Steps to Calm: how to support regulation for autistic kids

How to support regulation is a key area that parents of autistic, ADHD and other neurodiverse kids can struggle with. Frustration, feeling out-of-control, new situations, sensory overload and transitions are all times when kids can ‘flip their lid’ and need steps to calm.

We’ve used a number of different posters and supports over the years as our kids have grown up to prompt Steps to Calm. Co-regulation (having an adult help regulate with the child) has been essential, but our goal is that as they grow up, they may be able to independently regulate themselves.

Calming Strategies Jar

We made a ‘Jar of Calming Recipes’ to support our kids to select appropriate strategies to help them regulate. This was at the beginning of our journey when we didn’t know what activities were most effective for our kids (hint: it’s different activities for each kid, and changes as they grow older too).

The 63 Calming Strategies was where we started. We tried a huge variety of regulation strategies, from physical activities to sensory input, to calming breaks. We cut these strategies into strips and put them in a big jar. When we needed a regulation activity, we would encourage our children to pick out a piece of paper from the jar and so what it said.

This was a good for trying out lots of different activities, but needed to be curated. Often our kids would pull out a piece of paper, then put it straight back in the jar because it wasn’t a preferred activity.

Steps to Calm Poster

We got to a point where we knew the most effective strategies for quick regulation and calming. These got put on a 5 Steps to Calm Poster. It looked something like this.

STEPS TO CALM

  1. Use the recipes of calming jar
  2. Hug
  3. Go for a walk
  4. Talk to mum or Granny
  5. Repeat a saying
    “Accidents happen”. “These things happen to everyone.” “Next time I’ll learn.” “I’ll do my best to make it right and the best it can be.” “Mistakes happen but I’m still loved.”

The text was fairly short – we didn’t want long bits of text to read when having an emotional moment. The strategies also started with more physical activities, then progressed to verbal strategies. This was based on the ‘hand model of the brain‘, which says that verbal centres of the brain aren’t available when the emotional parts have taken over and are unregulated.

ABCD prompts to support regulation

We also used the ABCD prompts to try to build independence in regulation for our kids. These prompts can be written on an index card or laminated, so it can be carried around as a reminder. Developing a repertoire of breathing exercises when calm, happy and relaxed helps have those strategies available when feeling heightened.

A – step Away (move away from the situation or people making you upset)

B – Breathing (try a quick breathing exercise to calm down)

C – Calming recipes (if breathing wasn’t enough, select another calming strategy from the ‘jar of calming’)

D – Different (do something different, another activity or distraction to get your thoughts moving on)

Stop, Problem Solve, Act (SPA)

At the end of the day, we want our kids to be able to be resilient and problem solve independently. For this, we need them to be able to regulate their emotions and slow down (STOP). Then they need to be able to switch on their thinking to problem solve. They need to be able to determine if there is a problem, or if they can just walk away and ignore it. If there is a problem, they need to be able to use flexible thinking to brainstorm different ideas for what they could do (PROBLEM SOLVE). Each option should be considered so that the best option can be chosen. The last step is acting to solve the problem (ACT) and evaluating how that went so they can be informed for next time.

The SPA method aligns with PLACE, which is another problem solving prompt.

Proactive Brain Breaks

As part of being successful in school and life, we want our kids to be able to be proactive in advocating for the regulation they need. This might mean building in brain breaks as part of their study, or tracking their physical activity over the day.

This list of 50 Brain Breaks provides a ton of activities and strategies for giving the body and mind a boost.

Conclusion: how to support regulation

A lack of emotional regulation can be exhausting for child and parent. Be able to deal well with changes, surprises, tiredness, frustration and challenges is a sign of maturity. But neurodiverse kids will require more practice in calming and problem solving strategies because of their brain set-up. So having a toolkit of steps to calm for supporting their regulation is important.

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