How Occupational Therapy Can Improve Self-Regulation in Childhood Development

May 15, 2023

Creative, art and mother painting with her child with colorful paint, paint brush and paper. Creativity, love and care between a happy mom and girl doing a hobby or education project together at home

Every parent is familiar with “the terrible twos” or “threes.” It’s not unusual for a child of these ages to throw themselves on the floor and howl because they were told “no” to ice cream or a trinket they wanted. We usually say, “It’s just a phase, they’ll grow out of it,” – and usually, they do. But if your child is still throwing tantrums at the age of eight, they may have a problem with self-regulation.

What is self-regulation in childhood development?

Self-regulation is the ability of a child to control impulses that influence their behavior, including emotions, thoughts, actions and attention. Children have a tough time learning this on their own, and they need guidance and coaching from parents and other adults to teach them how to do so independently. By self regulation, we mean that your child can control their emotions and behaviors on their own.

For some children, staying in control is not as easy as it is for their peers. These kids need extra support and guidance. This is especially true if your child has an autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorder or ADHD.

“The importance of self-control for behavior and well-being is undisputed. Several studies have shown that self-control level at a young age can predict cognitive and self-regulatory skills in adolescence, as well as essential outcomes such as health and well-being later in life. Moreover, having self-control is related to better grades and academic achievements, better quality interpersonal relationships, and basically, a happier life. Conversely, being prone to low self-control is associated with problematic behaviors and outcomes such as impulse buying and financial debt, maladaptive eating patterns, and procrastination.”

-The ‘Operational’ Definition of Self-Control, NIH National Library Of Medicine.

In your child’s preschool years, their self-regulation skills are developing and can fluctuate daily. They’re learning to master their emotions, and they won’t always get it right. But by the time your child is in school, they should be able to manage their emotions and behaviors in various social settings and environments. If they have difficulty doing this (compared to their peers), it may be time to seek the help of an occupational therapist.

How does occupational therapy teach kids how to self-regulate?

Self-regulation is an essential building block in your child’s development.

“When children are in a “regulated” state, they are in an optimal state to learn, focus and form connections.”, says Tara Cornmesser, BS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist at Good Shepherd Physical Therapy in Palmerton. “Occupational therapists can use programs such as The Zones Of Regulation, which uses child-friendly language, pictures, and teaching tools to assist with thinking, sensory and breathing strategies. Occupational therapists also have a special understanding of sensory strategies and use tools such as Sensory Profile to help parents and caregivers better understand their child’s sensory needs. Our goal is helping you and your child find healthy, effective ways to self-regulate and grow.”

Depending on your child’s level of development, an occupational therapist typically concentrates on one or more of these areas:

  • Sensory regulation: Teaches your child how to maintain focus so they can respond appropriately to sensory input.
  • Emotional regulation: Teaches your child to modulate their behavior to respond appropriately.
  • Cognitive regulation: Teaches your child to use mental processes for problem-solving and increases their ability to concentrate for long periods.

How do you know if your child has a self-regulation problem?

If your child displays one or more of these behaviors consistently, they may have a problem with self-regulation. Note that some behaviors are the exact opposite of others:

  • Slow to react to having their name called or to being touched
  • Overly reactive to movements, sounds, smells, tastes or touch
  • Constantly touching people and objects
  • High pain threshold
  • Appear to be “in their own world” most of the time – disinterested in what is happening around them
  • Frequent tantrums that last for long periods
  • Easily frustrated
  • Overly compliant
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Seems less mature than their peers
  • Difficult to discipline (doesn’t seem to care)
  • Easily distracted
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Unusual sleep patterns for their age
  • Difficulty following simple directions
  • Shows risky behaviors when playing
  • In a constant state of motion (hyperactive)
  • Avoids activities that require movement, like slides and swings
  • Frequently lethargic
  • Hard to engage in two-way interactions
  • Lacks social skills – prefers to play on their own
  • Difficulty with changes in routine
  • Poor motor skills, including poor handwriting, balance and clumsiness
  • Performs tasks with too much force, moves too fast, writes too lightly or too hard
  • Picky eater
  • Becomes distressed while brushing their hair, tying shoes, dressing or other activities of daily living

If you’re child is displaying symptoms of delayed self-regulation, make an appointment to see a pediatric occupational therapist at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation. Call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422) or visit our web page.