by Stacy M. Turke
on the On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog
In my earlier years as an Occupational Therapist in public schools, school OTs talked quite a bit about Sensory Integration and Sensory Processing. We worked with kids who had genuine challenges tolerating and utilizing information coming in through their senses; and we created elaborate and precise, almost prescriptive “sensory diets” which gave teachers and parents a plan of inputs to do with their students and children a certain number of times per day. Usually these “diets” required the student to leave the classroom, go to a separate spot, and engage in a series of activities designed to “fix” the kids so they could return to the classroom ready and able. At least that was the goal. I’ll be honest, there was little connection in the sensory work we were doing outside of the classroom to the curricular work happening in the classroom. But that was okay, we reasoned, because we had our out-patient clinical colleagues success with this model guiding us; and we had the belief that kids could only benefit from the instruction in the room if they were made ready outside the room.
A few years later…okay, MANY years later…the focus on meeting sensory needs changed quite a bit in public school systems in my area and across the nation. We still work with students who struggle with sensory processing, no doubt, and in fact we may actually be seeing more of these concerns across any given classroom. But to the extent possible, we try very hard to only remove kids from the classroom to meet their sensory needs as a last resort, and preferably during natural breaks in the action. We now pay careful attention to keeping kids IN the classroom during instruction because it’s hard to learn content when you aren’t there to hear and/or see it being taught. And for the most part, we talk about these needs as helping kids with self-regulation rather than “sensory processing.” So what does this change look like, you may ask? Let’s explore!
Who can use help with self-regulation in school?
Too simple an answer? Okay, so let me explain. First, a definition of Self-Regulation:
“Self-regulation is the ability to attain, change, or maintain an appropriate level of alertness for a task or situation” (Williams & Shellenberger, 1996)
We operate from the perspective that everyone needs to regulate their emotions, energy level, and ability to focus or concentrate. All. The. Time. What we do to regulate, and for what purpose, varies depending on what we are regulating for. (Keep reading, I promise this will make sense.) And some of us are able to regulate ourselves to be in the “just right place” more easily than others. As a school OT, I try to help everyone in a classroom understand what “tools” they need to help them regulate and how to use them effectively as a responsible, productive student (or teacher!).
What does self-regulation look like?
When people are self-regulating successfully, they are able to optimally attend to and participate in the task at hand. But what that looks like varies depending on the task. Let’s say students are in physical education class playing a game of basketball. In this scenario, their bodies and brains need to attend, listen, observe, and physically respond quickly and with control when the ball comes their way. This is an active, physical state and children who are self-regulating successfully during a basketball game will reflect that. If a child is feeling sluggish, his or her response time may be too slow to catch the ball or defend the basket. If the child is overly active and not paying attention, a pass to a teammate may be way off mark or a slide to defend may result in a clumsy foul.
Now let’s put those same children into the classroom for a language arts lesson, immediately after that exciting basketball game. Their bodies and brains need to attend calmly, listen intently, and connect this new learning to their previous knowledge so that they can write some amazingly structured paragraphs about the zoo lesson they’ve just completed (or whatever the lesson may entail). Initially, many of them may be too energized to slow down and attend to the lesson because they were regulated for a more physically active task. Often a teacher will lead these students into activities that will help calm and organize their growing brains so that they can be ready for this calmer state. It can be a simple strategy, such as having the class pretend to be walking on a tightrope all the way back from the gym to the classroom. This will slow them physically and help them get ready to focus and attend when they get back to the room.
As a school OT, I work with teachers and students to develop an awareness of the self-regulation tools they can use (and likely already are using) to get to that just-right place. For some kids, using a seat cushion gives them the movement needed to allow them to stay in their seats and complete the math assignment. Some students need more movement than a cushion provides, so we may look at other classroom design options, such as a second work space near the back of the room that allows them to stand while working. Some of my students do well with a fidget tool, which can be just about any small hand-held object that they can move within their hands while attending and learning. Gum is another favorite, and even teachers tolerate this well within the classroom after their students are taught how and why to use this tool. And some kids will enter the room, grab a drink of water, and be ready without any extra tools or strategies. There are even programs designed to help individual and groups of children learn to check their engines or attend to their Zone to aid in regulating. What I hope teachers understand is that bodies regulate differently, and that is ok.
Where do students self-regulate in school?
Everywhere! Regardless of where we are, we always need to be in control of our bodies, brains, and emotions; and we need to align our thinking and actions to the task we are attempting to complete. Kids need to be able to listen to the directions given and then correctly respond when called on in class. They need to be able to run and play and giggle with their friends at recess, without becoming overly-aggressive with peers. They need to sit calmly at the table and eat in the cafeteria during lunchtime, while quietly
chatting with their classmates. So it is important that we work with students and teachers wherever children are having regulation challenges so that they can be as successful as possible.
When do students need to regulate?
If you are still reading this post and you’ve gotten this far, you already know the answer to this question…so repeat this with me: Students need to regulate All. The. Time. Not just during math. Not just at recess. If we need to regulate for all tasks, then we need to regulate all the time. As a teacher, or as a parent, you will want to remember that some of our students/children will have an easier time moving from one task to the next because they regulate more readily. Some of our students will need a little more help.
Why work with the whole class?
Teachers will probably tell you that most of their students don’t need help regulating their bodies on most days, and that’s probably true. Teachers at the younger levels use a lengthy class building process at the beginning of each school year; and then they revisit that teaching frequently, to make sure their students learn to sit, attend, focus, follow procedures, behave kindly…and all the other non-academic skills needed to be a successful student. But even in the best “behaved” class, the students who are able to focus and concentrate and follow procedures may struggle on indoor recess days. Or the day after a holiday or when they witness the first snow of the season begin to fall outside their window. Sometimes the whole class needs a common language for learning to take responsibility for their learning, so that when things start to get a little noisy, or wiggly, the teacher can say, “I’m hearing a little more noise than necessary. Can someone name a tool we can use to get quiet again?”
But let me tell you why I work with whole classes of children when many can already regulate on their own. It’s because some of our students really cannot get their brains and bodies to a “just right place” on their own and they need help. They need to be taught; and they need to have opportunities to practice their new learning, even with regulation strategies. When we teach a whole classroom of children that there are tools that can help us pay attention and get our work done, and that not everyone uses the same tool and that’s okay, then we are normalizing these actions for our students. We are helping those kids who need slightly different “tools” to use them proudly because they and their classmates understand what they do and why they are being used and that it’s the responsible thing to do. Kids can feel more in control of their own learning ability.
Bonus question: How can I help a whole classroom self-regulate?
There are as many ways to support self-regulation as there are teachers and students, so there’s no one “right” way. In general, I begin by talking to a classroom of children about tools, what they are, and what they do. I ask kids to name a tool a cook would use. We talk about tools that a fire fighter needs. We discuss that tools are things that help us do our jobs. We talk about the tools kids use in the classroom. And I demonstrate. I show them a pencil and ask them “Thumbs up or thumbs down” if they agree a pencil is a tool. Of course the thumbs all go up. And then I toss the pencil up and catch it repeatedly and ask, “Is it still a tool or has it become a toy?” Everyone agrees it’s a toy now because I am now playing with it and it’s distracting me.
This simple demonstration and discussion of tools and toys helps bring home the idea that it’s not the items themselves but how we use them that either helps or distracts us from getting our work done. We expand on the conversation from handheld tools (hand fidgets are included in this discussion) to look at our seating. Where we sit, next to whom, on what equipment, can change how well we get our work done. If it’s lunchtime, we want to sit by our friends with whom we love to talk and giggle. When we get home and want to chill after school, we might flop down on the couch. But what about when it’s time to concentrate? Should we sit by a friend we like to chat with or should we choose a spot where we will be better able to concentrate? Helping children think about choosing and using tools to get work done is one way to help them begin to self-regulate.
One final note. Although these types of strategies and supports can work for all kids, there will still be some children who need extra supports, and extra opportunities to practice, and perhaps a few different tools or even locations. You just might call in your school OT to help you support those children. But by setting up your classroom space in a way that encourages using tools to self-regulate, you will establish your location as a safe space for learning to take responsibility for learning. You will help children recognize that we may have different methods, but we all have the same needs to learn to pay attention and get our work done. And your students will be grateful for this life-long lesson.
Stacy M. Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 30 years with the same school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @stacyturke.
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Williams & Shellenberger, 1996, How Does Your Engine Run? A Leader’s Guide to the Alert Program for Self-regulation.
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