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    Putting the ‘Self’ in Self-Regulation

    Self-regulation has become a well-recognized and important skill that children of all ages are expected to utilize. In fact, most report cards in Ontario now have a self-regulation section, which tends to be equally as significant as the measurements of academic success. Although self-regulation is becoming a more familiar term, it still is a “newer” phenomenon, with many people not truly understanding what it is and why it is so valuable, especially in children.

    Self-regulation refers to one’s ability to control responses or impulses. It manifests as behavioural reactions to the environment, and is particularly important when dealing with stress or uncomfortable situations. In essence, a self-regulated child is “calm, focused, and alert” (Shanker, 2014). Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), just to name a few diagnoses, may struggle with their self-regulation skills. With SPD, for example, a child may seek movement throughout the day. The seeking behavior itself would not be regarded as self-regulation; rather, it would be his/her ability to determine when the movement is appropriate and what type of alerting activity to engage in.

    Self-regulation is required in the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural domains. A self-regulated child has some awareness (either conscious or unconscious) of his/her arousal states (i.e. how his/her body is feeling), and knows how to change these levels when necessary.

    Red flags that your child may be struggling with self-regulation:

    • Excessive movement throughout the day
    • Constantly fidgeting
    • Emotionally reactive (in the absence of a mood or anxiety disorder)
    • Regular tantrums
    • Impulsive reactions

    Occupational Therapists are trained and equipped to help children with their self-regulation skills. There are various empirically based programs that may be used as part of a self-regulation treatment plan. At Boomerang Health, the two most frequently used programs are:

    1. The ALERT Program® (Shellenberger & Williams)
    2. The Zones of Regulation® (Kuypers)

    The ALERT Program® and The Zones of Regulation® compare levels of arousal/alertness to simple and relatable things; for example, the speed of a car engine or traffic lights. What’s nice about these two programs is that they can be adapted to meet to cognitive or age levels of various children. Even if the entire program is not used, the basic concepts can be introduced. The overall goal is to have the child start to take control of his/her own self-regulation, relying less on parents, caregivers and teachers (who may be initially regarded as co-regulators).

    In summary, a self-regulated child has the ability to stop, think and react, rather than impulsively responding to his/her environment. A self-regulated child is able to remain calm when he/she is expected to be (i.e. during lessons at school) and knows how to suppress urges to move around at inappropriate times. Although self-regulation does not naturally develop in all children, it certainly can be improved with support, guidance and assistance. For children learning it explicitly, modeling and reminders may be used. Eventually, however, the child becomes in control him/herself, putting the ‘self’ in self-regulation.

    Here is the link to a podcast of an interview with Dr. Stuart Shanker, Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at York University. He is quite invested in the area of self-regulation, and describes it in a way that is relatable and easy to understand. http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/ideas_20140616_59074.mp3


    Florez, I. R. (2011). Developing young children’s self-regulation through everyday experiences. Young Children, 46-51.

    Shanker, S. (2014). Self-regulation: calm, alert, and learning. Retrieved from http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/self-regulation-calm-alert-and-learning.

    About Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

    Jordana is a certified Occupational Therapist who received a Master of Science degree in Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy from the University of Toronto and an Honour’s Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Western Ontario. Jordana is a member in good standing of the College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario (COTO) and the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists (OSOT).

    Learn more about Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)