Self Regulation and Sensory Breaks

Learning to self-regulate is a big issue for most tamariki with FASD. Children with FASD may show signs of being hyper-sensitive (feelings things too much) or hypo-sensitive (not feeling things enough) to the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. It can be very handy for them to have noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses or perhaps a fidget toy on hand. To avoid major distractions, it's important to anticipate sensory overload scenarios in class before they happen. 

Teachers can help facilitate this for them by having a low-sensory area somewhere in the school, and several sensory breaks during the day.

More and more teachers are integrating regular sensory breaks and sensory learning strategies into their classroom and school days to help all students to be in the best state for learning and to assist with self-regulation – but this is even more important for those with FASD. 


'Heavy Work' and Sensory Self-Regulation

Everybody is born with an internal sense of body awareness known as 'proprioception' which is initialised via messages sent to our brain from our muscle and joint receptors. Sometimes people affected with FASD have sensory processing difficulties which means that their central nervous system is trying to figure out a way of linking their brain to receptors. Recent research shows that getting kids to do 'heavy work' can focus and calm them in many different ways.

For an excellent introduction to initialising heavy work to help with sensory self-regulation, check out the award-winning, UK-based Griffin Occupational Therapy, who specialise in sensory processing. 

The ALERT Program®

The Alert Program® was developed by Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger, American occupational therapists.  The programme teaches children how to manage and change how 'alert' they feel during the day so they are in the best possible position to attend, learn and self-regulate.  "Self-regulation is the ability to attain, maintain, or change how alert one feels appropriately for a task or situation.” – Williams & Shellenberger, 1996, pg 1-5. 

The Alert Program® teaches children that their body is like a car engine and asks them to identify if their engine is running too high (i.e. hyperactive, unfocused), too low (ie. tired, listless, bored), or 'just right'.  Children are taught their own unique set of sensory strategies to help them to maintain themselves in the 'just right' range to attend and learn.  The Program also develops the concept of 'heavy work' which can be used in all situations to get learners into the 'just right' range for learning.

More information about the evidence-based ALERT Program® – or view this video: What is the Alert Program®?

For a good, basic explanation of the philosophy and science behind the program and why it works you can read this article: Alert Program Overview

Note that a 2015 study found that children with FASD who used the Alert Program for self-regulation under supervision for 12 weeks for 1.5 hours a week, showed an increase in brain grey matter. Read the report here

Soh, D. W., Skocic, J., Nash, K., Stevens, S., Turner, G. R., & Rovet, J. (2015). Self-regulation therapy increases frontal gray matter in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: Evaluation by voxel-based morphometry. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, Article 108.

Relax Kids 

Relax Kids is an evidence-based programme developed in England. It involves a seven-step holistic process that provides children with strategies and tools to calm their mind and self-regulate their body. It's also designed to build self-esteem and confidence. It uses a range of active, then mindful and relaxation strategies, and positive affirmations in the 7-step process.  

For more information about the Relax Kids Programme visit this website.


There is much information on the internet about activities and sensory tools that can be used to help your students self-regulate.

Here are some other website ideas from the many available:

LemonLime Adventures


Sensory Processing Disorder - break ideas