Finding Sensory Flow...

Tanya Kemp

Finding Sensory flow

Finding a good flow and healthy, productive flow in a child’s level of arousal, is one of the key aims of sensory regulation. We want to know when a child’s arousal levels need to be up regulated and when they need to be down-regulated. We do this as part of energy and regulation management and align the flow with the various demands on attention a child has throughout their day. 

We often try our hardest to pay attention, or behave in an appropriate way, or expect our children to try harder to pay attention in a way that is productive for them, or to ‘be calm’ or ‘control their body in space. Here is where I want to focus my discussion today: what is the difference between self-regulation and self- control

Being interested in understanding and adapting our responses to our kids on the basis of knowing what up-regulates their system, when they are stuck in low energy high tension and what down regulates their system, when they need a more calm, focused state (and doing the same for ourselves) is an approach that reflects the importance of self-regulation: An empowering process of reducing and managing stress in a productive way, so as to increase the likelihood of being calm, focused and alert, as often as is necessary. It also implies using information about where our arousal levels are at, and using our sensory system to up and down regulate the nervous system to support our regulatory state. 

Control on the other hand, is a behavioural inhibition strategy. It assumes that a person has and can exercise control over themselves through cognitive reasoning and simply choosing to behave in a certain way. It assumes we can focus when told to do so, and calm down when it is socially appropriate to do so. Traditional parenting practices rely almost completely on controlling kids to behave in a way that is socially acceptable. We also expect the same of ourselves. We often try to ‘control’ our own mindset to be calm, receptive and engaging with our kids – suppressing our own needs bubbling under the surface. We can only maintain this level of self-control for so long….and then we blow. As do our kids

Top Down vs Bottom Up

Managing our regulation and arousal using ‘Top Down’ is like the idea of ‘controlling’ as mentioned above. The child’s thinking, cortex part of the brain ‘self-talks’ him into understanding why and how to sit still and pay attention when being required to learn, for example. The child is therefore rationalising and reasoning about the importance of this expectation. The body or brain stem and cerebellum part of the brain is not involved in this Top Down Process. The child is ‘holding it together’.

In ‘Bottom UP’ regulation of arousal, the brain stem and cerebellum are engaged. The brain stem is the older part of the brain and contains the reticular information, which is in part responsible for how alert one feels. One of the cerebellum’s jobs is to take in information from muscles and joints (proprioceptive information). It is more effective and sustainable to engage the lower and back parts of the brain ( which means including the body) in our self-regulation strategy.

If we can engage the back brain (cerebellum) through proprioceptive input (heavy work), the back brain will send messages to the centre part of the brain, which will in turn help the body attain an optimal arousal state that is either too high nor too low.

So, say for example a child has been out playing with friends and is required to come in and do school work. The child’s engine may be in high gear after playing (both activated by higher energy play, but potentially also more anxious due to social stressors, working extra hard to keep up with peers and so on). This is a functional level of arousal  in this particular situation, but when learning, we want a lower gear – calm, focused and alert. You might now be tempted to say to this child – “if you don’t get to work now, you won’t be able to do “preferred activity” later”. This will mean the child has to employ a ’Top Down’ strategy. They may need to try to reason with themselves about the importance of doing what is expected in order to get what they want later/avoid some negative consequence. This requires immense self-control, and depending on the developmental age of the child, it could be almost impossible for them to do. So, they are required to exert tremendous mental energy in a non-productive way and the strategy sets them up to fail as their ‘top brain’ is not capable of sustaining this way of thinking and meeting this kind of expectation.  A lose-lose situation.

Alternatively, you may engage the back brain (proprioceptive system), by suggesting, the child moves furniture away to prepare the work space, carries some boxes or books to a different room, plays a game of trying to push the wall away, arm wrestles with you  or any other heavy work activity for a few minutes (perhaps even run a book errand to the library to give  break from the noisy and busy room) BEFORE you get to work. Now you have engaged the back brain and the body in the shift of arousal. The child isn’t exerting unnecessary mental energy trying to ‘control’ themselves, and you are not heading for a crash later. 

Our arousal levels are just right when we have an appropriate level of arousal or inhibition for any given situation. Sometimes we need higher levels of arousal to mobilise us and keep us on our toes as it serves a purpose (sports games for example), and sometimes a  lower level of arousal is needed as part of rest and recovery. Sometimes we need to be just in the middle, when we are calm focused and learning. The important thing is to be able to recognise how our and our children’s arousal levels fluctuate and to productively and effectively shift from one state to another, using a Bottom UP as opposed to a Top Down approach. 

Trying to control our own and our children’s regulation through a Top Down approach sets us all up for failure and frustration.

What can we as parents do to support our kids?

Begin to pay close attention to your child’s level of arousal during various activities– low, middle or high, and how it serves your child in the given moment or situation. Notice their body signals, colouring, breathing, posture, eyes etc. Notice when high becomes too high and causes dysregulation, and when low becomes too low and becomes the complete withdrawn/freeze/ check out response. 

Introduce the concept of ‘How is your engine running’ to your child (a helpful analogy coined by Williams and Schellenberger in their ‘Alert program’. Explaining our bodies are like engines and sometimes we need to run on high, sometimes on low (before bedtime) and other times, we want it right in the middle. Use drawing or acting it out with your body to drive the message home. Make it fun, be silly – they are more likely to remember. 

Think about up and down regulating activities that may help your child shift gears. Reflect this back to them and if appropriate, have them give their own ideas of what helps them. Include this in your strategy or plan. Use the language often – thinking out loud to show how you are problem-solving for yourself or them:

I have been sitting down working for an hour…I can’t focus anymore! I need to get up and do some stretches and jumping jacks so I can get brain and body ready to have our pillow fight!”


Permission to regulate: Write some of the strategies you come up with for each person in the family on cards. Place them in a box or basket that you decorate together and name the box “Permission/Gifts for regulation”. Keep the box or basket somewhere that is easily accessible and hand out the cards as ‘gifts’ to family members as you notice they may need them. Mom could pass dad a card that has some relaxing activity written on it just after dinner (in full view of the kids) and say something like: your engine seems to run on low for a bit to reset. Take this card and enjoy! (it may be he gets to lie down, watch a show, take a bath or whatever. Have the kids notice you giving each other these cards to help them tune in to the need to watch how your engine is running, accept advice or input from someone else when it may be helpful or necessary, and to help drive the concept and learning home.

The card could be an upregulating activity of preference for a child – something they love to do and then the parent presents the card to spotlight both relationship (I see you) and proactive ‘engine regulation’. 


Bring to mind a somewhat stressful situation in your life. Are you really alone with it? Who else, strangers or friends, might have a similar stress?

Three deep slow breaths ☺