Learning Portal Banner Background

Self-Regulation and Emotional Regulation for the Whole Class


Classrooms today are often populated by students with diverse needs. In order to have a productive learning environment for all the children in the class, educators often talk about the need to have good “control” in the classroom and frequently struggle with the child in the class who seems to have no “self-control”. Although sometimes these students are those with ASD, many are not.

In British Columbia, the Performance Standards for Social Responsibility have targets for all children that include: managing anger in conflicts, expressing feelings appropriately, respecting others and displaying welcoming and friendly attitudes. Teaching children to “self- regulate” is currently a hot topic in the field of education, and many of the strategies that proponents advocate are also considered best practices for students with ASD. In reviewing some of the literature on self-regulation, we found the following information helpful:
Self Regulation Domains (from Self Regulation: Calm Alert and Learning, Canadian Educators Association article at https://www.edcan.ca/articles/self-regulation-calm-alert-and-learning/. Source: R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs, Handbook of Self-regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications (New York: Guilford Press, 2004).

  1. “The ability to attain, maintain and change one’s level of arousal appropriately for a task or situation”
    • How well the student is able to regulate his or her arousal state can be impacted by how biologically sensitive the individual is to sensory input (auditory, visual, tactile, etc.). We know this can be a particular problem for students with ASD who can be either over or under sensitive to many stimuli.
  2. “The ability to control one’s emotions”
    • How well the child monitors and modifies his or her emotional responses is linked to how well he or she regulates arousal. One only has to look at the myriad of resources developed to help children with ASD learn to understand and regulate their emotions to know that this is a common problem in this population
  3. “The ability to formulate a goal, monitor goal-progress, adjust one’s behaviors”
    • The ability to sustain and switch attention, inhibit impulses, and deal with distractions or frustration is a cognitive self-regulatory skill that develops with age and practice. Deficits in these executive functioning skills are common in individuals with ASD.
  4. “The ability to manage social interactions, to co-regulate”
    • Social self- regulatory skills are those which involve the child’s ability to master the rules of appropriate behaviour and co-regulate with others. Although there are other reasons for students with ASD to have difficulty with social interactions, poor self-regulation is definitely a component for some.
  5. “To be aware of one’s academic strengths and weaknesses, and have a repertoire of strategies to tackle day-to-day challenges of academic tasks”
    • Many adults with ASD (e.g. Stephen Shore) advise school teams to specifically teach these self-awareness skills to students with ASD to improve their ability to cope and to advocate for themselves.

Although self-regulation skills encompass different domains (e.g. emotional, behavioural, social and cognitive) it is clear that they are inextricably linked and that strengths in one area can support development in another just as weaknesses in one domain can negatively impact the development of another. We only need to look at the child with poor emotional regulation skills to recognize that this difficulty makes it very hard for him to co-regulate with others and develop appropriate pro-social behaviours.
So what does all this mean for our students with ASD in the classroom? The good news is that many of the strategies recommended for developing self-regulation skills in typical students are also considered best practices for students with ASD. These include:

  1. Use differentiated instruction in the classroom and provide students with choices of activities. With this approach students learn to identify what activities best fit their learning style and they can begin to identify their learning strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Be aware of the individual’s biological sensitivities and accommodate for differences. For example, if the student is overwhelmed by noisy environments, provide quieter activities as breaks from noisy environments or use the student’s preferences of topics or materials to help him learn to tolerate noisier environments. Provide self-regulation supports for those with sensory sensitivities e.g. fidget tools, headphones.
  3. Differentiate between “control” (which often means compliance) and self-regulation. In classrooms where all students are expected to do the same thing at the same time, most of the time we often see students who disengage, demonstrating a level of arousal that is too low to sustain attention. This is just as big a problem as the student who acts out when he is disengaged. Although an observer might determine that the quiet class is under better “control” that may not translate into appropriate alertness to support learning for many students. That is, “quiet and in your seat” does not necessarily mean better self-regulation.
  4. Encourage self-reflection. When a student is having difficulty performing a task, provide choices (e.g. would you rather do it this way or this way?; can you show me another way to do it?; where would you like to do this work?; what would you like to do instead?). In language that the child can understand point out what you notice about his strengths as well as what you notice about what makes it difficult for him to learn. Lead him through a problem solving process.
  5. Use visual tools that can help students more concretely understand concepts such as emotional regulation. We’ve seen a number of talented teachers adapt 5 point scales for use with all students in their class, helping them to identify what they are feeling and to help them plan what they can do to manage their feelings.

Remember that just because a resource has been identified for use with children with ASD, doesn’t mean you can’t use if for your whole class! And, whole class approaches are often more powerful and easier to implement.

For more information on teaching emotional regulation and self-regulation in your classroom, check out the following resources:

Incredible 5-Point Scale Assisting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Understanding Social Interactions and Controlling Their Emotional Responses

The CAT-Kit: Cognitive Affective Training: New Program for Improving Communication!