You may have heard the term ‘regulation’ or ‘self-regulation’ before and be wondering what this even means…
Regulation refers to the process your brain goes through to determine whether you are safe or not and then it’s ability to adjust how calm or alert you are i.e., your level of arousal, or alertness. This level of arousal or alertness is constantly being adjusted based on the information coming in about how safe you are. If you have heard the term regulation before, you might have heard the term ‘self-regulation’, such as someone saying: “he needs to learn how to self-regulate”.
Now this is often true, but ‘SELF-regulation’ is a very high-level skill: you need to be a fairly regulated person to be able to do it and for a lot of kids, this is quite tricky! Young children, and children who are finding regulation difficult, or may been seen as having challenging behaviours, really need the support of the adults around them to regulate – co-regulation!
For everyone, there are four main factors that have an impact on our regulation – or how safe our nervous system is feeling. These are our body, emotions, environment and the relationships we have with the people in our world. Here’s a little bit more information:
1) How our body feels
- Well-being e.g. our hunger, sleep, illness, medication
Sensory input e.g. light touch/tickles; loud, low frequency sounds; busy environments
- Negative emotions e.g. anger; frustration; sadness; confusion
Positive emotions e.g. happiness; excitement
- Familiarity of an environment: unfamiliar environments can make us feel unsafe/anxious
Predictability of environment of the routine: strong need to know what to expect from our day; unpredictable events can throw us off
- Feeling understood, accepted, valued by ‘safe’ people e.g. parents/carers/teachers; having needs met
Positive, enjoyable time together supports connection and feelings of safety
While these factors are the same for everyone, there are individual differences that exist from one person to the next. For example, everyone needs time with loved ones to feel good, but some people need a lot of connection time whereas others need only a little.
So how can we help?
We can help to support a child’s functioning by first helping to figure out why they are having a hard time and begin supporting their regulation. We can do this by preparing their bodies and expectations for what is about to happen. This preparation for what is about to come is far more effective than waiting for a child to be dysregulated and trying to calm them down.
Here are the main principles to follow
Deep pressure and heavy work activities before times that are typically challenging for your child such as known times of the day when he/she is ‘difficult to manage’ and when there is a high demand placed on them (e.g. before a learning task that we know is hard for them such as sitting to do homework).
Use empathy when you can see your child is experiencing any emotion. Often, it is really hard to calm down when you feel you have not been understood, or if people think you’re being silly; it can make you escalate or can sit with you and fester. When someone is experiencing an emotion, we need to help them share the load: empathy is the way we do this. Make a statement about what is bothering them, rather than commenting on the behaviour they are demonstrating.
Our ability to remain regulated throughout our day is greater in the context of supportive, caring and responsive relationships with the people around us. Scheduling positive and fun, one to one time with children is important to foster a positive relationship between parents/carers and children. Relationships at school are also important. Many children really benefit from purposeful 1:1 time with adults at school, this could be simply having a chat or joining in with their games.
Use visuals to help your child predict what will happen in their day. Sometimes as adults we don’t realise how we create predictability and familiarity for new things for ourselves – just think about how many times you might have done a quick Google search to work out where you’re going and what it looks like. Kids can benefit from this too! Next time you are going somewhere new, doing something different or meeting new people, see if there are some pictures you can have a look at together first.