WHAT IS EMOTIONAL REGULATION?
This page is dedicated to an explanation of the types of difficulties that are often seen in children with social communication challenges. The term ‘self –regulation’ is the ability to adjust the level of alertness and how to display your emotions through specific sets of behaviour in order to attain goals and adapt socially. For example, many children experience strong emotions such as frustration or anger. Being able to self –regulate will help them to remain calm in a stressful situation enough to think through the sensory motor and cognitive based strategies that will lead to a successful outcome. I have found that many students who have additional sensory needs are not able to successful navigate and control their strong emotions leading to meltdowns, angry outbursts or withdrawal and avoidance. There are three critical neurological components that can support this process.
This is how a person makes sense of sensory information and how it is perceived by your sensory receptors, as well as how you organise and integrate that information so that you can act on it in a meaningful way (Kuypers, 2011). Sensory input includes; visual, auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), vestibular (movement and body’s relationship to gravity) and prioperception (body awareness). Many of the children I work with who are on the autism spectrum or have other social communication challenges also have difficulties in regulation and processing of sensory information. This can interfere with their ability to stay at the optimal level of arousal or ‘just right emotional state’, to remain actively part of the group, engages in learning and relate to their peers. For example, a student in the classroom has the relevant stimuli they need to process (e.g. teacher talking, notes on the white board) but maybe overwhelmed by all the background sensory information that they have difficulty filtering out (e.g. itchy clothing, noise in the hallway, and temperature in the room). This often can cause irritation, restlessness and distraction. Working on building sensory and cognitive language based strategies to develop emotional regulation and control can be achieved by therapy designed to target helping students to understand what works best for them.
This is a cognitive process that is involved in the conscious control of thoughts and actions. For many students this can be taught through therapy designed to promote a cognitive behaviour approach which works on attention shifting, working memory, internalisation of speech (self-talk), flexible thinking (considering multiple options), planning and inhibition (Kuypers, 2011). The Zones of Regulation is an excellent program to adopt these skills (www.zonesofregulation.com).
The main aspect of this component is that emotions are constantly being triggered by events. Children with social communication challenges will often struggle to regulate their emotions so that they either react very quickly (going from 1-10 on their emotional thermostat) or don’t seem to react at all (preferring to stay on the outside of groups and avoid social situations that could cause them anxiety). In the therapy session, cognitive elements are taught such as determining the size of the problem and the expected matching emotional reaction. We also work on understanding that strong emotions feel BIG on the inside but sometimes we need to show them MEDIUM –SMALL on the outside. It is important to gauge a student’s social motivation and ability to understand other people’s perspectives. Identifying a rigid versus flexible thinking style will also help to develop the ability to competently regulate their emotions. It should be noted that this skill changes with the social expectations of age. A 3 year old would not be expected to control their emotions the way an older child will. Additionally, navigating through adolescence can bring with it developmental expected levels of difficulty. It is when there are extreme levels of difficulty that warrants a therapeutic approach. It should also be considered in light of comorbidities with other diagnoses.
Kuyper, L. (2011). The zones of regulation