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#How is your engine running?

How is your engine running? This is a lovely exercise that I like to do with children as I find it is a little more concrete than the ‘zones of regulation’, especially for younger children. The idea is that you have an internal engine that reacts in four different ways across the day. If you plan to do this with your child I would draw four different cars and colour code them:


Cold engine - blue (or ask your child what colour they see as being cold):


This is a bit like a car on a cold frosty morning, you just can’t get it started. Ask your child if their internal engine is cold what they might feel - sleepy, can’t be bothered, sad, slow etc.


This is the point of under-arousal, a point that I find very often not spoken as much about as over-arousal, I can only assume because over-arousal is far more obvious and distressing to watch than a child who is seemingly a little sleepier today. Nonetheless, in this time of self-isolation and home schooling, I feel it is important to recognise signs of under-arousal as just like on a cold and frosty morning if your car engine doesn't get going then your car won't go anywhere - if our children are not at the correct arousal level they too will not be able to engage in the days activities.


Working engine - green


This is when a car is fine tuned, has enough petrol and is travelling along at a steady speed along a motorway or long country lane. Ask your child how they feel when they have enough energy and are enjoying what they are doing - happy, energetic, motivated etc.


Stressed engine - orange


This is when a car is travelling and perhaps a police car is approaching, traffic is building up, maybe there are unexpected road works, someone is pushing you to go faster, running out of petrol, temperature of the engine is hotting up or the engine needs water. Ask your child how they might begin to feel when the situation changes and they are forced to perhaps change their path - teary, heart might start to beat faster, they might start to breathe faster, become frustrated, snappy etc.


Overheated engine- red


This is when a car has broken down or crashed. There is no way back, the engine has stopped running and major repair work is needed. This is your child’s meltdown/ breakdown point. Ask your child (you might need to use an example here) of how they felt during a meltdown - out of control, hot, sweaty, not able to function (some children experience memory loss during this time), upset, angry etc.


The moral of the story is all engines struggle at times - all become cold, run easy and experience stress, however just like if you own a car you want to avoid overheating, braking down or crashing, we want to avoid our internal engines braking and becoming in need of repair! Discuss what could be done for an engine that is in stress:


- Slow down

- Fill with petrol

- Stop for a rest

- Change paths

- Cool down

- Top up water

- Turn the engine over


Once you have elicited what could be done for the engine, see if the same things are relevant for your child. Once you have done this exercise you have a list of strategies to avoid going into a breakdown situation - all important checkpoints to support your child regulating throughout the day - ask yourself?


- Do they need to eat?

- Do they need a drink?

- Do they need a rest?

- Do they need a change of activity?

- Do they need to lose a layer of clothing?

- Do they need a movement break?


Practical examples of how you can use this with your child:


  1. Have a physical chart up on the wall where they can mark how their engine is running at different times of the day.

  2. Have a floor map and a toy car and they can drive their car to how their engine is running at different times of the day.

  3. Create flashcards as visual aids for you to indicate where your child’s engine is to support them in getting to know their own signs of dysregulation.

  4. Create flashcards that your child can use to inform you in a more discrete way that they need something to help them regulate.


If children are struggling to visualise how their engine might be I would recommend getting them to drive their car - get them to make increasing louder and faster engine sounds and ask them what happened to their heart rate/ breathing/ colour of their face/ clamminess of their hands etc.


This is something you can do with more than one child, or even as a whole family to show your children that everyone’s engine works differently and can be colder or warmer at different times of the day e.g. if dad is ready to go in the morning, but mum needs a coffee to get her engine started then these are all examples that you can share with your child around normalising self-regulation and assuring them that even adults suffer from a stressed or broken down engine sometimes too.

Tune in tomorrow for signs of dysregulation and what to do to support your child in recovering after a meltdown and or (hopefully!) regulating themselves to avoid breaking point.


Hannah OT:-)


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