanted us to do a lot of our own research on the brain and the way kids learn, I was highly intrigued.  But I had no idea how much I would use that information with my own daughter.  God has a way of planning things out for us that we don’t even see or understand until we’re down the road.  I started gaining the head knowledge then of how truly different each individual child is.  I mean, I knew it, because I had experienced it all of my life, but I sort of grew up having an “us” and “them” mentality.  I fit into several different types of “us” groups, and sometimes the people I was grouping myself with mentally were also part of the “them” group in another way.  So I knew we were all different, but it really finally clicked when I became Grayson’s mom.  Having two kids that are so much alike but are truly NIGHT AND DAY different made me finally realize.  Neither of them are anything like ANY child I’ve ever met before.  And I taught a lot of kids.  I babysat a lot of kids.  And that’s when it started to really sink in.  We truly are ALL unique individuals.

And some of us have abilities that others don’t have.  Some of us can smell with our noses.  Some of us can sense the material that something is made from just through one simple touch.  Some of us can hear the smallest change in tone and therefore recognize any musical instrument, or tell you if the ice maker is malfunctioning.  Some of us can take apart something and immediately put it back together – the right way.  Some of us can walk.  Some of us can read a book and retain all knowledge for the rest of our lives.  Some of us… some of us… some of us… we each have special talents and abilities that others don’t have.  It could be viewed that not having a certain ability is therefore a disability.  Or, it could be viewed that having a certain ability that is more sensitive than maybe some others would also be a disability.  I would challenge those who say that everyone is gifted to then also say everyone is disabled.

I’m learning to teach Becca that she is unique.  Yes, she is special.  Yes, medical professionals might look at certain sensitivities or lack of sense that she has and call her disabled.  Yes, educational professionals might look at her IQ and mental capacity and call her gifted.  But the term “disability” and the term “gifted” (or combined, calling her “twice exceptional” or “2E”) don’t define my girl.  She has so many facets that make her who she is- my diamond in the rough.  We’ll be talking about many of those facets in this SENSORY TUESDAY series.

Teaching her to self-regulate is the hardest thing we struggle with daily.  So if you came into this post reading the title thinking I was going to have the magical perfect answer for every parent on how to help their kid self-regulate, I’m sorry for disappointing you.  I believe every child I’ve ever met has some sort of difficulty with self-regulating.  Whether they want to sit in front of a tv for hours and not move, or if they are addicted to sweet junk food, or if they are simply a kid who enjoys not following directions just to get a rise out of mom or dad, self-regulation is HARD.  But it’s an important part of learning how to appropriately live in the adult real world.  So here are some things I do with my sensory child daily to encourage the appropriate growth in this self-regulation area.

  1. I help her regulate her responses to change by giving her warning signals.  We do a lot of counting.  Not the whole “count to 5 or else I’m going to…” But, we count from 60-90 aloud when she is supposed to finish up on the potty.  Or from 30-60 when she needs to finish up brushing her teeth.  Or from 100-125 when she needs to finish up in the bath tub. I verbally clue her in “ok, so we’re going to count from ____ – ____ and then it’s going to be time to____.”  Sometimes she responds with a “no!  I don’t want to.” Which is perfectly normal, but not acceptable.  I begin counting anyway.  If at the end of the counting time she’s decided she’s not going to obey, then we go through whatever discipline is appropriate for the situation.  (I’m not about to coach you on how your discipline your child.  That’s your deal.  Mine is mine.)  I also help her regulate when we are leaving somewhere by counting down from 10.  When we get to 0, we high five each other and “Blast off” to our next location.  I do count down from 10 for behavior issues as well, and it works to give her time to make the correct choice, and when she obeys, she gets to give me a high five at the 0, and I congratulate her on making the right choice.  If she doesn’t obey, we take different measures, which again, are our own.
  2. Another way to help her self-regulate is by having a quiet place available for her.  I wrote a post about that a while back, which you can read here.  If we are away from home, it’s still important sometimes that she have a quiet getaway.  I offer her that opportunity by simply saying “do you need a quiet break?”  She will often take me up on it.  It happens a lot in the grocery store – especially when it’s not our normal time to shop and she is out of sorts with the number of people and the volume of the store (esp since our store is currently undergoing renovations and there are lots of loud construction tools such as electric drills).  She’s now so used to taking a quiet break at the store that she’ll even ask me for one (hello self regulation!!!!).  It’s not always convenient, but I try to make the time to step into a quieter area of the store, hold her head to my chest, and cover her other ear with my hand.  I count slowly in my head to 45, and then I give her a kiss and we move on.  Just taking that moment to step away and let her center herself with the sound of my heartbeat seems to really help her a lot.  Again, it might not work for every child, but for a child with auditory defensiveness, this is HUGE, and helps her to realize that a)I appreciate her verbalizing her needs appropriately b)I acknowledge her needs c)I have supported her needs adequately.
  3. Routine is another great way to establish self-regulation.  Becca is very used to the routine that she watches tv pretty much exclusively in the afternoon after her nap time, and she is allowed to watch three 20 minute shows.  She can choose which they are (she’s on a Magic School Bus kick at the moment), but she knows the routine.  When the second show is over, I tell her “this is the last one” before the third one starts.  She has learned that that’s all.  When we are done, we are done.  And she rarely ever asks to watch another show.  She knows that tv time is done for the day.  That’s just an example of what we do.  Obviously I’m not saying you need to do that in your house, but it’s an example of a routine that she is very used to that helps her to self-regulate in a way that keeps her on track – she is used to the routine, so it doesn’t become a fight, and she isn’t allowed to just indulge so far that she becomes a couch potato.  In the same way, we set a timer when we go outside to play, and she knows that when the timer goes off, it’s time to go in.  Having those routines established helps relieve stress on my part because she knows to expect it so there’s no reason to fight it.

Self-regulation and adaptation is super challenging.  I certainly don’t have all the answers.  But learning to adapt to our surroundings and adequately regulate our needs is a vital life skill that ALL of us have to learn.  The sooner, the better.  I would venture a guess that for sensory kids finding that balance of regulation is much more challenging… So we as parents of sensory kids need to find ways to encourage them when they DO make the right choice, and to help them realize what would be the right choice in the current situation if they’ve missed the mark.

I’ve found that I hear many parents tell their kids “use your words”… But then they just get mad at their child and say “no” or “don’t do that.”  We want our kids to tell us WHY but we don’t tell them WHY.  Granted, I realize that part of obedience is just doing what you are told- with or without reasoning behind it.  But for a sensory kid who can’t see past the fact that they are scared in the current situation, and then mom is mad at me for some reason, they need mom to stop and say “I realize that ____ is probably bothering you, but I need you to do ____ and your choice to not follow my directions is really frustrating me!  We need to ____!  Hurry up!  How can I help you get this done?”  I have discovered with Becca that using words to explain my feelings has caused her to start using words to explain her feelings.  Which is so valuable!!

So, while it doesn’t solve all the problems, I think that giving warning signals, providing an escape, following routines, and parental verbalization of feelings are keys to the many doorways that can block the path to success for a sensory kid.

What works in your family??  Please share!

Author: Mrs. H

I am a SPED Teacher who is mom to three beautiful children, a wife to a fabulous man, and blessed beyond compare!

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