Bigger Kids

How to teach your kid to self-regulate

These simple techniques will help your child self-regulate when they are over- or understimulated.

By Erin Pooley
How to teach your kid to self-regulate

Photo: iStockphoto

As parents, we’ve all been there. Tapping our foot repetitively during an important meeting to try and stay awake. Blasting the music in the car to keep from nodding off after a late night up with a sick child. Or, taking a warm bath to soothe frenzied nerves before going to bed. It’s called self-regulation—and most of us engage in these alerting or soothing activities several times a day. Turns out kids need to self-regulate, too. They just need a little extra help identifying when their engine is running too low—or too high—and some strategies for reaching an optimal level of arousal throughout the day.

Self-regulation at school Kids need to reach just the right level of alertness to learn. That means being ready to focus and listen—and feeling calm and centred in the classroom. At e.p.i.c. School in Toronto, teachers have introduced the Alert Program, which teaches children to self-identify if their engines are in working order and then employ techniques to get them running “just right.”

For example, a racing heart, restlessness and fast breathing are all signs of an engine running “too high.” On the other hand, difficulty focusing, trouble keeping eyes open or heads up are signals a child’s engine may be running “too low.”

The engine analogy is one that is simple for e.p.i.c.’s preschool and kindergarten children to grasp, says principal Carolyne Cybulski. The challenge then, she says, is to come up with alerting or calming strategies to help bring kids back to their optimal zone.

With some kids, it’s as simple as chewing gum in class, a practice that is becoming more accepted in Toronto schools. Why? The repetitive motion of biting down on something can be very grounding for children who are restless or fidgety. For other children, sitting on a bouncy yoga ball instead of a desk chair provides just the right amount of input to their nervous system to keep them engaged.

Other classroom tricks? Asking kids to hold onto weighted cushions during circle time to improve concentration. Or having teachers use microphones to disperse sound and drown out distracting background noise.

Self-regulation at home Does your child seem lethargic in the morning and have trouble getting out the door?  Try one of these strategies with her:

  • Get her to chug a cold drink through a straw, or suck on a frozen grape or ice cube
  • Have an impromptu dance party.

The input provided by these self-regulatory activities has an effect on brain chemistry that leads to increased alertness, says Ellen Yack, a registered occupational therapist and director of Ellen Yack & Associates paediatric therapy services in Toronto. “Heavy work” activities — including a game of tug-of-war or carrying a load of laundry upstairs—will help kids to get their engines running just right before tackling a challenging homework assignment. For teenagers, you can even buy a cheap can crusher at the local hardware store and let them smash a few empty pop cans before starting their algebra.


Is your little one too aroused at bedtime and difficult to get down? Try these calming strategies:

  • A warm bath (not shower, because it can be too alerting).
  • Slow rocking
  • Get your child to hold a weighted stuffed animal
  • Or even cuddling up in a sleeping bag instead of under the duvet.

Remember, different strategies work for different children. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little bit!

Self-regulation at play Birthday parties or playdates—while fun for most children—can also be overwhelming and overstimulating. Parents can learn to recognize the signs their kids need help in this area and then implement calming or alerting activities before playtime.

If your child’s engine is running too high, walk—instead of drive—to the party. Or have your son or daughter carry a heavy backpack along the way to provide extra sensory-motor input to his or her muscles and joints. During the party, kids who struggle with self-regulation can even wear weighted belts under their shirts for extra sensory input or play with a small fidget toy in their pocket.

On the flip side, if your child is feeling sleepy before an important after-school activity, have them don some headphones and listen to some upbeat music. Or ask them to do 10 push-ups. By the time they arrive at soccer or swimming, chances are these alerting (and fun!) activities will have primed their nervous system for maximum enjoyment.


This article was originally published on December 2011.

This article was originally published on Feb 27, 2017

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