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

Updated: Feb 19

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 in 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 used to let the air out to lower it. 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 first to 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 instruments to ensure 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 an excellent 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 to decrease the frequency and intensity of emotions. It is not the same as self-control. Self-control is an attempt to curb the behavior, an immediate reaction, or stop 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 a brochure explaining occupational therapists' services to children and teens.

Download PDF • 3.48MB

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 a critical cognitive skill at this level. With self-awareness, you can 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 is what you do on an ongoing basis to help you have mental and physical energy for everyday life and recover from demands or stress. These are the self-management and stress management activities that keep you balanced.

Self-regulation is the foundation of all other executive function skills in the previous blog.

Executive Function/Thinking Skills: Instinct Or Intentional Action? It is an ongoing awareness of balancing your attention, emotion, behaviors, and energy levels to complete 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 control 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 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 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 must adjust to your ever-changing environment. You change - not the setting. Adjusting, thinking, and execution skills are used throughout the trip as the environment demands until the journey ends.

Our ever-changing demands tax our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Depending on how we self-regulate, our ability to adjust might interfere with our functioning 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 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. Problems impact functional independence, performance, and productivity. Poor self-regulation results in an inability to deal with stress and daily demands, leading to poor decisions, substance abuse, and mental disorders. These consequences have a significant impact on society as a whole.

Self-regulation behaviors or habits that may impact your child's/teen's ability to participate and enjoy activities with family fully, 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 changes 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 develops 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 address self-regulation issues so that teens can gain independence, self-efficacy, and wellness in their everyday lives. The benefits of self-regulation are far-reaching. It supports mental wellness, life-long learning, a growth mindset, the ability to make and pursue goals, connection and collaboration with others, and maximizing one's potential: BrainWings, LLC| Occupational Therapy & Wellness for Adolescents.