Self Regulation Strategies

Self-regulation is a crucial skill that influences a child’s ability to manage emotions, behavior, and attention. As occupational therapy practitioners, professionals working with kids with emotional and behavioral needs, teachers, and parents, understanding effective strategies to support children in developing self-regulation skills is essential.

This blog post explores evidence-based approaches for therapists working with children on their caseloads, offers insights for teachers in the classroom, and provides practical tips for parents to implement at home.

image of a face breathing in and arrow pointing to the brain and the body

What is a self regulation Strategy?

Self-regulation strategies refer to techniques and behaviors individuals use to manage their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in order to achieve specific goals or respond adaptively to different situations. These strategies empower individuals to stay focused, control impulses, and navigate challenges effectively.

Developing self-regulation is often challenging for many children and even adults. Throughout the day, individuals face various situations demanding a keen awareness of themselves and others, coupled with the ability to exercise self-control.

Self-regulation involves managing, sustaining, and adjusting one’s arousal levels, emotions, and behaviors. It hinges on impulse control, working memory, and the general capacity to keep oneself in check. The process of experiencing emotions, understanding desires, and making decisions based on these concepts necessitates motivation, willpower, and higher-level thinking.

Ideally, children should attain an optimal level of self-awareness and mindfulness, enabling them to recognize their inner feelings and emotions. This awareness is crucial for effective self-regulation. Children must learn strategies and techniques tailored to their needs, aiding them in transitioning from a less optimal state to a readiness for action.

Understanding how sensory processing impacts behaviors and emotions is key when it comes to sensory dysregulation and meltdowns or regulation needs.

Read about interoception here. This is important because of the role of the limbic system, the vestibular system, proprioceptive system, and overall sensory processing systems in functional tasks.

To support this process, additional mindfulness activities are beneficial, serving as valuable additions to a child’s “Regulation Toolbox.”

Understanding Self-Regulation

Before delving into strategies, it’s important to grasp the concept of self-regulation. According to Zelazo and Carlson (2012), self-regulation involves the ability to manage and modulate emotions, behaviors, and attention in response to environmental demands. This skill is fundamental for a child’s success in various life domains.

Be sure to read about emotional regulation and behavioral regulation.

Another key point to understand is the connection between executive functioning skills and emotional regulation.

Self Regulation strategies for Therapy

School-based occupational therapy professionals (OTs) play a crucial role in supporting students’ self-regulation and overall participation in their education.

Their involvement extends beyond direct intervention with students to collaborating with teachers and other professionals, such as school social workers or guidance counselors. Here’s how school-based OTs contribute to the team:

  1. Assessment and Intervention for Individual Students:
    School-based OT assess students’ sensory and motor skills, identifying any challenges that may impact self-regulation and participation. Based on assessments, OTs/OTAs develop individualized intervention plans to address specific needs. Interventions may include sensory strategies, fine motor, gross motor coordination activities, and adaptive tools to support self-regulation in the classroom (Case-Smith et al., 2015). This can also look like using self awareness games and activities to support self-reflection skills when needed.
  2. Collaboration with Teachers:
    School-based occupational therapy professionals collaborate closely with teachers to integrate strategies that enhance self-regulation within the classroom environment. This collaboration may involve providing teachers with information about a student’s sensory needs, suggesting modifications to the classroom setup, and offering guidance on incorporating sensory breaks or activities that promote attention and focus (Morrison et al., 2020).
  3. Professional Development and Training:
    OT professionals contribute to the professional development of teachers and other school staff by offering training sessions on topics related to sensory processing, motor skills development, and self-regulation. This empowers educators with the knowledge and skills to implement supportive strategies for all students, not just those receiving direct OT services (Murray et al., 2016). Using programs such as Zones of Regulation, The Alert Program, (Amazon affiliate links) Test Drive, and The Sensory Connection.
  4. Consultation with School Staff:
    Collaboration between school-based occupational therapy professionals and paraprofessionals, educators, specials teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, etc. is essential to address the holistic needs of students. OT professionals can provide valuable insights into how sensory and motor difficulties may contribute to these challenges. Joint planning and consultation help create comprehensive support plans for students (Parham et al., 2011).
  5. Incorporating Sensory Strategies in the Classroom:
    OTs assist teachers and other professionals in integrating sensory strategies seamlessly into the classroom routine. This may involve providing sensory tools, creating sensory-friendly spaces such as a self regulation station or a calm down corner, or suggesting activities that promote self-regulation. By embedding these strategies into the daily routine, students can benefit consistently (Mulligan, 2018).
  6. Advocacy for Inclusive Environments:
    School-based OTs/OTAs advocate for inclusive practices that support the participation of all students. This includes working with teachers and administrators to create environments that are accessible and accommodating to diverse sensory and motor needs. Through advocacy, occupational therapy contributes to fostering an inclusive and supportive school culture (Polatajko et al., 2012).
  7. Data Collection and Progress Monitoring:
    OT professionals collaborate with teachers to collect data on the effectiveness of interventions and make data-driven decisions. Regular progress monitoring ensures that strategies are tailored to meet the evolving needs of students, and adjustments can be made as necessary (Case-Smith et al., 2015).
  8. Using a variety of calm down toys based on interest and motivation.

Other ideas include:

School-based OTs are integral members of the education team, contributing their expertise to create environments that facilitate self-regulation and maximize students’ participation in their education. Their collaboration with teachers and other professionals ensures a holistic and inclusive approach to supporting the diverse needs of students.

Self Regulation Strategies for Teachers

Self-regulation strategies are crucial in the classroom setting for several reasons, as they significantly impact a child’s academic and social development. Here are key reasons why implementing self-regulation strategies in the classroom is essential:

  1. Enhanced Learning Readiness:
    Self-regulation is closely linked to attention and focus. Children who can regulate their emotions and behaviors are better able to engage in learning activities. According to Blair and Diamond (2008), self-regulation supports cognitive functions, including working memory and flexible thinking, which are essential for academic success.
  2. Improved Classroom Behavior:
    Effective self-regulation strategies contribute to positive classroom behavior. When students can manage their emotions and impulses, disruptions are minimized, creating a more conducive learning environment for all. This aligns with the findings of Raver et al. (2011), who highlight the connection between self-regulation and behavioral outcomes in the classroom.
  3. Social Skills Development:
    Self-regulation is integral to the development of social skills. Children who can regulate their emotions are better equipped to navigate social interactions, resolve conflicts, and collaborate with peers. Gaining control over impulsive behaviors fosters positive relationships with teachers and classmates (Murray & Rosanbalm, 2017).
  4. Reduction of Stress and Anxiety:
    The classroom can be a source of stress for many students. Teaching self-regulation strategies helps children cope with stressors and anxiety, creating a more emotionally supportive learning environment. The work of Durlak et al. (2011) emphasizes the positive impact of social-emotional learning programs, which often include self-regulation components, on reducing stress in students.
  5. Long-Term Academic Success:
    Self-regulation skills cultivated in the classroom have long-term implications for academic success. Research by Moffitt et al. (2011) suggests that early self-regulation is a strong predictor of academic achievement and positive life outcomes in adulthood.
  6. Individualized Learning Support:
    Different students may require varying levels of support in developing self-regulation skills. Implementing strategies tailored to individual needs allows teachers to provide targeted support, fostering a more inclusive and effective learning environment (McClelland et al., 2010).
  7. Preparation for Life Skills:
    Beyond academic achievement, self-regulation is a life skill with broad applications. Teaching self-regulation in the classroom equips students with the tools they need to succeed not only academically but also in various aspects of life, including future employment and personal relationships (Jones et al., 2015).

There are many ways to support these needs in the classroom setting.

  1. Classroom Environmental Modifications: Teachers can create a supportive environment by implementing sensory-friendly classroom modifications. This aligns with the findings of Dunn et al. (2016), emphasizing the impact of the environment on a child’s self-regulation.
  2. Visual Supports and Schedules: Utilizing visual supports and schedules helps children understand expectations and routines, promoting self-regulation (Smith et al., 2015). This can be particularly beneficial for children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
  3. Incorporating Movement Breaks: Research by Mahar et al. (2006) suggests that brief movement breaks during the school day can enhance attention and self-regulation. Teachers can integrate short physical activities to support students’ regulatory needs. Read about movement activities in the classroom for ideas.
  4. Sensory-Based Interventions: Occupational therapists can incorporate sensory-based interventions to help children regulate their emotions. Research by Case-Smith et al. (2015) highlights the effectiveness of sensory integration techniques in improving self-regulation in children. This can include fidget tools, brain breaks, etc.
  5. Mindfulness and Yoga: Introducing mindfulness and yoga practices in therapy sessions can positively impact self-regulation. The study by Felver et al. (2015) emphasizes the benefits of mindfulness interventions in reducing emotional reactivity and enhancing attention. This can also include deep breathing exercises, sensory paths, etc.
  6. Social Skills Training: Building social skills is crucial for self-regulation. Therapists can employ social skills training programs, as suggested by Gresham and Elliott (2008), to enhance a child’s ability to navigate social situations successfully.

Self-regulation strategies are essential in the classroom setting to create an optimal learning environment, foster positive behavior and social skills, reduce stress, and lay the foundation for long-term academic success and life skills development.

Self Regulation Strategies for Parents:

Self-regulation is essential at home for various reasons, as it significantly influences a child’s overall well-being and development. Here are key reasons why self-regulation is crucial in a home setting:

  1. Emotional Well-Being: Self-regulation helps children manage their emotions effectively. At home, where a child experiences a range of emotions, from excitement to frustration, the ability to regulate these emotions contributes to a more positive and emotionally stable environment (Denham et al., 2012). This results in overall family wellness.
  2. Positive Social Interactions: Developing self-regulation skills enables children to navigate social interactions at home. It involves understanding and respecting others’ perspectives, turn taking, and resolving conflicts peacefully. These social skills foster positive relationships within the family and contribute to a harmonious home environment (Graziano et al., 2007).
  3. Academic Success: Self-regulation is not only crucial for emotional and social aspects but also for academic success. Children who can regulate their attention and focus are better equipped to engage in learning activities and complete homework tasks. This, in turn, supports their academic achievement (Blair & Diamond, 2008). Here are tips for fidgeting during homework.
  4. Independence and Responsibility: Self-regulation fosters independence and a sense of responsibility. Children who can manage their time, complete tasks independently, and make appropriate decisions are better prepared for the increasing responsibilities they face as they grow (Zelazo & Carlson, 2012).
  5. Healthy Lifestyle Habits: Self-regulation extends to health-related behaviors, such as eating habits and sleep routines. Children who can regulate their impulses are more likely to make healthy choices, contributing to their overall well-being (Riggs et al., 2010).
  6. Parent-Child Relationships: Self-regulation positively impacts parent-child relationships. When children can express their needs and emotions in a regulated manner, it fosters open communication and understanding between parents and children. This, in turn, strengthens the parent-child bond (Denham et al., 2012).
  7. Preparation for Life Skills: The self-regulation skills learned at home have broader implications for a child’s future. The ability to regulate emotions, manage stress, and make thoughtful decisions prepares children for success in various life domains, including relationships, education, and future employment (Moffitt et al., 2011).
  8. Reduced Stress and Anxiety: Home environments can sometimes be sources of stress for children. Self-regulation skills help children cope with stressors and anxiety, creating a more emotionally supportive and calming atmosphere at home (Durlak et al., 2011).

Some strategies to support self regulation at home may include:

  1. Establishing Consistent Routines: Consistent routines at home contribute to a child’s sense of predictability, aiding in self-regulation (Fiese et al., 2002). Parents can create daily schedules that include predictable activities.
  2. Promoting Emotional Literacy: Parents play a crucial role in helping children identify and express emotions. The work of Denham et al. (2012) emphasizes the importance of promoting emotional literacy for better self-regulation outcomes. For more information, read about emotional intelligence. An activity like our lion and lamb emotions activity can help.
  3. Collaboration between Parents and Therapy Providers: Effective communication between parents and therapists is vital. Collaborative efforts, as recommended by Bundy et al. (2016), ensure a holistic approach to supporting a child’s self-regulation across different settings.

Enhancing self-regulation in children requires a collaborative effort from therapists, teachers, and parents. By implementing evidence-based strategies tailored to each setting, we can empower children to develop essential skills for emotional and behavioral self-regulation

The resources in the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook really go into detail on this concept, in using movement and sensory tools as regulation strategies and coping strategies help kids function, within their daily functional tasks. For example, it is possible to incorporate regulating activities within the classroom, home tasks like self-care or chores, and the community. Check out the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook for more information on this concept.

Research on Self Regulation

  • Blair, C., & Diamond, A. (2008). Biological processes in prevention and intervention: The promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Development and Psychopathology, 20(3), 899-911.
  • Case-Smith, J., Weaver, L. L., & Fristad, M. A. (2015). A systematic review of sensory processing interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 19(2), 133-148.
  • Denham, S. A., Bassett, H. H., & Wyatt, T. (2010). The socialization of emotional competence. In Handbook of socialization (pp. 614-637). Guilford Press.
  • Dunn, W., Little, L., & Dean, E. (2016). Sensory processing in autism: A review of neurophysiologic findings. Pediatric Physical Therapy, 28(3), 272-282.
  • Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.
  • Fiese, B. H., Tomcho, T. J., Douglas, M., Josephs, K., Poltrock, S., & Baker, T. (2002). A review of 50 years of research on naturally occurring family routines and rituals: Cause for celebration?. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(4), 381.
  • Felver, J. C., Celis-de Hoyos, C. E., Tezanos, K., & Singh, N. N. (2015). A systematic review of mindfulness interventions for youth in school settings. Mindfulness, 6(6), 1241-1256.
  • Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. N. (2008). Social skills improvement system. In Handbook of psychoeducational assessment (pp. 647-678). Guilford Press.
  • Graziano, P. A., Reavis, R. D., Keane, S. P., & Calkins, S. D. (2007). The role of emotion regulation in children’s early academic success. Journal of School Psychology, 45(1), 3-19.
  • Jones, S. M., Bailey, R., & Jacob, R. (2015). Social-emotional learning: From research to practice. Applied Psychology, 7(1), 62-79.
  • Mahar, M. T., Murphy, S. K., Rowe, D. A., Golden, J., Shields, A. T., & Raedeke, T. D. (2006). Effects of a classroom-based program on physical activity and on-task behavior. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(12), 2086-2094.
  • McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Duncan, R., Bowles, R. P., Acock, A. C., Miao, A., & Pratt, M. E. (2014). Predictors of early growth in academic achievement: The head-toes-knees-shoulders task. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 599.
  • Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693-2698.
  • Morrison, J., Cosbey, J., George, N., & Thomas, J. (2020). Occupational therapy’s role in mental health promotion, prevention, & intervention with children & youth: A scoping review. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 36(1), 30-49.
  • Mulligan, S. (2018). Tools for the sensory connection program: A sensory processing disorder parent training. Academic Press.
  • Murray, D., & Bundy, A. (2016). Sensory integration: Theory and practice. F.A. Davis.
  • Murray, D. W., & Rosanbalm, K. (2017). Promoting self-regulation in the first five years: A practice brief. OPRE Report 2017-77. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Parham, L. D., Coyne, L., & West, S. (2011). Sensory processing difficulties in children with functional constipation: A retrospective chart review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(4), 472-479.
  • Polatajko, H. J., Davis, J. A., & Marushak, J. P. (2012). Designing and implementing a model for delivering school-based occupational therapy services. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 32(3_suppl), S3-S11.
  • Raver, C. C., Garner, P. W., & Smith-Donald, R. (2007). The roles of emotion regulation and emotion knowledge for children’s academic readiness: Are the links causal?. In Cognition and emotion (pp. 1-30). Psychology Press.
  • Riggs, N. R., Greenberg, M. T., Kusche, C. A., & Pentz, M. A. (2006). The mediational role of neurocognition in the behavioral outcomes of a social-emotional prevention program in elementary school students: Effects of the PATHS curriculum. Prevention Science, 7(1), 91-102.
  • Smith, C. J., Rozga, A., Matthews, N., Oberleitner, R., Nazneen, N., & Abowd, G. D. (2015). Investigating the accuracy of a novel gesture-based child-computer interaction system for classroom use. In Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (pp. 252-255).
  • Zelazo, P. D., & Carlson, S. M. (2012). Hot and cool executive function in childhood and adolescence: Development and plasticity. Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), 354-360.

For specific self regulation strategies related to each daily task that can be implemented right in the functional task, check out The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook.

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

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