The JumpTherapy Blog:
Sensory Processing, Motor and Social Skills Resources
for Parents of Special Needs Children

Helping Your Child Learn Self-Regulation

The Alert Program®: “How Does Your Engine Run?”®

Part 2 of 2: Strategies and activities

What types of activities and strategies can we use to switch gears?
The Alert Program® teaches that there are five ways to change how alert we feel: put something in the mouth; move; touch; look; and listen.
Most people do this automatically. For example, how do you start your day? With a morning jog? (That’s moving.) Do you have a cup of coffee right away? (That’s the mouth category.) Do you need a shower to wake up? (That’s touch.) Do you reach for your phone to check your email and Facebook as soon as your eyes open? (That’s looking.) Maybe you turn on the radio (listen) while you wash your face (touch)? Etc.
Once you become aware of how you instinctively self-regulate as you move through your day, you can help your child do the same. You can begin by pointing out when he is hyped up or stressed out (engine on high); when she is droopy or running out of energy (engine on low); when he is focused on a task, alert, and attentive (engine running just right); and move on to suggest ways to change gears.
Should our engine always run in the same just right state of focus?
No! It’s important for your child to learn that one state of alertness is neither more nor less desirable than another. We all need to be able to move between states during the day. For example, we want our engines on low so we can fall asleep at night, and we want our engines on high when we’re playing basketball in the back yard. And we want to be in a just-right state to do homework or follow a recipe. 
Where’s my gear shift?
You’ve got five — the five ways mentioned above. If your engine is running too high, you could practice deep yoga breathing (mouth strategy); do some full body stretches (move); pet the family cat or dog (touch); look at a photograph or painting of a peaceful scene (look); or play your favorite mellow music (listen).
What might you do if your engine is running too low? Talk with your family about developing a backpack of strategies that you can all use to shift from one state to another throughout your day. The strategies you come up are the ones that will work best for you. When you’re brainstorming, think especially about “heavy work” activities as discussed in the next section.
What are examples of strategies to use?
The Alert Program® teaches that are many simple strategies and activities that fit seamlessly into daily routines. The program recommends heavy work activities most often, because heavy work helps people regulate when their engines are in either too high or too low gear. Heavy work activities include pushing, pulling, dragging, and/or carrying heavy objects. 
If your child is running either high or low, and it’s time for her to do homework, you might ask her to first help you with some heavy work. Perhaps she could assist in carrying in grocery bags? put the laundry detergent away in a closet? push or drag the laundry hamper to the washing machine? rake leaves? break down boxes for recycling? stack books? 
Important: only allow children to move/carry things that are the right weight for their size — heavy doesn’t mean too heavy!
Keep an eye on the gear shift
Different children are able to maintain focus for different lengths of time. Some children might need to take a break in the middle of an activity that requires focused concentration. If you see that your child is beginning to run low and droop, suggest either a household chore you could do together or a fun movement break that exercises his muscles (i.e., gives the muscles heavy work to do) by jumping, stomping, etc. The activity will put him back in the just-right gear to re-focus on the task.
Keep an eye on your child’s level of alertness so you’ll know when to suggest a movement break.
Defusing negative behavior while changing gears
The Alert Program®  provides neutral vocabulary to refocus negative behavior. Let’s say your child is not paying attention when you’re trying to help her learn the words for tomorrow’s spelling test. Instead of yelling at her and trying to push on while her behavior deteriorates, you can comment calmly that her engine is running too high right now and that it’s making yours run high too. Then suggest a heavy work activity you can do together (perhaps put in a load of laundry?) to take a movement break and regulate your engines before resuming spelling practice. Conflict avoided and the laundry gets done too — now that’s a win-win situation. And don’t forget to thank her for helping with the chores! Praise is highly effective in changing behavior.
Must it be an engine? My child isn’t interested in cars
The Alert Program® uses an engine analogy because it’s easy to understand and many children relate to it. But there are many different ways we can describe how alert we feel. Any analogy that your child connects with, any area of special interest, will work equally well. Think about using colors, animals, or characters from a story (perhaps the three bears from Goldilocks!)? 
Or, if your child is very literal, you might simply use the words “high alert, low alert, and just right for _________”;  or “too fast, too slow, and just right for _________” (fill in the blank with the activity, such as reading).
How I use The Alert Program® in therapy
After taking a course on this approach, I incorporated the program’s strategies into regular therapy sessions. I find it works especially well with children aged kindergarten through second grade, although, as discussed above, anyone can use it successfully. It’s such a simple, concrete way of teaching kids how to regulate themselves.
I like to begin by showing children photos from books or magazines and asking, “What does it look like the child in this photo is feeling?” Once the child gains insight into identifying levels of alertness, I put out red, yellow and green lights and they flip a light to say where their engine is right now. 
Another way I help children learn to identify their alertness level is by discussing various circumstances taken directly from their day, and asking them to describe to me where their engine was at that particular time. For example, I might ask, “When you scream and act silly during circle time, where do you think your engine is?”
Simultaneously, I train parents to talk about how their own engines are running and to ask their children how theirs are — ‘My engine feels a little low now, how is yours?’  Working together with the parents, I suggest specific strategies that work for their specific child. I have the parents and/or teachers chart the child’s responses for a week to see what works and what doesn’t so we can adjust the child’s activities accordingly. 
Looking ahead:
I hope you will incorporate this program into your daily lives; it’s an easy, friendly way of keeping tabs on emotions before they spill over in behavioral outbursts. Please check back soon — in the next post, I’ll be introducing an exciting new feature which will begin with a list of very specific activities you can use to help your child switch engine gears in fun, accessible ways.
What gear-switching strategies work best in your home? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about. 
Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.
I look forward to hearing from you!

All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.