How Is Your Engine Running? Strategies For Self-Regulation

How Is Your Engine Running? Strategies For Self-Regulation

By Tamara Victor, Occupational Therapist at Bellavista School

Adapted from the Alert Program 1

What could happen if your car’s engine is running too fast? You might get a speeding ticket, possibly cause an accident, or miss the correct turn off the highway. Conversely, what could happen if your car’s engine is running too slowly? You may not get to your destination on time, or you may cause an accident due to the speed differential between you and the other cars on the highway. However, if your car’s engine is running just right, you should be able to get to your destination safely and on time. 

We can liken our bodies to a car, with the engine being our brain. If our body’s engine is running too fast, we might be constantly on-the-move, or we may rush through tasks or activities, making careless errors. Too slow, on the other hand, and we may be slumped over like couch-potatoes, daydreaming, struggling to get going, and unable to complete what is required of us. When our body’s engine is running ‘just right’ we are in the optimum state of alertness, where we can focus on what is being asked of us, attain, and retain information, and work efficiently. This state is also known as being self-regulated. When we are self-regulated, we can reflect on our thoughts and our actions effectively. 

So, how are you feeling right now? Lethargic or ‘low’ from the demands of the day? Energised or ‘high’ from an exciting event? Or are you feeling totally attentive and ready to tackle any challenges that are presented to you? It is completely normal, and expected, to fluctuate between these two ‘engine levels’ throughout the day; however, some children (and adults) struggle to get back to feeling ‘just right’. If we are running too fast or too slow, we are not ready to learn. We need to actively do something to slow us down, or speed us up to get back to that ‘just right’ level again.

We are sensory beings who experience the world through our various sensory systems. The five senses that are commonly known include: taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. Two ‘extra’ senses that Occupational Therapists refer to, include the vestibular (movement) and the proprioceptive (body awareness) senses. Our sensory systems form part of the foundation of our development. We learn through our senses and organise them to adapt to different environments. Including deliberate sensory experiences as part of our daily routine can help keep us regulated. When we can regulate through our senses effectively, we are able to learn, participate and function optimally. 

Remember, as we are all individuals, there is no ‘one size fits all’. What works for you to reach an optimal state of alertness, may not work for the next person. It is about trial-and-error at first, and then building up a bank of personal resources that you can turn to when needed. 

Here are a few examples or calming versus alerting strategies that can be implemented at home, school or in the workplace to help self-regulate:

Sensory System Calming ActivitiesAlerting Activities 
Tactile (touch)Rub skin slowly with increased pressure
Resistive putty/playdough
Pet an animal or fluffy toy
Gently and quickly rub the skin 
Cool shower
Wash face with a cold cloth
Handle fidget items (bubble wrap, paper clips etc)
Proprioceptive (body position)Carry boxes, laundry basket, unload groceries
Carry a weighted animal / backpack
Jump into a squishy pile of pillows 
Monkey bars
Wall push-ups, chair push-ups
Vestibular (movement)Swinging (slowly, in a linear movement)
Rock on a rocking chair
Take a walk 
Sit and bounce on a therapy ball
Stand and twirl in a circle
Somersaults and cartwheels
Run up and down stairs
Gustatory (taste)Chew or suck on mild flavours
Suck thick liquids through a straw e.g., custard, yoghurt, jelly
Drink warm liquids
Blow bubbles 
Eat crunchy, sour, salty, or cold foods
Keep a water bottle with cold water on desk 
Olfactory (smell)Burn a vanilla scented candle or incense with adult supervision
Smell potpourri
Scented crayons or markers 
Scented playdough
Scented soap or lotion between activities
Scratch and sniff stickers 
Citrus room deodoriser 
Auditory (hearing)Listen to quiet music with a slow, even beat
Use headphones, earmuffs, or ear plugs in noisy environments 
Go to a quieter place: tent, book corner
Listen to music with varied pitch, sound, loudness, uneven or fast beat
Frequently examine novel sound-producing toys (e.g., chimes, rain stick)
Visual (seeing)Dim lights
Glitter jars
Declutter classroom / desk space
Work in natural rather than artificial light
Bright lights
Highlighter to underline important text
Using learning materials that are bold, bright and colourful 

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1  Williams, M. S., & Shellenberger, S. (1996). “How Does Your Engine Run?”® A leader’s guide to the Alert Program® for self-regulation. Albuquerque, NM: TherapyWorks, Inc.

2   Greenberg, K. H. (2005). The Cognitive Enrichment Advantage Family-School Partnership Handbook. KCD Harris & Associates Press

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