Self-Regulation: Effective Strategies for Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, and Other Neurological Challenges

Updated: Apr 6

Parents of children with neurological challenges, like autism spectrum disorders (ASD), ADHD, Anxiety, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), are always looking for strategies they can teach their kids that will help them today and in the future.


kids playing chess self regulation strategies by kozie clothes

One of the most important areas to concentrate on is executive functioning. Things like task initiation, flexibility, planning, and problem-solving, among others, are all brain functions that anyone can improve with practice. Children with these disorders tend to struggle more with executive functions, which is why it’s so critical to work with them on these skills while they are young.


In particular, self-regulation can bring together many of these functions and make it easier for children to operate effectively in various environments. This isn’t just for children on the spectrum, or those with anxiety, SPD, or other neurological challenges - all children benefit from practicing self-regulation. However, it’s especially important to focus on those who deal with deficits in executive functioning as part of their condition.


WHAT IS SELF-REGULATION AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?


Self-regulation is, simply put, the ability to regulate your actions and emotions. It’s a crucial skill in interpersonal relationships, interactions, and even caring for one’s self. It requires the ability to recognize our own emotions and needs and place them in the context of our situation and our goals.

Without the ability to self-regulate, children have difficulty focusing on their work or staying calm in upsetting situations, like losing a game. Students who learn self-regulation techniques early on have been shown to do better with essential skills, including literacy, language, and social skills.


SELF-REGULATION AND CHILDREN WITH AUTISM, ANXIETY, ADHD, SPD, AND OTHER NEUROLOGICAL CHALLENGES

Strong self-regulation skills are crucial for every child’s success in school, play, socially, and later in life. But for those with a variety of neurological issues such as difficulty with planning, attention, prioritizing, working memory, impulse control, and other executive functions are at the core of their challenges. That’s what makes finding ways to practice self-regulation - ways that they will accept and enjoy - even more important. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to incorporate self-regulation strategies into their routine. Below are a few games and activities to help improve executive functioning skills such as working memory, organization, flexible thinking, impulse control, problem-solving, etc.


GAMES AND ACTIVITIES

Below are a few games and activities to help improve executive functioning skills such as working memory, organization, flexible thinking, impulse control, problem-solving, etc. Try some of these to get started and there are many more.


Board games such as Clue, Monopoly, Checkers: These encourage children to use flexible thinking, impulse control, etc.

Jenga: Great game for inhibition control, problem-solving, etc. and also a great sensory game.

Minecraft: even certain video games can help enhance executive functioning skills by working on concentration and working memory.


Scavenger Hunt: Is a great way to enjoy the environment while working on following directions, social skills, concentration, time management, and inhibition


Red light, green light: This classic game encourages children to control their own bodies based on directives from others. The teacher or another student faces a wall - they are the stoplight. The other children can move when the stoplight faces the wall and says “green light”. But when the stop yells “red light” everyone must freeze. If they are caught moving, they are out.


Follow the leader, Orchestra, Simon Says, etc: Games like this require students to pay close attention to what the “leader” is doing or saying. These can be especially challenging and helpful for students on the spectrum or for those with ADHD.


Mother, May I? - Like “Red light, green light”, one person stands at the head of the group. Each student asks if they can perform an action - hop, skip, jump, step - by asking first “Mother, may I?” The first student to reach the leader wins.


COPING STRATEGIES

Self-regulation activities for elementary students are a great way to practice and learn the process, but coping strategies will help them get through those games and other situations in life, too.


angry upset child on wall coping strategies by kozie clothes

Not every coping strategy is going to work for a child. For instance, autism self-regulation techniques might include quiet spaces to calm, thinking or talking about something that makes the child happy or taking deep breaths, while ADHD self-regulation strategies might include teaching them to ask for help, model staying calm, help them to realize they have the power of making choices. Remember that each child is different, so try different techniques to see what works best.


Some other coping strategies in addition to the ones above include:

  • Stop, Perhaps Walking away for awhile

  • Visualize your goal

  • Positive self talk

  • Breathing exercises

  • Physical exercise

  • Thinking of a compromise

  • Strategies for letting it go

  • Counting to 20

  • Talking to a friend

  • Many more

ENVIRONMENTAL SUPPORT


It is difficult for typical adults to self-regulate when they are anxious or stressed. It’s nearly impossible for an elementary student to learn self-regulation when they are worried, upset, or when dealing with anxiety. When it’s time to learn or practice self-regulation, consider doing everything you can to minimize these factors in the environment first.


Depending on what activity the class or your child was engaged in prior to, say, a game of Simon Says, take a brain break. Give children the opportunity to settle and to disconnect from their previous work before transitioning to the next.


For students with sensory challenges, whether they have SPD, ADHD, or are on the spectrum, consider sensory devices that will help calm them so that they can focus on learning coping skills or participating in a self-regulation learning activity. Things like compression shirts or pants or weighted vest or pocket weights can help remove anxiety and alleviate stress so that children can focus.


With practice, we can all develop improved self-regulation skills. However, we can’t simply expect students with SPD, anxiety, ADHD, and autism, to just get better at this essential skill. By involving families in parent training programs and teaching students coping skills, allowing them to practice self-regulation with executive functioning strategies, fun games, and activities, and giving them a sensory environment where they can focus on the lessons, you’ll improve their ability to self-regulate today and give them tools to succeed in the future.

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