There are lots of "self" skills in the disability world... self-advocacy, self-discipline, and self-determination among others. Today we're going to talk about one of my favorites, and that is self-regulation.
Self-regulation is pretty self-explanatory (sorry, I had to). It's a person's ability to monitor and control themselves behaviorally and emotionally. While it's easy to explain, it is NOT a skill that is easy to develop in kids, and that's especially true of our students with disabilities.
Self-regulation looks like "being in control." Because this can be hard to define in practice, I'll give a few examples of what a LACK of self-regulation can look like:
Now, before we go into strategies, there are two conditions that must be met for a student to benefit from these strategies. First, the student must have demonstrated that they are able to control this behavior or emotional response with effort and support, and second, the targeted behavior or emotion must be relatively predictable. If the behavior is a tic or an uncontrollable stim, be aware that these strategies may not work.
So how do we help our kids build self-regulation skills? We do the following 6 things. Note! The first 3 deal with emotional regulation while the last 3 deal with behavior regulation:
1. We let our kids feel their feelings versus telling them to stop. We can't expect our students to learn how to work through their feelings if we never let them work through their feelings! I know that in the middle of a crisis it can be easier to distract, threaten, or bribe...but this means that YOU always have to be there to mediate the meltdown. If we want our kids to self-regulate, we have to let them feel their feelings and decide what to do with them. And this brings us to...
2. We offer suggestions for coping and allow them to choose their coping skill. If we want students to manage themselves, they must feel invested in this process. One way we can do this is by giving them choices. You may even see your student engage in a preferred coping skill when you let them "feel their feelings" above. Other options? Take a walk, write down or draw their feelings, squeeze a ball, punch a pillow, do jumping jacks, go outside and shout as loud as they can. Eventually, you can put these options on laminated cards and can hand them to the student to choose when they start to escalate. Or, they can keep these cards on hand and give one to you when they need it. That's even better!
3. We ask them to describe their feelings and offer ideas about what that might mean. Most of my students have a hard time talking about feelings. A large part of this challenge is a lack of vocabulary-- how often do our students default to "happy," "sad" or "mad" when describing how they're feeling! Instead of asking your student to identify their feeling, ask them to describe it. What does it feel like? And then, provide the likely emotion. Does it feel like a hot rush of lava in your chest that wants to explode out of your mouth (anger)? Does it feel like your heart is going too fast (nervous)? Does it feel like you have so much energy in your bones that you just have to jump up and down to get it out (excited)? Does it feel like you have a bunch of rocks in your belly and your arms and legs weighing you down (dread)? This is important because it teaches students to recognize what happens to them when they are escalating. A key step in self-regulation is to be able to notice a small increase in emotional response so that you can deal with it before it explodes-- to intervene when it starts. This strategy helps students tune into their body and identify those physical red flags that say "Hey! I'm getting escalated!".
4. We model for them how we deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. This is the antidote to the classic "Do as I say, not as I do" mantra. The only way our kids are going to learn how to regulate their behavior is if we regulate our behavior in front of them! A great strategy here is to narrate your thoughts. Rather than letting out an exasperated sigh when you're stuck in traffic, try explaining your feelings and coping skills: "I am feeling really frustrated that there is so much traffic today. I'm worried that we might not get to the appointment on time. I am going to take some deep breaths to help me calm down and I'm going to remind myself that getting angry won't help us get there any faster. Do you want to take some deep breaths with me?" Not only does this teach our students how to respond, it also reduces the stigma that they may feel about needing help-- the best way to make our kids feel better about their challenges is to let them know that we have challenges too!
5. We set goals with them (including rewards!) to target the behavior. Here's a not-so-secret secret: kids are often highly motivated by rewards. A great strategy to promote self-regulation is to tie their performance of a skill to an incentive. For example, if your student has a relatively predictable issue (such as shouting out in class), work with them to set a goal for how often they can contribute to the class discussion. Get their input about the goal and the reward! Students who are involved in goal setting will be more motivated to meet the goal. This brings us to...
6. We create investment by helping them track their progress. Create a system for the student to monitor their own mastery of the skill. We want students to practice thinking about their performance and assessing their behavior as it relates to the expectation. Start small-- if your student's goal is to only raise their hand in class 4 times, put a post-it not on his or her desk with 4 empty squares drawn on it. Every time they contribute, they put an X in one of the squares. At the end of class, you compare your data (you've also recorded their progress) with their note. If they met the goal, they get to do something to recognize their progress-- color in a thermometer, move their name up a paper mountain, whatever you're using to visibly track their success.
These are just a few strategies that I have personally used with success to help students build self-regulation skills. Do you have any that have worked well? Hop on over to our Facebook page-- we'd love to hear about it!