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Exploring Sensory Regulation

Sensory regulation, self-regulation and emotional regulation are terms often used by therapists. They relate to the child’s ability to increase and decrease their alertness, or arousal, to match the situation or environment.

Let’s first understand arousal:

Arousal is the level of alertness in the body. It ranges from low, or asleep, to high, or highly stressed. Different activities and environments require different levels of arousal. Optimal arousal is the level of arousal which matches the environment and activity. Sometimes it’s called ‘Just Right.’ At night time, optimal arousal is low enough to facilitate sleep. At school, optimal arousal is when a student can focus and attend. In the playground or at a party, it’s normal for optimal arousal to be a bit higher as there’s more movement and usually excitement.


Regulation is the ability to match arousal with the environment and the activity. Essentially it’s the ability to adjust to an optimal level of arousal. The ability to regulate starts to develop when we are a baby. Long before we can self-regulate we need help from our caregivers. When babies start to show distress, their caregivers swaddle, carry, rock and feed them. Caregivers provide what is required to help the baby to organise their arousal. As these needs are met the infant learns patterns and rhythms. They learn that when they hear mum or dad’s footsteps, help is on the way.

From Co-regulation to Self regulation

Co-regulation is when someone else helps another individual to regulate. Think about when a friend or family member was upset and you gave them a hug. Or, a time when they were angry and you listened. One unique feature of mammals is that we co-regulate all the time. Toddlers need huge amounts of support from their caregivers to regulate and self-soothe.

Whilst they are starting to be more independent, the regulation centres of their brain continue to develop. Self-regulation is the ability to stay regulated without the help of others. It is the ability to use your own strategies to either calm down or energise.

Sensory based regulation strategies -

Sensory regulation strategies are strategies which use the senses to help with regulation. They are not just for children when they are dysregulated; but also for us adults. Let’s break this section into two parts. Firstly, we will give strategies that can help to increase arousal. Secondly, we will look at ideas to help to calm down.

Sensory regulation strategies to help to increase arousal (or alertness)

· Movement through swings, playground, running, cycling, dancing etc. · Create fun indoor or outdoor obstacle courses · Crunchy food like carrots and popcorn. · Cold food like frozen fruit or ice cubes or cold water · Dancing to upbeat music · Blowing whistles · Trampoline · Bouncing on a therapy ball · Helping with heavy work in household like mopping, cleaning, unloading or loading clothes in washing machine , watering plants etc.

Sensory regulation strategies to help to decrease arousal (or calm)

· Heavy work is a helpful strategy for calming. · Yoga can be a great option. · Deep breathing activities using bubbles, pinwheels etc. · A small pillow fort or den type space which cuts out sensory inputs can sometimes help. This might be a space behind the sofa, it could be a pop up tent, some children like the airing cupboard. · Preferred music can sometimes help with calming. · Visual schedules and predictable routine · Chewy foods like dried fruit or even chewing gum. · Linear (forward and backward) swinging can also help some individuals · Going to nature, gardening · Meditation or mindfulness activities

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