Help Your Child Improve Self-Control and Practice Self-Modulation
To modulate, according to Dictionary.com, is “to regulate or adjust, soften, tone down, to alter or adapt.” Applying that, self-modulation means being self-aware enough to regulate/adjust/alter/adapt one’s behavior choices to better fit a situation. This is a valuable lifelong skill—and one that many children with disabilities struggle with.
Self-modulation feeds independence. To encourage it, let your child practice decision-making. I encourage you to offer this opportunity to your child in spite of possible risks and fears. Your child gets to (and needs to) practice responsibility using intrinsic motivation to feel empowered.
The following are some ways I’ve worked on this with my son. You may be able to use these same ideas, or adapt them to the particular situations and interests of your child.
Using Time Wisely (Redirecting from Stalling)
On school mornings, we often struggle with getting out of the house on time. I want my son to take his vitamins and eat his breakfast. He wants to win the power struggle, and therefore he dawdles. My nagging doesn’t help him move faster. Perhaps you have this dynamic at your house.
So I give him a choice: “Want to eat here at the table or in the car?” He knows from experience that as soon as he clicks his seat belt, he will have a small towel and a bowl of healthy food on his lap as we drive. He has to eat it all before he gets anything else to eat, and I don’t let him talk me out of it.
Happily, he hates that bowl on his lap in the car. But having a choice makes him feel empowered. He chooses to self-regulate and almost always redirects himself to take a bite at the table. As you fade your prompts, ask “Are you hungry?” or say, “If you are done eating, please put your bowl in the fridge.”
These redirect questions can also work for things like brushing teeth or tying shoes. Ask, “Do you want to brush your teeth in the bathroom or in the car?” or “Do you want to tie your shoes here or in the car?” If you have a preference, phrase the question to bias your child toward what you want.
Showing Responsibility by Appropriate Behavior
In restaurants, let your child order her own food and do her own negotiating. As an example, I take a carful of my son’s neurotypical friends to Chick-fil-a every Friday after school. Each child does his own ordering, and I let my son pay the tab with his youth debit card. Paying for things he cares about is meaningful to him.
When we go to restaurants together, another way we work on responsibility is that I let him choose two books to take in. We then do reading aloud until the food arrives. My son prefers that I read and he listens, so we work out a compromise. I read one page, and he reads the next one. It has created some very nice family moments.
Checking in and checking out at therapy or a doctor’s office is now my son’s job. He gets practice waiting in line, conversing face-to-face, and using an appropriate tone of voice. It is also his job to carry the school “excuse” note into the school office. Use backward chaining, with practice, and soon your child will have the entire process mastered. That involves letting your child do the final step in an activity, and then the one before that, and the one before that, until he is doing the whole thing himself.
Choosing Appropriate Language
Our children know how to push our buttons. My son can get a mischievous look in his eyes and start talking nonsense and using bathroom words. This often occurs when we are reading. To redirect him, I tell him at that time it is his turn to read. When he resists, I give him a choice of “read or listen.” If I can remove my side of the power struggle, even for a moment, that works as an effective reset.
If you find a need to withdraw yourself from a power struggle as a reset or redirect when you’re in the public eye, I have found that something as simple as dropping a napkin on the floor and reaching down to get it works. I have also have picked up a menu and asked him what he wants to eat. A break in the action gives kids the time they need to transition out of unproductive behavior.
Personal Space (Hands to Yourself)
When you visit a museum or other places requiring “hands off,” let your child choose two books from home to carry, one for each hand. Keep a box of books in the car, as I do, so they are always available. Give your child a choice of carrying two books or keep hands in pockets. It gives me a sense of peace as a parent, as carrying books is what a regular kid would do.
These and other everyday situations give your child opportunities to practice modulation in the real world. If you struggle with what an appropriate choice looks like, my litmus test is “What would a typical child do?”