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Written by Verret, Claudia, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Sciences of Physical Activity, Université du Québec à Montréal

Self-regulation is what helps students to correctly interpret a situation, effectively plan their responses, and actively engage in tasks (Buthler and Schnelllert, 2015). Self-regulation includes emotional and behavioural dimensions, which join with behavioural inhibition to make up self-control. These three mechanisms overlap and influence each other (Massé and Verret, 2020).

Emotional self-regulation refers to the extrinsic and intrinsic processes that are responsible for monitoring, evaluating and modifying emotional responses, in particular their intensity or duration, in order to reach a person’s objectives or to interact successfully in a given situation (Thompson, Lewis and Calkins, 2008). Behavioural self-regulation refers to a person’s capacity to successfully manage the nature, level and degree of a behaviour in a particular situation. It enables a person to control physical and cognitive activities, make informed decisions and manage behaviours for the purpose of achieving an objective (Zimmerman, 2008).

Self-regulation is known to be more difficult for students with learning disabilities (LDs). Many students with LDs encounter challenges resisting distractions, focusing on one thing at a time, and effectively planning and organizing their work or their thinking. In addition, they are very likely to experience difficulties with social or emotional skills, which is a further obstacle to their educational success (Grigorenko, Compton, Fuchs, et al., 2020)

In recent years, interventions have emerged from the field of occupational therapy to support the adaptive functioning of youth with sensory integration disorder or those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. These interventions were gradually leveraged to address other difficulties experienced by students in a school setting (hyperactivity, self-control, etc.) (Jasmin, Beauregard and Tétreault, 2012). They are used to handle situational contexts, including sensory aspects (noises, temperature, odours, perceived discomfort, etc.) that are present in the student’s social and physical environment in order to prevent and relieve their difficulties with self-regulation (Sutton, Wilson, Van Kessel et al., 2013).

This category of interventions, which we will call "calming measures", are methods used by students to regulate their emotions and their engagement in tasks (Linehan, 2015). They enable students to exert self-control and to find a state of well-being, regulation and safety after experiencing an intense negative emotion (World Health Organization, 2019). With the help of educators, calming measures can contribute to preventing, reducing and possibly eliminating the use of punitive or forceful measures and can support students in learning the necessary skills to regulate their behaviours on their own (National Disability Rights Network, 2011; Verret, Massé, Lagacé-Leblanc et al., 2019)

Possible Calming Measures

A variety of calming measures can be used by students to self-regulate and to return to a state of well-being. These strategies generally use tactile, proprioceptive or vestibular perceptual pathways (Yunus, Liu, Bissett et al., 2015). Some students prefer strategies that get them activated, whereas others prefer relaxing strategies. This choice depends on the emotion experienced, its intensity and the context in which it is expressed.  These strategies can be adapted to suit the needs of students from primary to secondary level. With this in mind, it is also recommended that students experiment with several strategies and that they sometimes combine them as they see fit (Verret and Massé, 2017). It is therefore useful to ask students to compile a list of the tools and strategies that they like in order to make a choice that best meets their needs.

Table 1 presents an inventory of calming measures, as well as descriptions and examples  For detailed explanations of each of the strategies and the conditions needed for them to be effective, the reader is invited to consult the chapter by Verret, Massé and Chesnais (2020).

Calming Measures Description Examples
Environmental Strategies Arrange the environment to help modulate the intensity, complexity or quality of the sensory stimulations perceived by the students in order to support their functioning and to favour their adaptive abilities.
  • Designating a space: room, classroom corner, hallway, where students can go to calm down.
  • Equipping the space with various sensory tools (stress balls, droplet maze, etc.)
  • Dimming the lights.
  • Adding pillows, rugs, a rocking chair or another comfortable chair;
  • Providing a headset and relaxing music.
Breathing and Movement Strategies Suggest proprioceptive strategies involving breathing or various movements to tense and relax muscles. These strategies provide students with a quick way to regain their concentration or to take control again over their emotions. They are especially recommended in school settings, as they are easy to do and rapidly produce a physiological impact. They allow students to relax and to note the contrast between their own state of tension and relaxation. Breathing control strategies:

  • Abdominal breathing;
  • Turtle strategy:

1.    Recognize your feelings

2.    Stop your body

3.    Tuck into your “shell” and take deep breaths

4.   Come out of your “shell” when you are calm again


Muscle relaxation strategies:

  • Yoga;
  • Stretching-relaxing;
  • Rag-doll stretch;
  • Tensing-relaxing.
Attention, diversion, and anchoring strategies Enable students to change or modulate their emotions, and to redirect their actions and thoughts during the situation that they are experiencing.

These measures are aimed at helping students to distance themselves from the situation and explore ways to take action and to experience and tolerate the emotion instead of blocking it out and avoiding it.

Attention diversion:

  • Mental imagery/Visualization;
  • Mental operations (e.g., counting backwards);
  • An enjoyable activity (e.g., drawing a mandala, reading).

Anchoring strategies:

  • Tactile calming techniques using deep pressure (self-massage, weighted stuffed animal, etc.);
  • Tactile calming techniques using object handling (stress ball, rice stress ball, etc.).

Auditory calming technique:

  • listening to the sound of waves, rain, etc.

Balancing strategies:

  • Swiss balls or cushions;
  • Rocking stools.
Physical Activities Suggest active breaks, i.e., brief physical activity periods of 5 to 10 minutes that take place in class. They have the potential to improve academic performance through different facilitators, such as cognitive performance, school engagement behaviours and self-control behaviours.

Motor discharge routines are brief and intense supervised physical activities allowing students to control their negative emotions instead of becoming overly agitated. Thus, movements that offer an alternative to aggressive gestures should be encouraged (pushing against a wall, throwing a ball or jumping in place).

Active breaks:

  • Acting out a story;
  • Chair exercises;
  • Dancing.


Motor discharge routines:

  • Skipping rope followed by dancing;
  • Throwing and catching a heavy ball;
  • Pushing against the wall;
  • Jumping in place.

Table 1 Inventory of calming measures, descriptions and examples

Sources: Bodison and Parham, 2018; Daly-Smith et al., 2011; Martin and Murtagh, 2017; Sutton et al., 2013; Verret and Massé, 2017; Yunus et al., 2015)

The role of educators

One major challenge of using some calming measures, like fidget toys and stress balls, is to ensure that they do not become a source of distraction, either for the students or their peers. In this regard, educators can play an important role by ensuring that calming measures are implemented effectively. Through caring and safe supervision, combined with their knowledge of which calming measures are preferred by the various students, educators can foster successful experiences and develop the students’ abilities to self-regulate (Sutton et al., 2003).

In order for students with LDs to gradually manage to regulate their emotions and behaviours, they must be able to observe and assess the effectiveness of the different measures they use. From these standpoints, teachers should encourage students to express their emotions and to monitor themselves before, during and after the use of calming measures in order to become independent and to adopt the right strategies that work for each of them in the various situations where they lose control (Doyon, 2013). In the same vein, it can be useful for teachers to become actively involved by modelling and reinforcing the expected behaviours in order to provide an external resource for the student. Thus, it is important to guide students to feel the change in their emotional state, by observing and assessing with them the signs of how calm they are (changes perceived in their body,  thoughts,  actions, etc.). Some students may find it hard to observe these changes, especially preschool or primary students who have less nuanced changes in their emotional state. To help the students better observe these changes, educators can ask them to verbalize what they are feeling during the activity. This enables them to “connect” with their emotions. Finally, educators should encourage students to gradually modulate their emotions in order to find their comfort zone rather than aiming for a complete change. Certain strategies will have different effects from one student to another. The same strategy might calm some students and activate others. Attention should be paid to the student's level of engagement when calming measures are used, and they should be guided towards the appropriate technique based on their individual needs, or as required by the situation (Verret and Massé, 2017).

The role of the educator throughout this process will necessarily change according to the needs of each student. It is recommended that the use of calming measures be supervised by an adult, especially when they are first implemented or when the student’s emotions are overly strong. In this way, the adult can move from being very involved and specifically encouraging students to use calming measures to being less involved when students are able to manage their behaviour responsibly and independently (Doyon, 2013).


Calming measures are accessible, attractive and appreciated by students. Although the use of such interventions is in vogue, they have been largely ignored in scientific research on managing learning disabilities in students. School staff members have a unique role in teaching and supporting students so that they can use calming measures effectively. Nevertheless, these strategies must be planned as part of an overall support plan established by the school in order for them to be effective supports for self-regulation in students with learning disabilities.

About the Author

calming measuresClaudia Verret is a full professor in the Department of Sciences of Physical Activity of the Université du Québec à Montréal. For more than 10 years, she taught physical education to youth with behavioural difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her research deals primarily with inclusive practices in physical education, and with physical activity interventions tailored to improve the adaptive abilities of students presenting with difficulties.



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