Fort Myers occupational therapy

Teaching Kids to Fail: Self-Regulation a Key Goal in Occupational Therapy

In occupational therapy, we tend to see our mission as helping children succeed. However, we also recognize that it’s equally important to teach kids how to fail.

That may seem strange, but the reality is failure is an inevitable outcome for everyone at some point or another. The size of the failure may vary, but knowing how to better tolerate will reduce meltdowns, anxiety and social difficulties (which can exacerbate the initial problem). Perhaps even more importantly, kids who know it’s Ok to fail sometimes are less likely to give up – and more likely to try new things! Ultimately, knowing how to self-regulate and cope with failure sets your child up for success in the long-term.

This point was underscored several times by NBA great Michael Jordan, who throughout his career spoke about the importance of losing. Resilience and perseverance in the face of challenges are a huge part of what has much him a winner, he’s said.

“If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Helping kids figure out ways to climb it, go through it and work around it are a huge part of what our FOCUS occupational therapy team does every day. Self-regulation is a big piece of that puzzle, particularly with children who are diagnosed with delays, disabilities and other challenges.

What is Self Regulation?

Self-regulation is one’s ability to control and adjust their emotions, behaviors, energy level and attention. A person with appropriate self-regulation can control and adjust their responses in socially accepted ways.

In occupational therapy, we can break it down into three broad categories: Emotional regulation, cognitive regulation and sensory regulation.

  • Emotional Regulation. This is what allows kids to respond to a situation in socially-appropriate ways with a range of emotions through processes of initiating, inhibiting or controlling their behavior.
  • Sensory Regulation. This is what allows kids to keep an appropriate level of alertness so they can respond appropriately to various sensory stimuli across environments.
  • Cognitive Regulation. This is what allows kids to use the mental processes necessary to solve problems and pay an appropriate level of attention and persistence needed to complete tasks.

Why We Work on Self-Regulation in Occupational Therapy

Skills of self-regulation can determine how well kids manage tasks and challenges. As they work on self-regulating, kids learn to better concentrate, share, take turns and cooperate. All of this improvers their independence.

Many kids are going to grapple with managing their feelings and behaviors at certain points, especially if they’re hungry or tired or facing something new/scary. What’s problematic is when this occurs regularly and the triggers for such reactions are slight. We see this often in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and other conditions.

Occupational therapy can help. Sometimes ABA (applied behavioral analysis) is necessary as well. We focus on the child’s behavior in relation to their environment, accurate processing of sensory stimulation (both in the environment and in the body), emotional development/regulation, attention and concentration, executive function, planning and sequencing, social skills, working memory and comprehension of spoken language.

A child who has self-regulation troubles will likely display some of the following:

  • Lethargy/disinterest (appearing to be mostly “in their own world”);
  • Difficulty controlling their emotional and behavioral responses (major or excessive number of tantrums, impulsive behavior, easily frustrated, overly compliant, emotionally overreactive);
  • Hyper- or Hypo-sensitivity to stimuli;
  • Difficult to discipline;
  • Easily-distracted/poor attention;
  • Poor sleep patterns;
  • Never stops moving (seeks intense pressure, constant spinning/running/jumping/crashing, etc.);
  • Avoiding movement (spinning, swinging, etc.);
  • Delayed communication/social skills;
  • Trouble transitioning between tasks or accepting changes in routine;
  • Trouble engaging with peers or making/keeping friends;
  • Extremely picky eating;
  • Poor motor skills;
  • Rapidly fluctuating emotions;
  • Displays risky behaviors in play.

Our occupational therapy team at FOCUS can help children with various conditions learn to better self-regulate, especially when things don’t always go their way or they don’t get it right. Intervention strategies can include:

  • Sensory processing exercises to improve a child’s appropriate responses to various stimuli, reducing sensory or tactile defensiveness and improving sensory regulation;
  • Social stories, to depict visually the social skills they might otherwise find confusing/tough to understand.
  • Role-playing, teaching them ways to act and interact in various scenarios.
  • Visual schedules, to help kids see a visual depiction of what’s going to happen next so they better understand, can prepare for and plan ahead.
  • Timers, to help with transitions, giving kids a visual warning of how long each activity or task – preferred or non-preferred – is going to last.

We also frequently draw up “sensory diets” for individual kids to help them improve their sensory regulation.

Teaching children to self-regulate and cope with failure provides them with valuable tools they will need to keep trying and reach their highest potential.

FOCUS offers pediatric occupational therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Strategies for Teaching Kids Self-Regulation, Dec. 7, 2017, By Brandy Wells, PBS

More Blog Entries:

Yoga for Kids: Why Our Fort Myers Occupational Therapists Love It! Nov. 29, 2020, Fort Myers Occupational Therapy Blog

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