For many students, including those participating in school-based therapy, self-regulation is the most difficult aspect of school to master. As academic expectations increase, so do expectations on behavior, and some students – ESPECIALLY those under the case of a Speech-Language Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, or other type of therapist – can quickly fall behind as their ability to self-regulate impairs their ability to learn.
Fortunately, teaching self-regulation doesn’t have to be daunting to the therapist, OR boring for the student. For the youngest students, simple playground games are a perfect way to begin. Participating in classics such as Red Light, Green Light; Duck, Duck, Goose; and variations on playing tag (some favorites to try are clothespin tag, ghost tag and freeze tag) build on listening, impulse control, cooperation, motor skills and emotional growth. Facilitated recess games are also easily expandable to include any students who ask to play, which helps to give social skills a boost as well.
In the classroom, I have observed that quick, familiar rituals are of great benefit to students who struggle with self-regulation. A teacher/student word exchange; “All set? You bet!” “Hocus Pocus! Everybody Focus!” or teacher/therapist-directed action “If you’re talking, close your eyes” are quickly learned and give students who struggle an easy way to calm down and be just like the rest of the class.
When students need more assistance, there are an abundance of activities to teach self-regulation skills that they can continue to draw on and expand upon as they mature.
Get “In the Zone”
The increasingly popular “Zones of Regulation” is a great tool to introduce and discuss feelings, opening ways for students to understand that how they feel is normal, and discover ways to handle those negative or disruptive feelings. Emotions are assigned to a color zone – red, yellow, green and blue. Red represents the highest level of emotion, good and bad – rage, elation, terror. Yellow also is a state of heightened emotion but one in which students still have some level of control – stress, silliness, excitement. Green is calm, happy, and ready to learn. Blue is the lowest level – sad, tired, and sick.
Implementing a Zones check-in at different times of the day helps student to pause and think about how they feel. Be aware that this won’t always be a true assessment. Students might enjoy pretending to be a particular emotion like anger and love to pretend to be angry so that student will always say he’s in the Red Zone. That’s still OK because a discussion on any emotion is worth repeating when kids struggle.
Zones Bingo is a fun way to continue the discussion. Bingo cards (available on the Zones web site) show faces with different emotions. Using chips of the correct color for the zone reinforces what each emotions means. And Bingo is, of course, something that can be played in any grade or at any age.
Once the Zones have been learned, they provide an easily recognized way to help students in distress. “I can see you’re in the Red Zone, how can I help you get back to Green?” “You’re doing a great job calming down, what Zone do you think you’re in now?” Both you and your student are speaking the same language and even the most distressed student can usually provide a one-word answer which, with the Zones, is all you both need. But how do you help the student to self-regulate?
One of the easiest, most accessible ways is through guided breathing. Pre-teaching the use of a “breathing square,” which utilizes the four sides of a square to inhale, hold, exhale and repeat to the count of four, provides a quick calming tool in times of distress. An “Anger Catcher” is another great way to redirect a student’s attention. It goes through the calming motions of using it; allows the student to focus on making a choice “Pick a color, pick a number;” and then offers an idea for a break such as, “Get a drink of water” or “Stand up and stretch.”
Stretching is a recommended activity for all ages and you can go one better (with enough space!) and let your students do some yoga moves. “Go Noodle” an immensely popular site in my school, has an entire section. “Flow” devoted to yoga and other calming activities. Do the moves with your students, and you’ll feel better too!
If space is limited, or if you have an older student, www.move-with-me.com\self-regulation recommends an exercise called “Deep Down Wisdom.” This can be done standing, sitting or lying down and involves some simple arm movements, breathing and visualization. It also reminds the older students that they do have the wisdom to say, “I’ve got this,” worthy of reinforcement at every opportunity.
An item called a “Calming Tool Box (or Kit)” also gives students the power to self-regulate, and the creation of one with the student further enhances the “I’ve got this” idea. Suggestions include a stress ball, a bottle of water and a straw and instructions for finger yoga (called Mudras – www.thehealthsite.com) Unscented lotion can also be included – some students find putting lotion on their hands calming. Depending on school policy, gum or hard candy may also be a choice for students who are calmed by certain flavors, or by chewing. With parental permission, giving a student plenty of choices about what to put in a calming tool box is- in itself – empowering and calming. Also – working on the tool box with your student helps build a connection between the two of you.
The most important part of teaching self-regulation? It’s how YOU behave. Your students are watching you. Frequently it’s for guidance, but sometimes it’s to see how far they can go with something. Your OWN self-regulation is key to helping your student. Remember to keep your voice and actions calm and your breathing slow, and acknowledge that however long it is going to take to calm a student down…well, that’s how long it’s going to take.
About the writer: Jennifer Elston
Jennifer works in a Special Education Classroom in Central PA. In her spare time, she is thrilled to be sharing her deepest thoughts, best hacks and favorite curated ideas with Therapy Source’s audience of blog readers.
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