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Occupational Therapy and Self-Regulation Activities

This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on Feb 04, 2024.

You may have heard the term self-regulation and been unsure what it means or how it relates to children. Self-regulation describes a person’s ability to manage and control arousal state, behaviors, emotions, and actions.

We all experience many emotions, situations, and challenges that can require us to use self-regulation skills. Self-regulation skills are the ability to choose the best strategies to help adjust your energy level and motor output for an adaptive and successful response to a situation. Emotion regulation skills are typically developed beginning in early childhood. As children start to grow and develop, they learn to follow directions, demonstrate situationally appropriate behavior and control their emotion.

In this guide, we’ll uncover various self-regulation activities that can help children better regulate their behavior and emotions to independently complete age-appropriate tasks and skills.

Emotional & behavior development in children

From 12 months old, children become more aware of social cues and societal norms and begin to monitor their behavior to follow their parent’s or other caretakers’ directions. Typically, by 24 months, younger children can follow other people’s directions. When a child is 3-4 years old, they can often generalize information they have learned and understand how they are expected to act and behave in various situations. Typically, young children can monitor their emotion and behaviors to situational expectations and act how their parents would want them to act or how is situationally appropriate.

Successful self-regulation can be broken into three general areas:

  • Sensory Regulation: This allows children to take in various complex sensory inputs, process them, and produce an appropriate motor output and level of alertness across environments. Discover more about why fine motor skills are important.
  • Emotional Regulation: This allows children to vary their emotional response to situations to allow for a socially acceptable response in different settings.
  • Cognitive Regulation: This allows children to use cognition to solve and figure out complex problems and how to respond to changing expectations in situations.

All must be developed for a child to demonstrate success in self-regulation skills.

How can I tell if my child has problems with self-regulation?

Here are some things to look for in kids who are struggling with self-regulation:

  • Inappropriate response to different sensations
  • Avoids or seeks out touch
  • Seeks out movement or crashes their body into people/objects
  • Does not respond to their name when you know they hear you
  • Loves extreme movement
  • Has difficulty recovering from when something does not go their way or over-exaggerated response
  • Frequent and often intense tantrums
  • Easily distracted, shows poor attention and concentration
  • Has a hard time making and keeping meaningful friendships with same-age peers
  • Prefers predictability / may appear rigid and over-react to small changes
  • Has difficulty with transitions
  • May be a picky eater and/or reluctant to try new foods
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration; seems easily distracted by stimuli in the environment
  • May appear tired, uninterested, or “in their own world.”

Why is self-regulation so important?

Without being able to self-regulate, a child may demonstrate difficulty controlling their emotions and behaviors. As children gain independence, they must learn how to self-regulate, which leads to increased autonomy and decision-making. Children also require these skills to form and maintain healthy relationships with peers and adults.

Self-regulation has also been shown to help children:

  • Learn effectively at school
  • Learn how to behave in socially appropriate ways
  • Assist with making and maintaining friendships
  • Improve family relationships
  • Improve their sense of autonomy, which helps improve mental health

How does occupational therapy help with self-regulation?

The general purpose of any therapy is to strengthen a child’s skills to reach their full potential. A pediatric occupational therapist can help to maximize the potential of a child by facilitating their participation in various activities. Occupational therapists are experts at viewing the whole child and creating treatment plans to help improve their quality of life. The therapist may incorporate a variety of tasks aimed at helping your child improve their ability to self-regulate better and live a more fulfilling and satisfying life.

Self-Regulation Activities

Self-regulation activities can vary greatly depending on each child’s:

  • Sensory processing preferences
  • Cognitive strengths
  • Needs
  • Preferred activities

The following is a list of some self-regulation strategies that may be included in an occupational therapy session. The choice and implementation of these activities vary by therapist and are specific for each child, but the end goal is the same. Occupational therapists are trying to help children learn how to take in input from their environment, process it, and produce a functional and productive output.

  • Social stories – help to teach a child a typical response to a specific situation they are struggling with or could be more general and apply to a particular skill the child is trying to learn.
  • Teaching calming strategies – these may include breathing techniques, yoga poses, self-talk strategies, or other research-based techniques.
  • Teaching children how to put words to their feelings and emotions – often, children struggle with language and need help putting words to their different emotions and feelings.
  • Higher–level thinking and problem-solving games – learning how to use problem-solving in a safe space can help children learn how to solve problems in more challenging situations when they arise.
  • Obstacle courses with varied sensory, balance, and emotional regulation activities – helping to improve sensory regulation, problem solve and tolerate failure can help children with improved self-regulation tasks.
  • Providing sensory input – such as oral motor activities like blowing bubbles, sucking a drink through a straw, or chewing gum. Oral input is proven to be very calming as the sucking reflex is a strategy babies use to calm and self-regulate. Some children have difficulty moving past this stage of development and look for oral input to calm themselves.
  • Proprioceptive and tactile activities – like squishing, hugs, jumping on a trampoline, jumping and crashing into a crash pad or pillow, fingerpainting, playdoh, or rolling a child up in a blanket. Deep pressure is a universally calming sensation. As a child receives deep pressure input, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, and the child becomes calm and regulated.
  • Vestibular activities – such as swinging, rocking, or inversion. Specific movement patterns are known to help calm the central nervous system through the vestibular system.
  • Auditory activities – things like music with headphones, humming or using a white noise machine.

A skilled therapist can help you access the child’s response to various situations and types of sensory input and help you adapt those environments to make them more manageable for your child. Be sure to discuss specific concerns and areas in which your child struggles with your occupational therapist!

While it may look to the outsider like the therapist is just playing with your child, you can rest assured knowing that there is always a research-based treatment approach and emotional regulation activity plan which is being performed. After all, research has shown that kids learn best through play!

Discover the Right Self-Regulation Techniques

If your child is struggling with self-regulation, Ivy Rehab for Kids is here to help! We provide pediatric therapy, employing high-level, skilled occupational therapists who can evaluate, treat and assist your child struggling with self-regulation and coping skills. Your child’s therapist will collaborate with you to provide you with a list of self-regulation strategies that you can do at home to help your child. Reach out to schedule an appointment with your local occupational therapist.

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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