How to help children self-regulate

Learn how to help children with complex disabilities regulate their emotions, behaviour, and social interactions in an Outside of Schools Hours Care (OSHC) service.


Some children with complex disabilities have difficulties with self-regulation.

Self-regulation is a child's ability to understand what is happening around them and manage their social interactions, behaviour and emotional reactions.

You can help a child to self-regulate by providing the time and space they need and adjusting your program and space.

Make your program consistent, stable and familiar, with clear expectations. Here are ways to adjust your program to help children self-regulate:

  • develop a structured program with a consistent routine
  • make information about the program easily understandable to all children (use both words and pictures, for example)
  • schedule staff to work on consistent days and times. If a staff member is leaving, develop a transition plan to help children adjust and connect with new staff members
  • to avoid changing or rearranging the environment – keep it predictable and familiar. If the location has to change, it's very important to provide children with advance notice and involve them in the transition plan. This may include using some of the existing resources and decor to make sure the children feel connected to the new location
  • provide choices for activities so children can choose those that feel familiar or comfortable or that they feel confident in doing.

Case study: Providing structure for Shiloh

Shiloh has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and thrives on routine and structure. She uses a routine chart at school, so her OSHC service set up a similar chart on the wall to outline the day's activities.

Shiloh and the other children can now clearly see the plan for the day when they arrive. Shiloh was also given her own personal schedule so she can choose what she wants to do.

How to support a child to self-regulate using an individualised approach

You can help children self-regulate by providing individual support. The ways a child likes to be supported should be described in their individual support plan. Here are some ideas you may see in an individual support plan to help a child to self-regulate:

  • offer a child the chance to take a break from the activity, environment or being around others
  • ask a child about their emotions and validate what they are feeling
  • take a child through a calming or distracting activity, such as reading their favourite story
  • provide an object that a child finds comforting or relaxing, such as a favourite toy, book or blanket
  • give the child the chance to release their energy if they need to, such as running around in the yard.

Once the child is calm, the following strategies can help them reflect on what has happened and build self-regulation skills for next time:

  • talk about what positive self-regulation responses look like
  • roleplay or encourage the child to practise alternative positive responses
  • recognise and acknowledge when the child self-regulates and uses positive responses
  • brainstorm with the child what strategies work for them, and what they can do in the next challenging situation.

Each child is different and therefore will respond to different self-regulation strategies. Discuss with the child, their family and support team the strategies that work well at school or home that could be copied at your service.

Case study: Helping Shiloh to self-regulate

Shiloh can often become overwhelmed and struggle to self-regulate when she hears loud noises. In response, her Outside of Schools Hours Care (OSHC) service has reduced excessive noise and music. Staff have also put in place strategies to support her when she feels overwhelmed.

The strategies include providing her with her 'comfort blanket' to hold and helping her focus on something structured and easy for her to understand, such as slowly counting to 10 or finding all the blue objects around the room.

How to adjust your spaces to help children self-regulate

Small adjustments to your environment can help children self-regulate. Here are some ideas:

  • minimise potential triggers for sensory overload. Assess colours and smells in your space, reduce excess noise and stimulation by turning off music, and space out activity stations
  • provide different areas of play so children can choose where they spend their time based on their preferences for noise, activity or level of interaction
  • provide positive and safe spaces to discuss and debrief about emotions
  • locate quieter or more relaxing activities in spaces away from doors or pick-up spaces where people tend to gather
  • create movement spaces such as 'ninja warrior' zones where children can play with high energy
  • introduce 'emotion charts' or 'zones of regulation' so children can visually indicate how they are feeling, and whether they prefer to be around others or need more space to relax that day.

Case study: Creating different spaces to help children self-regulate

An OSHC service uses moveable equipment, such as storage 'cubby holes' on wheels, as a creative way to divide its room into several spaces. The cubby holes are moved around to block off areas for quiet or regulation spaces.

Visual materials are stuck to the back of the cubby holes to help children work through self-regulation exercises. An iPad with a meditation session is also available to help children relax.