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Learn The Secret To Self-Regulation In 15 Minutes: Occupational Therapy For Children

Updated: Jan 7


Have you wondered how a hot air balloon works? I know I have. On the ground, the burners attached to the basket are checked. The basket is then attached to the envelope. Extra fuel is included the basket. The envelope, which is the balloon-like structure, is first filled with air to take its shape. Once it has taken form, the burners are turned on to direct the heat into the envelope. As science tells us, hot air rises and the balloon takes off.


A blast of heat from the burners makes the balloon go higher. At the top of the envelope is a vent that is used to let the air out to make it go lower. The pilot blasts heat to go up and opens the vent to go down until he gets the balloon to the desired height or altitude. He manipulates the burners and vent to first balance the balloon. To steer, the pilot uses the wind. He cannot control the wind but uses it to change directions. By manipulating the burners and vent to move up or down, he catches the wind to change directions. During this journey, the pilot checks the burners, tank reserves/fuel, and his instruments to make sure that everything is in working order. He constantly monitors all parts of the balloon and the speed and direction of the wind. He makes sure that the course he is taking will eventually lead him to the prearranged landing site.


Regulating the hot air balloon and steering is a good way to look at self-regulation and executive function. We embark on our hot-air balloon journeys each day. Self-regulation is what we do to manage ourselves so that we can decrease the frequency and intensity of emotions. It is not the same as self-control. Self-control is an attempt to curb behavior, an immediate reaction, or stopping yourself from doing something. It is not always successful as the urges are already intense.


Pediatric occupational therapy often addresses self-regulation skills. Here is brochure explaining what services occupational therapist's can offer to children and teens.

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We will look at self-regulation from a top to bottom approach. (See figure below).



  • The wind parallels the environmental demands or stressors.

  • The hot-air balloon holds the balanced emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and energy levels or the regulated state. The cognitive skills of adjusting - attention, working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility - are the foundational skills in this process.

  • The burner, flames, and vent are the mental and physical efforts, or drive, we use to tackle demands and at the same time bounce back from any stress that we might experience. Self-awareness is the key cognitive skill at this level. With self-awareness, you are able to recognize and identify when and what kind of fuel you need to stimulate or calm you in any given situation. The other essential executive function (thinking and execution) skills are accessed more readily once regulation occurs.

  • The extra fuel are the things you do on an ongoing basis to help you have mental and physical energy for everyday life and to recover from demands or stress. These are the self-management and stress management activities that keep you balanced.


In the previous blog, self-regulation is the foundation of using all other executive function skills.

Executive Function/Thinking Skills: Instinct Or Intentional Action? It is an ongoing awareness of balancing your attention, emotion, behaviors, and energy levels for the purpose of completing a task or a goal. It suggests that you are in charge and proactive in managing your cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical states. The key is to manage arousal levels so that you can operate at an optimal level to tackle predictable and unpredictable tasks, experiences, and challenges throughout the day. The adaptive cognitive processes that are used in self-regulation are attention, working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility.


After you are regulated, the thinking and execution skills can be set in motion. These thinking and execution skills are initiation, planning, time-management, organization, self-monitoring, and goal-directed persistence. These skills help us to start tasks, make plans, manage time, organize our belongings and tasks, observe and analyze our performance, and follow through or stay on track with a goal. As we have seen with the pilot, he plans the course, manages navigational aids, keeps track of the trajectory, checks fuel levels, monitors the environment, and so on. Like the pilot going with the wind, you have to adjust to your ever changing environment. You adjust - not the environment. Adjusting, thinking, and execution skills are used throughout the trip as the environment demands until the trip ends.


Our ever changing demands tax our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Depending on how we self-regulate, our ability to adjust might interfere with how we function and progress towards our goals. The ultimate goal of self-regulation is to be in a calm, focused, curious, and interested state so that you can engage, learn, be resilient, and hopefully achieve your goals. Self - regulation is a guard. It is your first defense, which underpins its importance. Check out 5 Social-Emotional Strategies for Teenagers | Thoughtful Learning K-12


How can we apply this information to help adolescents? Self-regulation develops from infancy and through childhood. Some children might not develop the skill for various reasons. Neglect, abuse, high stress environments, developmental delays, mental disorders, and individual personality are some of the factors that might slow down the development of this skill . Children and teens struggling with self-regulation have difficulty functioning at home, at school, and in the community. Difficulties impact functional independence, performance, and productivity. Poor self-regulation results in an inability to deal with stress and daily demands, which can lead to poor decisions, substance abuse, and mental disorders. These consequences have a significant impact on the society as a whole.


Self-regulation behaviors or habits that may impact your child's/teen's ability to fully participate and

enjoy activities with family, at school, and in the community:

Difficulty controlling impulses

Unable to bounce back from an upsetting event

Unable to calm following the excitement

Unusually low or high energy

Emotional outbursts complete with crying, anger, accusations, and passive-aggressive behavior

Overreacts to situations more than peers

Poor motor skills

Difficulty adjusting to change in routines

Easily frustrated

Unable to focus or re-focus

Anxiety and depression

Struggles to behave appropriately in social settings


The “good” news is that although self-regulation starts in infancy, it continues to develop into adulthood. Even though development might not have occurred in the typical time frame, it can be taught. That means intervention during the pre-teen and teenage years can work. Pediatric occupational therapy helps to address self-regulation issues so that teens can gain independence, self-efficacy, and wellness in their everyday life. The benefits of self-regulation are far reaching. It supports mental wellness, life-long learning, a growth mind-set, the ability to make and pursue goals, connection and collaboration with others, and maximizing one's potential. BrainWings, LLC| Occupational Therapy & Wellness for Adolescents.







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