Self-Regulation:  The Key to Managing Behavior

Self-Regulation: The Key to Managing Behavior

James Jones
8 minute read

self-regulation blog

by AAPC Publishing - June 20, 2019


We often see behavior as something that must be managed or controlled.

Inappropriate or negative behaviors, such as meltdowns, tantrums, aggression, screaming, and resistance to following directions are behaviors that concern everyone involved with a child--parents, teachers, in-home therapists, and specialists from all disciplines.

Behaviors of concern can also include challenges in more academic settings that lead to a lack of social, emotional or vocational success. We often look for external factors that we can somehow change or manage, and the focus is on controlling the individual’s behavior.

The individual with autism is the one person who most needs to develop the ability to identify and deal with his or her own behavior. If we, as adults, can find a way to control behaviors, it’s helpful, but the key to real success is to teach an individual to manage his or her own behavior.

But how does this happen? How do individuals learn to manage their own behaviors when professionals often can’t even do it?

The answer lies in a skill known as Self-Regulation.

What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is a person’s ability to control and modulate their emotions and behavior in all kinds of situations. It is a process used by all people, in all situations and parts of life, as the mind’s way of organizing its own functioning.

It is especially important for individuals with ASD, as it equips them with the tools to adapt their behavior to changing situations in a very unpredictable world.

Self-regulation is comprised of two main categories:

  • Emotional Regulation
  • Behavior Regulation

Each of these categories deals with an individual’s awareness of his or her own mental processes and subsequent ability to adapt those processes to changing situations.

Let’s take a look at each of these and how they impact our lives.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional Regulation is the ability to adjust to changing conditions through internal processes that are coupled with behaviors.

A number of factors can affect our ability to become emotionally regulated, including: physiological causes, communication difficulties, negative emotional memories, lack of social understanding, task demands incompatible with a child’s skill level, and executive function deficits.

Skills such as playing with others, following household or school rules, or dealing with a change in routine can all be problem areas for individuals. Individuals may display rapid mood swings, extreme frustration with not getting their demands or expectations met, crying, or explosive behavior.

One of the most debilitating outcomes of these challenges is a high rate of stress and anxiety, emotions that are commonly reported by most teens and adults with ASD.

For example, Tim’s mom left her Starbucks cup on top of the car. When she starts the car, and the cup falls on the windshield, it startles Tim, triggering an episode of extreme dysregulation. Tim’s emotions go haywire, along with his sensory responses. Although his reaction is disproportionate to the situation, it is a very real and challenging situation for Tim. He simply can’t calm down. It takes hours for Tim to regain control.

Tim is displaying signs of emotional dysregulation. He was unable to predict this situation or control his response. He is also unable to identify his emotions, much less control them through appropriate strategies. 

Behavior Regulation/Executive Function

Behavior Regulation is our ability to self-monitor and organize our own behavior in order to meet goals or accomplish tasks. Behavior Regulation relies on a crucial set of skills known as Executive Functioning.

Executive Function skills are higher cognitive processes that involve our ability to think about our behavior and actions, and to regulate them.

Executive Function includes the following categories, with some examples of each:

  • Flexibility
  • Leveled Emotionality
  • Impulse Control
  • Planning
  • Problem Solving

flipp the switch executive function categories

Wilkins, PhD, Sheri. Burmeister, MA, Carol. FLIPP the Switch. Shawnee, KS: AAPC Publishing, 2015. View Book


These skills are crucial to our success in school and at work.

For example, Mallory is working at grade level in most of her high school classes. However, in her reading class, she is constantly late in turning in her assignments, which she struggles to complete in a timely fashion. She is receiving a failing grade, even though she understands the material. She wants to drop the class, even though she may not graduate without it.

Mallory lacks the organizational skills necessary to manage her time, including starting an assignment and keeping track of when her assignments are due. Mallory’s struggle with these basic skills impacts both her success at school and her enjoyment of learning.

Real Life Solutions

Tim and Mallory are two different individuals who are struggling with their own unique issues. However, these issues are all part of the challenges of self-regulation.

It is easy for many people to assume that these individuals are displaying inappropriate behaviors over which they have some control.

But the truth is that Tim and Mallory lack the skills necessary to function in challenging situations because of the characteristics of their disability. And, more importantly, they have never been taught how to perform these skills.

Tim struggles to manage his emotions and behavior in unpredictable situations, leading to destructive outbursts. But, fortunately for Tim, his mother spoke to his teachers and therapists, and did some reading on her own, then decided to try some visual strategies to help Tim regulate his emotions at home.

She and his teachers created a Five Point Scale designed to help him identify his feelings.

the incredible 5 point scale

Dunn Buron, Kari. Curtis, Mitzi. The Incredible 5-Point Scale. Shawnee, KS: AAPC Publishing, 2012. View Book


Tim needed to figure out how to identify the severity of his behavior and receive feedback as he learned to calm himself down.

Tim’s Occupational Therapist also provided his family with some “calm-down” strategies that he could use, such as going to a quiet space, putting on headphones and listening to calming music.

Tim also began to use a personal fitness self-monitoring device to help him identify when his heart rate is rising and lowering.

These strategies were all simple to implement, and, best of all, Tim enjoyed them! He began to deal with surprising and upsetting situations much better in all environments.

Other related resources on Interoception, Emotional Regulation and Sensory Integration. View Books

Mallory was also able to become more successful at school when her teachers and parents worked together with Mallory to come up with some strategies for improving her organizational skills.

At the beginning of each semester, Mallory sits down with her homeroom teacher to create a calendar for the semester. Mallory recorded all of her assignments in her reminder binder and began to use her phone’s calendar app to remind her of due dates for assignments.

Mallory’s parents helped her organize her time at home using a visual checklist of her work for each day. She began to use graphic organizers to organize her essays, and then review her assignments with her teacher before proceeding.

Mallory is now passing her English class and enjoys it. Now that she is more successful, English is becoming her favorite subject.

Let's Do This!

Although self-regulation is a complicated topic, more is being done to address it than ever before. Here are the steps to helping your student or child with self-regulation.

Identify the problem.

Get input from everyone involved with the individual to make sure you have all of the information you need.

Select the skills to teach.

These skills aren’t just “behaviors;” they are skills which the individual hasn’t ever been taught. Select strategies that can be used in all environments, and make sure everyone gets on board.

Teach the child how to use the strategy.

You always want the child to “own” the solution, in order to develop more independence and increase self-confidence. Don’t just tell her—show her. As the old teaching adage goes: I do; we do; you do.

Demonstrate how to use the strategy. Use the strategy together, with the adult walking the child through all of the steps. Then have the child perform the strategy independently, and give feedback.

Practice makes perfect.

It is always best to practice these strategies before things get stressful. Teach skills when the child is calm, rather than in the middle of a meltdown or stressful situation, in a supportive environment.

Reinforce success!

Provide praise and/or rewards to your child for using the strategies. Don’t expect perfection at first, but be sure to reward small steps.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be discouraged. This is a big topic, but there are lots of resources to help you. Speak to others who have experience with this kind of instruction.

Find resources that can offer information and suggestions, like the ones mentioned in this article, as well as those listed below.

Finally, have confidence in your child or student’s ability to succeed at managing his own behavior!

View resources

Self-Regulation:  The Key to Managing Behavior

« Back to Blog