Self-Regulation for Homework

Written by Michelle Brown

Self-Regulation for Homework

Is getting your child to settle and focus on homework a challenge in your home?  Or, is focusing on school work a challenge at school?

Parents and teachers ask me all the time, “What can I do for self-regulation to help a child focus on school work for high movement kids?”  Here are some ideas to help you if you are asking the same question. 

Often, with children who seem to exhibit high movement needs, such as seem to be constantly moving, wiggling and/or fidgeting all the time, and are described as “on the go,” we give movement strategies to meet their movement needs.  

However, before we get into effective movement strategies for our high movers and groovers, I want to you to also keep in mind that regulating ourselves to get into that just right state for learning can come in many forms.  Some kids and adults who are high movers do best with movement strategies but there could also be other strategies that are effective as well.  Therefore, it is always best to try a few strategies and get the child's input.

Non-movement strategies:

Some examples of regulating strategies that do not involve movement include:

- drawing, colouring, mandala designs, etc. 

- working on a craft project for a few minutes

- doing deep breathing with an object like blowing a pinwheel, blowing up a balloon, blowing pretend candles, etc.

- sensory play such as playing with water, plasticine, magic sand, bubble wrap, slime, or a tactile bin or baggie (with fabrics, rice, water balls, beans, etc.)

- construction play with Lego, Plus Plus, Kinetics

- listening to music

- reading

While it can be difficult to determine the best regulation strategy without knowing the child personally, you do know the child so go with what you know your child's likes and what s/he is interested in.

Movement strategies:

However, if you believe your child would benefit from movement strategies, a great place to start is with offering an INTENSE movement activity for a few minutes prior to starting homework / school work, or any seated activity for that matter.  For example, doing an intense movement activity before a meal can be an effective way to help your child sit through the meal. The same can work prior to car rides too.

Why intense movement works

Intense movement activities work to regulate our bodies, whether that be to get our wiggles and jiggles out, to wake up our brain, or to feel more calm and focused because intense movement or hard exercise impacts the release of the neurotransmitters - serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The concentration of these neurotransmitters directly impacts our ability to focus, be motivated, manage aggression, alertness, and concentration.  All much needed skills to focus on homework and school work.

Exercise makes us smarter!  

Exercise increases our attention and focus, our ability to push through a problem, manage frustration, and the ability to manage impulsivity.  

Quick bouts of intense exercise is very effective.  The important part is to get your heart rate up to 75% of your maximum heart rate.

When our muscles and joints are stimulated, the release of these neurotransmitters generate calming messages to the brain.  As such, heavy muscle work tends to lower our energy state when we are heightened and helps to reduce sensory overload.  Because this system sends calming messages to our nervous system, activities that provide intense exercise do not result in a child becoming overstimulated.

Alternatively, heavy muscle work activities can also work to kick us into gear when we are feeling low energy, thus waking up our brain, and again, without over-stimulating us.

Intense movement recommendations:

Tabata Exercises

Follow a TABATA video.  Tabata routines are becoming more popular and kids tend to enjoy them.  The tabata routines are short and provide intense whole body exercise. Do a routine for 4 minutes and it should regulate a child to be better able to complete homework and school work. 

Here are some good links of examples for children:

Make your own Tabata video

Once you have identified activities your child enjoys, you can make a video of their own to use.  Children will love being the star of the show and having input into the exercises will motivate the child to do them even more!

Kids 7 Minute Hitt Workout for Self-Regulation 

This is another great option for an intense workout for all ages and is super easy for a younger children to follow.  You may want to cut down the time for each activity so it's closer to 4 minutes. To do this, either cut down on the number of activities or do each activity for a shorter time (eg: 20 seconds of the activity and 10 seconds rest):


Practice the routine

Of course, I hope it goes without saying, that all children will need some training and practice with how to manage ANY self-regulation routine.  You will need to practice the expectations and set them up for success.  I cannot overstate the importance of this practice time.  

So many times I hear that a new activity was tried and the child became silly and it ended up ramping him up rather than calming him down.  So, the activity was discontinued after one attempt.

When I refer to training, it means practicing the activity in a calm setting away from homework time.  It also means teaching your child what the activity is designed to do (calm our body, quiet our brain, wake up our brain, get our wiggles out, etc.).  Do the activity several times and ask your child to rate how it is affecting her.

Evaluating how the movement activity is working after a few tries is so important!  

If the activity is not having the desired effect you and the child were hoping for, have the child work with you to come up with new ideas.

You may also need to break up the homework / school work activities into smaller chunks, offering movement strategies every 15-20 minutes depending on the child.  This will give the child small doses of movement to help reset the body and brain to be able to manage the entire work period.

Offer movement during work time

For some high movers, even after intense exercise, they may need to also move while doing their homework / school work. 

Here are some ways to offer movement during work time:

- a standing desk or just a place to stand at such as a counter or tall shelf

- a wobble stool

- Thera-Band (or an old bike tire inner tube) stretched around front chair legs

- a wiggle cushion (an air-filled cushion)

- a quiet fidget to fiddle with while reading and thinking

- something to chew on (such as gum, a crunchy or chewy snack, or a straw)

Also, remember for children with high movement needs, we need to help them to meet their movement needs. The need is real and often children engage in movement as a strategy to help them to down-regulate (calm an excited body or mind) or to up-regulate (wake themselves up) when they are feeling low, tired or bored.  

Children who need to move will move.  

Our job is to help children move in ways that are appropriate for the setting they are in and that actually achieve the goal of enhancing attention and focus to complete their homework and school work!

I hope these ideas are helpful.  

And as always, remember, Be the hero you are meant to be!

Michelle Brown

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Author: Michelle Brown
Michelle Brown is an occupational therapist and has been helping people since 1996.

You can find out more about Michelle Brown here:
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