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Discipline and Teaching Self-Regulation Skills

Kids need discipline, but what exactly does "discipline" mean? The word comes from a Latin root meaning "to teach," so "discipline" does NOT mean punishment. It means teaching. What do we need to teach our kids with sensory processing disorder?

First and foremost, we have to teach self-regulation skills. We also want to teach social skills—along with what are the natural consequences for behavior. We need to teach social rules which, as we all know, can be very complicated. However, whatever it is we want to teach our kids when we discipline them, we should be aware of the importance of teaching self-regulation skills for managing emotions, activity levels, and focus.

A child who is "so mad he can't see straight" needs to learn how to regulate his emotions.

A child who is so overstimulated and hyperactive she's in danger of getting hurt, and unaware of how unsafe her behavior is, needs to learn to regulate her activity level.

teaching discipline self-regulation boy sensory

A child whose focus is so poor that he jumps from task to task, unable to focus on a pleasurable activity like building an airplane with Lego building blocks, needs to learn to regulate his focus. And the child who is so focused on what she wants to do right now and who strongly resists breaking her focus to eat lunch, use the restroom, or answer her teacher's question needs to develop better self-regulation skills for focus, too.

Effectively disciplining a child with sensory processing issues means teaching what to do to manage emotions, activity levels, and focus but also teaching self-awareness. A child with sensory processing issues who is overstimulated and in sensory overload is typically not thinking, "Oh, I'm overstimulated!" much less "Oh, I'm overstimulated and need to use that breathing technique I learned to calm my system." However, over time, with practice, our kids can become self-aware and remember what it is they have to do to self-regulate. A sensory diet combined with self-regulation techniques such as mindful breathing, listening, or moving (think yoga poses) can help kids become more self-aware as well as calm their systems so that they have greater self-control.

Want to teach your child mindful breathing for self-awareness and self-regulation?

Teach your child Take 5 Breathing using an outstretched hand to keep the focus on inhaling and exhaling slowly for five breaths.

Have your child practice mindful breathing, focused on the sensation of inhaling naturally, the sensation of pausing between breaths, and then, the sensation of exhaling naturally. This can be easier if she closes her eyes and thinks "in" on the inhale and "out" on the exhale. A very anxious child might need to fix her eyes on an object rather than close her eyes, however.

You can also have your child count to ten silently, counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi" and so on until she reaches ten.

Teach your child to do a yoga pose, focusing on keeping his balance and remaining steady. The Cosmic Kids Yoga Pose series has a lot of great videos including this one for tree pose.

Once your child is calm, focused, and able to listen to what you have to say, you can cue her to do what she needs to do next. Maybe she needs to say "I'm sorry" to her sister after having tagged her too hard during a game of tag. Maybe she needs to continue doing mindful breathing as she experiences her anger or hurt in her body, aware of how it feels to be angry or hurt and thinking of what word describes her emotion. Simply being present with her emotion can help it to lessen in intensity and start to fade away. Teaching your child to be self-aware and recognize what she's feeling and experiencing in her body is a great way to increase her self-regulation skills. Afterward, as part of your discipline or teaching, the two of you can talk through what happened. You may even want to have a discussion later in the day. Reinforcing what you taught your child is key to effective discipline. Praise your child for remembering, for trying, for apologizing to anyone who was harmed or inconvenienced (and make sure he does that). All of that will reinforce what you're teaching about self-awareness, self-regulation, and social rules and skills. Not all conversations about discipline will go smoothly. Kids will make mistakes. So will parents. Learning and developing skills through practice takes time, patience—and sometimes, forgiveness (including forgiving yourself for yelling when you meant to be oh-so-calm and in control!). Discipline and teaching self-regulation skills can be highly effective when you do it remembering that life's imperfect and so are we. Did you find these strategies helpful? You'll learn more sensory smart parenting strategies in the updated edition of Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, MA, OTR/L and Nancy Peske, available at bookstores everywhere.

sensory smart parenting strategies in Raising a Sensory Smart Child new edition

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