What Is Emotional Self Regulation?
Self regulation consists of a set of skills and/or techniques that can help us stay in control of our emotions and behaviors. According to McClelland & Tominey (2014), self regulation includes “conscious control of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors”. When we see children “bouncing off the walls” or having a meltdown/tantrum, their bodies are showing signs of being dysregulated. It could be due to being overtired, overstimulated, frustrated, stressed, or a variety of other factors. When children are very young, their ability to self regulate is limited. They begin to learn how to self regulate emotions through first co-regulating with adults in their environment. One aspect of co-regulation is modeling and prompting skills that will help a child gain control when they are becoming dysregulated. This could be something as simple as modeling deep breaths (not telling the child to take deep breaths). These strategies need to be taught when the child’s body and mind are in a calm regulated state. For example, have activities to practice deep breaths when calm so that it is “easier” to access that skill during dysregulation.
How To Teach Young Children With Autism To Self Regulate Emotions
#1 The adults in the child’s environment need to stay calm. If we, as adults, are not able to self regulate and model that, we aren’t going to be able to teach the child to do so. Staying calm as an adult is also important during the co-regulation phase. You always hear that children can feel someone’s “vibe”. This is so true when it comes to co-regulation and self regulation of emotions! A child can tell when we are stressed, upset, and frustrated. So, the best thing we can do, is check inwith ourselves first, to make sure we are modeling deep breathing and other self regulatory strategies. An escalated adult cannot calm an escalated child down.
#2 As an adult, you should be modeling, prompting, and reinforcing the self regulatory strategies. This was touched on in tip #1. In practice, it may look like: modeling deep breaths next to the child, without asking or requiring them to participate. Their breathing may eventually sync up with yours if you keep doing it. This is an example of co-regulation. Cuddles and hugs when children are sad, upset, or overwhelmed are also forms of co-regulation. Remember, that preschool children will need different levels of co-regulation as they move toward their own self regulation of emotions.
#3 Directly teaching emotions can be especially helpful. Identifying emotions can be a difficult skill for children with autism. Start teaching basic emotions by using flashcards with line drawings or clipart pictures of emotions. Teach your child or student how to receptively identify, expressively label, and sort the basic emotions. Sometimes it is best to start with: happy, sad, and mad. Then, you can move on to making faces in the mirror together depicting those emotions. Some other fun activities include drawing faces with the emotions on paper or on a small white board, as well as making the faces using playdough. Once your student or child understands basic emotions, be sure to start pointing them out in real situations. For example, if a child is crying at the grocery store, you might say “they feel sad”. Understanding emotions can be a helpful piece in learning how to self regulate emotions.
#4 Simplify language during times of dysregulation. When a child’s body and mind are stressed and dysregulated, it is harder for them to access their “thinking” skills. It is very important to simplify the language we use when talking to children when they are experiencing dysregulation. Reduce the number of directions given and be sure to speak in a calmer, quieter tone. This helps with the co-regulation aspect we talked about in previous tips.
#5 Use visual supports. Visual supports are one of the best strategies that you can use to help children move from co-regulation to self regulation of emotions. An example of this may be using a visual support to teach and encourage deep breathing. You practice this deep breathing together during a calm, regulated state, so that they will be able to access that skill more automatically during a period of dysregulation. For example, “smell the flower….blow out the candle” (see below). The same goes for teaching a calming sequence. Practice a calming sequence several times each day, while in a regulated calm state. Then, it will be easier for the child to access that skill when they are becoming dysregulated.
If you are interested in how to teach children with autism to self regulate emotions, check out the following resources:
This free resource is a starter set for helping children learn to identify their emotions and start to use strategies for self-regulation.
The Preschool Self Regulation Activities resource is jam-packed with visual supports, and activities to teach self regulation in little learners! It was created for the early childhood level, but can also be used at the early elementary level with students who are just learning about emotions and working on self regulation. There are also ideas for sensory activities for autism to help calm children’s bodies.
Teaching emotions using playdough can be fun! These spring playdough mats combine social-emotional learning with communication skills. This hands-on activity for preschoolers with autism and other social and communication disorders addresses the identification and labeling of basic emotions. Kids love this hands-on activity where they get to make the eyes, noses, and mouths for the spring characters!
For a resource to teach emotions using flashcards, file folders, and other activities, click here.