Self-Regulation: Engine Week Follow Up
Julie Mishkin, (OT, Child Development Team)

NCRC just finished its annual Engine Week! If you missed the intro letter in September 30th’s Sunday Scoop, you can see it here. Your children were introduced to our curriculum to support the development of self-regulation skills. You may have seen the many different activities on our social media outlets and in your classroom newsletters. In summary, the students learned that their bodies are like cars. They learned that inside their chest is their “engine” and like a car, their bodies can go fast, medium and slow. The teachers use this language throughout the day to teach the children that there is a time and a place for all engine speeds. We want the children to unleash their fast engines on the playground to run and explore the various equipment to gain strength, balance and coordination. We want the children to have medium engines in the classroom so they are focused and alert to engage with materials and develop strong connections with their peers and teachers during unstructured play and teacher-led tasks. Finally, we want the children to slow their engines for rest or quiet activities like looking through books. 


Why is Self-Regulation important to address in the preschool years?

Self-Regulation skills are the foundation that impacts all parts of children’s development, learning and social emotional growth!  Children’s brains are rapidly developing in the preschool years. Our goal is to prepare our students for being able to learn in a classroom setting when they leave us to go to kindergarten. We all learn best when we are calm, engaged and interested in what we are doing.  At NCRC we know that self-regulation is an important part of social-emotional development, which is why it is as an essential curriculum domain that we track throughout the year. 


Children with strong self-regulation skills can:

  • Be calm and alert to take in the important information in their environment, such as teachers or peers talking to them, the current lesson being taught or the play materials being presented

  • Adjust their energy levels to match the situation at hand (for example outdoor play versus snack time)

  • Ignore or redirect attention away from less relevant sensory information, such as extra noises in the room (door opening, peer talking, air conditioner) in order to focus and participate in the expected task or the group plan

  • Recover from stressors or unexpected occurrences with increasing independence such as an accidental collision with a peer, or needing to compromise and take turns in play, or to transition away from a preferred to a less preferred task such as going from free play to clean up time.


What factors might impact my child’s development of self-regulation skills?

Every child is different and unique. We give children the gift of time because we know development happens within windows of time and some children need more time than others to solidify skills. Here are some factors that impact self-regulation development: 

  • Your child’s temperament, personality and unique sensory preferences: Some children are shy and can be more hesitant to engage or are more easily overwhelmed by new experiences. They may need a little “warm-up” time. We sometimes refer to these kids as being more “sensory sensitive.” We might notice some children are more extroverted and curious.  They like to jump right in to new experiences and they seem a bit more resilient with unexpected occurrences. Some children need more sensory input to alert themselves and keep themselves focused and engaged. These children might be observed to move more than age-matched peers or appear to need more inputs such as something to hold or chew on when expected to be still. We sometimes refer to these kids as “sensory seekers.”

  •  The environment: Our regulatory abilities are tied into our environment. Think about how you might feel in a noisy busy restaurant versus the calm and tranquil feeling of being at a spa. Changing aspects of the environment, such as the music we play or how we set the lighting, can make a big difference in how children regulate their arousal, energy and attention. This also helps explain why children may act differently in different settings. For example, a child may feel comfortable and willing to engage in play in their familiar home environment with a peer, but may feel more overwhelmed to engage in play at a busy birthday party. 

  • Health and Fatigue: You may have noticed that your child is more flexible and resilient when they are well-rested and healthy. Keep in mind that when we don’t feel well, it’s harder to have the threshold to manage perceived stressors with the same amount of grit. Your child may hold it together and follow expectations at school, but closer to nap or bedtime, the same demands might elicit tears and meltdowns. Ensuring your children are well-rested and have good nutrition gives their “engines” the fuel they need to get through their day at optimal performance. 

  • Your interactions with your child: Children need to feel grounded and anchored in their relationships with their parents. They need their emotions and feelings validated, but they also need adult guidance to develop coping skills, emotional resilience and self-regulation skills. Spending time with your child every day in a relaxed fashion, even if for only a few minutes helps them to develop the connection they need to develop their emotional resilience and self-regulation skills. 

    • Observe and listen: You might see signs of your child becoming dysregulated and can intervene early! Look for facial expressions, behavior, and listen to your child’s words for clues. Maybe your child appears to be over-reacting, which suggests a low threshold or tolerance for the sensory experiences of the situation. Perhaps your child seems under-reactive or unaware of activity and surroundings. He or she might need help to “tune in” to the important ongoings and filter out the less important ongoings. This “data collection” can help guide the next steps.

    • Provide support: Taking a break in a quieter setting with your child can help to regroup. Consider using a calm voice, neutral facial expression and model behaviors such as deep breaths or offer a hug for your child when needing to calm. Consider using a more animated voice or working in some movement or other “jazzing up” input when your child needs to be alerted. 

    • Consider a “tool kit”: Maybe your child is potty-trained and you are excited to ditch the diaper bag. Consider keeping it as having some sensory tools at your disposal can really help when out in public and your child needs help to self-regulate. Items in your bag such as a snack, a water bottle with a straw (sucking is calming!), a favorite stuffed animal, a small toy (squeeze ball or fidget) or a book are great items to stash in your bag. Offering these items or “tools” can help and teach your child to begin to recognize what helps in different situations and begin to advocate for his or her needs. Having a change of clothes or bandaids at easy reach showcases how you can solve problems when you have access to your “tools”. Think about things that you do to help you self-regulate. Maybe you have a piece of gum or a drink for that long meeting you need to stay awake for. Maybe you get some fresh air and go for a walk after a frustrating experience at work. Children can learn to regulate from using tools, but also from watching the adults around them model their own strategies for regulation. 

Where can I get help to support my child’s regulation skills?                                      

NCRC’s Child Development Team is here for you! Our OT, Julie, can help troubleshoot areas of concern to suggest environmental or activity adaptations and create a sensory diet to support regulation. Our speech-language pathologist, Lauren, can work with you to tailor your language output and incorporate visual supports, if needed, to align with your child’s various states of self-regulation. Our school counselor, Judith, can help support your family-specific relationship and parenting needs during this journey.