Alert Program Self-Regulation Program

Below we are covering on popular self-regulation program that therapy providers love: The Alert Program®. In therapy therapists say “focus” a fair amount. One parent report hearing her child mutter “focus, focus, focus” as he was walking down the stairs! Paying attention and staying focused are major struggles for students and their teachers.

There are several programs to help improve attention, focus, and self regulation. One of the newer popular program is Zones of Regulation. Today we will circle back around to the Alert Program. This is a classic program that makes sense. Alert Program Activities are a great way to introduce and use this great resource.

The Alert Program

Alert Program frameworks and tools support individuals with self-regulation needs.

What is The alert program?

The Alert Program® for Self-Regulation is also known as “How Does Your Engine Run?”®. This self-regulation program was developed by two internationally known occupational therapists, Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger.

The Alert Program helps students understand the basic theory of sensory input as it relates to their arousal states, or the internal engine of their body. The primary focus is to help children learn to monitor, maintain, and change their level of alertness so it is sufficient for a situation or task.

The basic premise of the program is that the body is similar to a car engine. When the engine is running in its’ optimal state, things run smoothly. If the engine is running too fast or too slow, problems arise.

Therapists often use “Lightning McQueen” as an example of the fast car who gets into trouble.

One quote from the program that is helpful for children to understand is:

“If your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high, sometimes it runs on low, and sometimes it runs just right.”

Alert Program

Of course you do not have to use “engines” for this program to work. Therapists have used Winnie the Pooh to describe states of alertness: Eeyore is in low arousal, Winnie the Pooh is just right, and Tigger is way too high. You can describe the actions and consequences of each character.

By using the engine analogy to teach self-regulation, The Alert Program helps children learn what to do if they are in a non-optimal state of alertness. It teaches children that there are five ways to change how alert they feel:

  • put something in the mouth
  • move
  • touch
  • look
  • listen

Alert Program for Self-Regulation

Alert Program goals teach students, educators, and parents the relationship between internal states and attention, learning, and behavior. With this support, Alert Program strategies help students to recognize and define the self-regulation strategies in a variety of tasks and settings.

We could all use this Alert Program framework at one time or another!

We all self regulate throughout the day, but rarely talk about it. Perhaps you don’t even think about it, it just comes naturally. What did you do to help wake up this morning? A cup of coffee, a jog, a steamy shower, television, or a fruit smoothie? Which system is your “go to” for self regulation? Are you a mover, eater, visual, listener, feeler, or a combination of several?

Children need to learn to self regulate by first talking about it, then doing it. As learners understand the program and start to mature, they too will do self regulation strategies without giving it much thought.

These tools that help to organize the individual’s nervous system using a framework including vocabulary, activities, and environments that work for the individual.

alert program activities through play

The “occupation” of a child is play. You will get much further with a five hear old through a game rather than a lecture. Another way to put it is:

“Play is the work of children. Through play, children learn about themselves and the world around them. When all that they see, hear, and feel makes sense to them, a process of sensory integration occurs.”

From Sensory Integration International’s poster, Children at Work, Jean Ayres Clinic, 1991

This means that when teaching any self regulation program, play-based activities not only make it fun and motivating, they help your learner understand how and why it works.

The Alert Program has five methods it describes for self-regulation that are intended to support the individual in reaching an optimal level of arousal. The framework helps the child to understand how arousal levels can change over the course of a day (and this is totally normal!) with periods of sensory overload (sensory dysregulation) and periods of low arousal (under-responsiveness or sensory registration problems).

The Alert Program helps the individual to attain, maintain, and change arousal appropriately for the given situation. We might all feel a lull in the afternoon after lunch, but using some coping tools, we can get to a state that allows us to attend a meeting and finish out the work day.

For the individual that responds with sensory defensiveness, we might see a fight, flight, or fright response of the limbic system.

Rather than using top-down approaches, or verbal reminders, picture directives, and telling the child to “sit still and pay attention”, the Alert Program framework offers tactics to support sensory motor needs from a bottom-up perspective, or by offering heavy work to the muscles and joints as input through the cerebellum in the brain as a way to activate the reticular formation in the brain stem.

Alert Program wording and strategies offer the calming and efficient tools of inhibition by activating the proprioceptive, vestibular, oral/gustatory, tactile, visual, and auditory systems.

We all have sensory preferences and the Alert Program walks through comprehensive checklists to select activities for each of the components. It helps the individual to find input that supports the brain and body for optimal learning and participation in daily activities, knowing that at different ages, we usually prefer differing intensities of input, changing duration of sensory motor input, and frequency.

  • put something in the mouth
  • move
  • touch
  • look
  • listen

In general, the supports allow for periods of movement or input followed by concentration and an optimal state of arousal.

These tools allow the individual to have a better quality of life, feel good about themselves, participate in meaningful activities. These tools are powerful when teaching children about mood and affect as a support for self regulation.

Alert Program activities

Before exploring specific ways to add self regulation, there are great activities for teaching the Alert Program.

activities to understand alert program basics

While there are many actual activities to self regulate, a period of introducing any program is needed for “buy in”.

  • Adults brainstorm with children regarding possible methods to change their engine speeds. Methods use sensorimotor strategies that are either calming (if the child’s engine is running too fast) or alerting (if the child’s engine is running too slow).
  • Children practice changing their engine speeds by performing sensorimotor activities (see list below)
  • Children can use individual engine speed identification worksheets (fast, slow, just right) to further define what behaviors should and should not be using at each engine speed. The information from these 3 individual engine worksheets can thenvbe added to the engine speeds worksheet and posted in the classroom to remindstudents and/or in a central location at home.
  • Teachers can set up an “Engine Check Station” in their classrooms; this station cancontain movement or “engine break” options for students to perform, as well asengine check feedback sheets for students to document how the use of the enginebreak affected their behavior.
  • An alert program social story can be developed to assist a child who may be having difficulty learning the program. It should be read/reviewed with him/her daily untils/he begins to understand the concept.
  • The adult labels his/her own engine speed using a large class speedometer or anindividual speedometer.
  • Children make their own individual speedometers using paper plates, markers, etc. Children then chart their own engine speeds on the class speedometer or their own individual speedometers.
  • Children may also enjoy playing the “Guess that Engine Speed” game, using magazine pictures and the engine speed posters. The adult shows pictures and has the child determine the engine speed of the individual pictured. The child can then fasten the magazine picture to the corresponding engine speed poster

The Alert Program offers a curriculum with really great activities to support the individual in each stage of the program. It has activities and ideas to help the child learn engine words and to help them develop an awareness of their engine “speed”. Some of the ideas include:

  • interactive activities
  • games
  • obstacle courses
  • crafts like collage art
  • stations
  • games
  • more

alert program activities for putting something in the mouth

The oral sensory system is a great tool for self regulation. The mouth has tons of sensory receptors, making it the perfect place to receive input. Here are some activities for “putting something in the mouth”. Note: not all activities are appropriate for small children.

  • Drink a milkshake or sensory smoothie (not only cold, but the resistance provides extra input)
  • Drink through a water bottle
  • Chew gum, beef jerky, Twizzlers (left out in the air to dry first)
  • Suck on hard candy, mints
  • Crunch on nuts/pretzels/chips
  • Crunch or suck on ice pieces (be cautious of dental work)
  • Tongue in cheek movements, suck on your tongue in your mouth, move your tongue around (oral motor exercises)
  • Eat popcorn/cut up vegetables
  • Chew on a fidget or pencil topper
  • Eat chips and a spicy dip
  • Take slow deep breaths: relaxation breathing
  • Blow a whistle, kazoo, harmonica
  • Hum
  • Drink carbonated drinks
  • Drink coffee/tea caffeinated/hot cocoa/warm milk
  • Eat a cold popsicle, crunch a pickle

This list was derived from the Sensory Preference Checklist from 1992. A lot has changed since then! I have removed smoking, chewing collars and sleeves, biting buttons, chomping toothpicks, chewing pencils, and biting your nails from the list as they are no longer deemed appropriate as mainstream strategies.

alert program activities for movement

Movement, or vestibular/proprioceptive input is often a go to for helping kids get regulated. They are often in constant motion, seeking this type of input, so it makes sense to use what they are craving.

  • Rock in a rocking chair, sit on a wiggle cushion or therapy ball
  • Sit with crossed legs and bounce one slightly
  • Shift or change positions in chair
  • Run/jog
  • Ride bike or a scooter
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Heavy Work Movement Cards
  • Tap toe, heel, or foot
  • Isometrics/lift weights/carry something heavy
  • Dance, yoga, obstacle courses, stretching and shaking body parts
  • Rock own body slightly
  • Household chores – cleaning, laundry, scrubbing, sweeping, vacuuming
  • Yard work

I removed “push chair back on two legs” from the original list, as it is not a safe practice to be teaching.

alert program activities for touch

Children seem to want to touch everything! This is the way babies learn about their environment. It makes sense for children to explore through touch. Here are some appropriate ways to get tactile input:

  • Twist own hair
  • Move keys or coins in pocket with your hand
  • Cool shower
  • Warm bath
  • Receive a massage
  • Pet a dog or cat, play with stuffed animals, get under a blanket
  • Rub gently on skin/clothes
  • Play in sensory bins with different textures. Here is a Year of Sensory Bins

Fidget with the following:

It seems funny (and a little scary) that I removed: phone cord while talking, put fingers near mouth, eye, or nose, and fiddle with cuticle/nails from the original 1992 list.

alert program activities for visual/looking

While Ipad and technology seems to be a great option for adding visual input, it is not. Technology is too alerting and disorganizing with the fast paced movement and visual clutter. There has been some recent research on the Negative Effects of Technology. Here is a post on The Effects of Technology on Children. While not all technology is bad, it needs to be used in moderation and at the right time.

Here are some better ideas for visual input:

  • Change the lighting, open window shades, add a dimmer, cover florescent lighting
  • watch a fireplace or a fish tank (funny enough there are television background screens with these on them)
  • Watch oil and water toys
  • Sensory Bottles – here are some great sensory bottle ideas

Be mindful of having too much visual input. Sometimes people need a break from input in a dark,quiet space. Often a cluttered classroom, or messy desk is enough to change someone’s arousal level.

self regulation ideas for auditory listening

It is interesting that “listening to music” is often recommended for auditory regulation, but this is such a complex strategy to navigate. People respond differently to various types of sounds. It takes time and practice to find the right type of auditory input at the correct time.

  • Listen to classical music
  • Listen to hard rock, country, pop, jazz, or other genre
  • Download and audiobook or podcast
  • Listen to others hum or sing
  • Work in quiet room
  • Move to a noisy room
  • Sing or talk to self

Be mindful of negative sensory input that can set someone off. How do you respond to a scratch on a chalkboard, fire alarm, dog barking, a sudden noise, someone chewing, or snoring?

self reflection

Take some time during the next few days to notice your own arousal level. Be mindful of what activities you do to self regulate. Think about what is working for you, and what you could do better.

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

The Alert Program

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