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Self-Regulation and the Impact on Learning

By Dr. Neeha Patel OTD, OTR/L Occupational Therapist, Brooklyn Letters in New York
Self-regulation is a person's ability to maintain their arousal level and a level of alertness that is appropriate to the demands of the environment. Self-regulation is critical to a child's learning and development. Children and adults use various strategies and techniques to maintain self-regulation throughout their daily lives. Many of these strategies are sensory based and help our nervous systems sustain physiological regulation in order to participate in social activities, classroom activities, daily living activities, and other age appropriate activities. Sensory processing is a key ingredient to a child's self-regulation. Sensory information that our bodies process include:

  • Proprioceptive input: Gives our bodies information of body position and where our body is in space.
  • Vestibular input: Provides information to our body about movement and changes in head position.
  • Tactile input: Sense of touch through our bodies, hands, and mouth; allowing us to interpret what we feel.
  • Auditory input: Sense of hearing, allowing us to interpret what we hear.
  • Visual input: Sense of vision, allowing us to interpret what we see.

Our bodies take in sensory information from the environment and process that information, resulting in a behavior in response to the environment. When children have difficulty with processing of sensory information or have difficulty adequately registering the sensory information, difficulties in self-regulation can result. Just a few examples of how adults sustain regulation on a daily basis using sensory strategies include:

  • Chewing gum to help sustain attention.
  • Going out for a massage or engaging in physical exercise when feeling stressed.
  • Lying under a heavy blanket when relaxing and falling asleep.

When a child has difficulty with self-regulation, it can impact the child's ability to participate in school activities, in activities of daily living, social activities, etc. For example, if a child has difficulty sustaining an optimal level of arousal and is very active they will potentially have difficulty with listening to classroom instruction, difficulty following the classroom routine, etc. Another example is a toddler who has difficulty tolerating transitions and difficulty self-soothing. This toddler may have difficulty with utilizing tools or strategies to assist with self calming, like engaging in a calming movement activity, getting a hug for comfort, knowing what to expect through a visual schedule, etc. Here are a few questions to consider when looking at a child's functioning and determining whether difficulties with self-regulation may be contributing to your child's learning potential:

  • Does your child have difficulty staying seated or sitting still during tabletop tasks?
  • Does your child have difficulty transitioning between activities?
  • Does your child have difficulty sustaining attention to a conversation, activity, or task?
  • Does your child have difficulty self-soothing when upset?
  • Does your child have difficulty filtering excessive noise resulting in difficulty sustaining attention?
  • Does your child have difficulty following multi step directions or multi step activities without requiring assistance?
  • Does your child have a low activity level?
  • Does your child seem to get lost while completing a task, delaying his/her ability to complete it in a timely manner?

These are only a few questions related to possible self-regulation difficulties. If difficulties with self-regulating is impacting daily life and your child's ability to participate in age related activities to their fullest potential, an occupational therapy consultation or evaluation may be beneficial. Occupational therapy can assess a child's individual sensory needs and self-regulation capacity to assist with increase in functional independence.

Here are a few examples that an occupational therapist could utilize to assist you and your child with their self-regulation:

  • Create social stories: creating a story about the child and identifying their arousal level (our bodies move slow, just right, and fast).
  • Creating a sensory diet that is specific to the child's sensory system and needs to help provide needed sensory input to maintain regulation.
  • Increasing a child's self-awareness and ability to identify their own arousal level.
  • Providing sensory rich experiences for the child to engage in to increase opportunities for the child to receive the sensory input that they may need.
  • Engaging in sensory based community activities that provide the sensory information that the individual child may benefit from.

Brooklyn Letters is composed of speech language specialists and a team of experts in reading, clinical and educational psychology, neuropsychology, psychotherapy, creative arts therapy, occupational therapy, nutrition, hearing, and parent support.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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