Helping young children develop emotional regulation skills is a critical goal for every parent and teacher. When kids can skillfully manage their emotions and behavior in a variety of settings and situations, they’ll have a stronger foundation for both academic and social success.
Today’s post gives you more than a dozen tips and hints on supporting children’s regulation skills across school and home settings. Excerpted and adapted from Autism Intervention Every Day! by Merle Crawford & Barbara Weber, these tips were designed for young children with autism or red flags for autism, but they also work with any child who needs some help with emotional regulation. Try them in your program or in your home, and see which ones help the children in your life improve their self-control, adapt to changes in their routine, and increase their positive behavior.
Make routines the child resists as predictable as possible. At the beginning of the routine, tell the child what will be happening and show the child familiar items associated with the routine. During the routine, use encouraging phrases like “almost done” and “quick, quick, quick” to help the child focus on the short duration of the disliked routine. Mark the end of the routine predictably by singing a song or counting to 10.
Use humor to defuse unpredictable events. When something unpredictable happens—like when a tower of blocks falls over during a building session—it can be upsetting to some children. Approach the situation with humor: You might try saying, “Oh, man!” in a funny, emphatic voice. Over time, children may start using this phrase instead of getting upset in similar situations.
Help them wait their turn. Waiting can be a challenge for all young kids! Try using a visual cue to support them, such as the sign for “wait,” a raised index finger to represent “1 minute” in conjunction with the word “wait,” or a visual representation of turn-taking such as straws in a plastic bottle. Whenever you see a child waiting appropriately, be sure to praise them.
Count it out. If the child can use some words and knows numbers, try counting while getting the item they want to make the wait easier. You can say, “Let’s count while I get your _____,” and then ask the child to count while you’re retrieving the thing they want.
Pay more attention to desired behaviors than undesirable ones. Responding quickly and enthusiastically to appropriate communication (gestures, words) and ignoring screaming, for example, may increase the appropriate communication and decrease the screaming.
Say what to do rather than what not to do. Instead of using a negative command like “Stop jumping on the chair,” tell the child “Please get down” or “Jump on the floor.”
Ease transitions. Using consistent songs, objects, picture schedules, gestures, or signs can help boost comprehension and ease a young child’s stress during transitions. For example, you might try singing a clean-up song; showing a food item to a child who’s busy at play and walking with it to the table as you say, “Time for snack”; or making a hand-washing gesture and saying, “Time to wash hands.” (Remember that children who don’t understand abstract representations will need to learn the meaning of the cues first.)
Focus on what’s next. Another way to reduce the stress of transitions is to help the child focus on what they’ll be doing next instead of what they’re leaving. Make the new activity seem as desirable as possible. For example, when it’s time to leave the playground, prompt the child’s interest and excitement with, “Let’s go pick out a book for storytime.”
Give choices when appropriate. When you can, help the child feel in control by offering appropriate choices: “You can’t have a cookie, but you may have a cracker or a banana.” For children who have language difficulties, show them the choices so they have a visual.
…but be careful to differentiate between choices and directions. Keep an eye on your language and what it may inadvertently imply. For example, Molly’s mom said, “It’s time to leave for school, okay?” Molly thought the “okay” meant she had an option to stay home, and she became very upset when her mother picked her up to take her to the car.
Teach replacement behaviors. If the child can follow directions, teach replacement behaviors that are incompatible with the undesirable behavior. For a child who grabs at other people or items, try teaching the child to follow simple directions such as “Hands down,” “Fold your hands,” or “Show me waiting hands.”
Use visual cues to indicate when they can have preferred items. When children feel they can’t predict when they’ll have access items or activities they want, they may have a tantrum. Add predictability through visual cues. For example, place a large, laminated X on a computer, door, or cupboard to signify that it’s off-limits for now. Remove the X at predictable times (and do it before the child makes the request, so the child doesn’t think their request resulted in the removal of the X).
Reimagine book time. For children who look at books independently but become dysregulated when others read to them, start talking briefly about familiar pictures on each page to spark their interest. Label or interject comments about one or two pictures that may interest the child, and gradually increase the number of comments as the child begins to tolerate this interaction. For kids who show little or no interest in books and become dysregulated during book time, create a book just for them using a small photo album. Use photos of favorite people and pictures of preferred items to encourage them to look through it.
Support their social interactions. For children who dysregulate when other kids approach them during playtime, try prompting the other child to hand them items they need during their activity. If a child is lining up blocks, the other child can hand them more blocks to add to the line. This is an easy way to begin establishing rapport and social relationships.
Be consistent. Make sure you stay as consistent as possible with rules and expectations, so the child knows if and when there will be follow-through. Inconsistent consequences can strengthen undesirable behaviors. Use this sequence to help children follow directions: 1) gain the child’s attention, 2) give the direction and if the child does not comply, repeat the direction, 3) repeat the direction again, followed by “or I will help you.” If the child doesn’t follow the direction, help them do so.
Have another idea? What’s worked for the young children you teach (or parent)? Let us know in the comments below!
LOOK INSIDE THE BOOK
Children with autism often don’t get a diagnosis in their first few years of life—but if a very young child is exhibiting red flags, what should professionals and parents do in the meantime? This practical guide is packed with simple, effective suggestions for strengthening critical skills in children birth to 3, with or without an autism diagnosis.