The Autism NoteBook — February/March 2016
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Emotional Control: Partnering Together to Support Self-Regulation
Leah Kuypers

If we are honest with ourselves, we all become overwhelmed by the stressors of life, the hurdles we encounter and the flood of emotions that come with this. During these times, we may struggle to self-regulate, or in other words, manage our internal feelings and emotions in order to meet the demands placed on us within the social context. We may have a meltdown, shutdown, or breakdown that incapacitates us for a moment of time.


Now consider a student who doesn’t naturally have the resilience of an adult, nor the developmental skill set of his peers to cope and manage internal or external conflicts during the countless trying circumstances he encounters throughout his everyday routines and activities. Lacking awareness of his feelings and how to regulate them in the social context, his delays in self-regulation skills are all too often mistaken by others as a “behavior problem.”

When self-regulation skills do not come naturally and are impeding a student’s ability to function in the home, school and community, it becomes necessary for them to be taught, practiced and reinforced. This is best done by a multidisciplinary team comprised of the key players in the student’s life, which may include a combination of any (or all) of those who support him/her across environments: caregivers, teachers, counselors, aides, therapists, administrators, behaviorists, social workers, childcare providers, etc.


When self-regulation skills are lagging, a student’s ability to manage himself is often impacted in multiple settings with multiple people. Therefore, interventions aimed at building this skill-set are optimally applied when the entire team is working in collaboration. All the team members are stakeholders in supporting an individual in this area, it is not any one discipline’s responsibility. Each one brings a unique and specialized set of skills to the table that when pooled together, can make a profound impact on the student who is learning adaptive ways to manage feelings and perform more prosocial behaviors.

Each team will be different given the team members and the unique strength and knowledge that they bring to the table. It is important to set aside time to collaborate and establish a course of action for targeted skills to be addressed and an action plan for implementation of self-regulation skills that will suit the team. A team may determine one or two members who will do the direct instruction of skills, while other members will reinforce the skills with students across settings. Alternatively, a team may decide that self-regulation skill instruction should be more evenly divided by members based upon what suits their strengths; one discipline for instance focusing on learning to identify emotions, another discipline focusing on learning calming techniques, another focusing on perspective taking and social awareness, and another team member supporting the student in identifying triggers and developing problem solving skills.


Working together as a team certainly requires an investment in time by team members to communicate with each other.

However, time spent proactively planning and following up on how to support a student carrying over skills saves time down the road by decreasing the time spent on meetings and communications around behavior concerns. Some early strategies for the team to consider could include:

● Setting up a group email can be an effective way to inform others of content introduced to the student and provide ideas on how to support carryover of skills and concepts.

● Photos or copies of student work can be attached to an email for others to build off of.

● Close communication allows teams to swiftly work together to problem solve hurdles that may arise in instruction or challenges the student may face.

● Each team should make sure to follow HIPPA guidelines, obtaining consent from caregivers to be in communication with others who support the student.

Addressing self-regulation through a multi-disciplinary team also helps to create a culture where the student feels supported by all and provides consistency between people and across environments.


Some students struggle with gestalt processing, or seeing past the details to grasp the bigger picture. Students who struggle with gestalt processing may mistakenly use self-regulation skills only in the context of where they are taught. For example, if only one team member (Mr. Nelson) is addressing self-regulation skills every Wednesday at 1:15 in room 221 and not in communication with others as how to carry over the skills taught, the student may struggle to see how skills taught in this one setting connects to the bigger picture. This can result in the inability to recognize how regulation is needed at school, as well as in the home and community. When someone else suggests using a strategy taught by Mr. Nelson in a different environment than where it was introduced and practiced, the student may reply to that person, “I don’t do deep breathing in the cafeteria. That is what I do with Mr. Nelson in room 221 on Wednesdays at 1:15,” because they struggle to see the connection of how a skill can help them outside of the specific context of where it is taught.


If you don’t have a collaborative team to work with, start by reaching out to colleagues and caregivers with basic information (for example, if using The Zones of Regulation curriculum to address self-regulation, Reproducible A and B: Information about The Zones and The Zones of Regulation Glossary is meant to serve this purpose). Gauge who else is invested in supporting self-regulation needs. Continue to foster these relationships by providing small chunks of information over time (through conversations, handouts, short trainings) and let them know you are a resource to come to when they are ready for more information or to start working together on skill building.

As others gain knowledge and understanding, you may find them coming onboard to help support the student in developing the fundamental regulation skills. If in a school setting, another idea is setting up a Professional Learning Community (PLC) (DeFour & Eaker, 1998) or book club on a book or curriculum that supports self-regulation skills to deepen and extend learning. By using a PLC model, educators can be agents of change in their schools in how regulation skills (or a lack of) are addressed by focusing attention on communication, collaboration and culture.

Leah Kuypers, MA Ed. OTR/L, is the creator of The Zones of Regulation curriculum (2011, and Apps which foster self-regulation skills and allow for a uniform teaching framework across disciplines and settings, orchestrating a common language, visual structure and system to support students.