August 25, 2015

Self-regulation refers to the child’s ability to develop his or her own strategies to develop attention, to self-soothe when upset, to inhibit impulses, and to organize his/her behavior for the task at hand. The child learns to gradually develop self-regulation strategies since birth, initially through the actions of the primary caregiver, and later on by himself.

Children with sensory processing differences quite often have a very difficult time with self-regulation due to various reasons and factors. Adapting to the environment and constantly changing demands requires very complex processing in the brain, which is often difficult for children with sensory processing difficulties. When children struggle with self-regulation, we often observe maladaptive behavior or responses to the environment and sensory stimuli. It is very important to understand these signals of self-regulation before jumping to conclusions that it is behaviorally driven.

While we can always teach children helpful strategies to regulate themselves, it is important to understand that a component of self-regulation relies on unconscious neurological processes that the child has no control over. When addressing self-regulation, we need to commit to fully understanding the root of the problem, so that we don’t end up using a “Band-Aid” approach. An approach limited to teaching a child a few calming strategies will rarely work. A comprehensive approach is often needed to help the child improve his or her self-regulation abilities. Our occupational therapy services will allow you to determine whether your child’s behavior is sensory driven or not.

Children with sensory processing difficulties often have challenges with sensory modulation, which is one of the many complex processes taking place in the brain. Sensory modulation is an unconscious process that takes place in the brainstem. It gives the individual the ability to maintain an optimum level of arousal (calm but alert) throughout the day, and the ability to focus and maintain organized behavior, regardless of the demands. It also supports the individual’s ability to easily engage in tasks, to transition easily between places, activities, people, etc., and to rapidly process quickly changing information. Poor sensory modulation frequently results in states of under or over arousal in which the individual is unable to attend to the presented tasks and can subsequently experience decreased motivation, frustration, and meltdowns.

Individuals with poor sensory modulation may engage in repetitive actions to tune out their overwhelming environment and gain a sense of order, organization, and predictability. They may also display “all or nothing” types of behaviors and difficulty adjusting their actions to the demands. An individual with sensory modulation difficulties often tends to over react or under react to a variety of situations. Difficulties with sleep, digestive problems, and other disturbances of autonomic functions may also be present. Another common consequence of deficient sensory modulation is the difficulty to quickly shift attention back and forth between several tasks, as required, for example, in social situations, or to maintain focus during familiar tasks. Sensory modulation can contribute to great anxiety in some individuals, as they are unable to cope with the demands of constantly changing information and expectations during their daily activities.

Some signs of dysregulation include, but are not limited to difficulties in the areas of:

  • Behavior (outbursts, tantrums, aggression, self-injurious, etc.)
  • Attention
  • Engagement (child may struggle to interact with others due to being overwhelmed)
  • Patterns of too much or not enough activity
  • Transitions
  • Sleep/wake cycles
  • Eating patterns (i.e. too much or not enough)
  • Patterns of avoidance or seeking of sensory input

Occupational therapy is the main form of treatment for individuals with regulation issues.

Based on a thorough analysis of the individual’s difficulties, abilities, and needs, we design individualized therapy programs to promote the development of behavior regulation to support the child in all areas (home, school, play, etc.). The goal of our approach is to produce immediate improvement as well as permanent long lasting changes that will help the individual reach their full potential.

For more information about our occupational therapy services, please call our main office at 858-689-2027, or email us at