How is Your "Engine" Running?

By Mia Girard, TLC Occupational Therapist & YogaKids Instructor

 Hearing a story together in low lights helps our preschoolers calm their engines after fun and excitement outside.

Hearing a story together in low lights helps our preschoolers calm their engines after fun and excitement outside.

Daily life, even with its routines, can be overwhelming at times. When holidays or other new activities are added to the mix, making it through a week can feel like scaling a mountain. As a parent, there is always a lot to juggle and readjust, such as routines, sleeping habits, meals and days off school. Kids can also struggle with maintaining a consistent routine and adapting to changes, and while I know my children love excitement, they also do better with a consistent routine. As much as I love to travel, plan something fun for a weekend, and celebrate holidays with my family, the demands of juggling all the to-do’s can cause me to feel more scattered, forgetful and stressed….so my ‘engine’ tends to run fast!  What is she talking about with this ‘engine’ thing, you say? 

How Does Your Engine Run?, The Alert Program for Self-Regulation by Mary Sue Williams & Sherry Shellenberger uses the following analogy: “If your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high (fast), sometimes it runs slow (low), and sometimes it runs just right.”

Interestingly, these three engine speeds normally occur throughout a given day, and no one way is right or wrong to feel. I can only go to sleep once my engine has begun to ‘slow’ before bedtime, and I do better in a high-paced yoga class when my engine runs ‘fast.’  I have learned that my engine needs to be running ‘just right’ to focus and to be the most present in the moment. The goal of this great program is to help children to learn a common language to describe their level of alertness.

When  ‘engines are running fast’ we may:
•    feel busy inside,
•    have a lot of energy,
•    want to move around and have a hard time sitting still,
•    And find it is hard to pay attention when we are running ‘fast’.

On the other hand, when  ‘engines are running slow’, we may:
•    have a hard time getting our bodies going,
•    feel sleepy inside,
•    want to rest and hold our head in our hands
•    And also have a hard time focusing or paying attention.

When  ‘engines are running just right’ we:
•    do our best talking, listening, learning and playing,
•    find it easy to focus and pay attention to what is going on around us.

In my household, to help with communication, understanding of stress levels and remaining as calm as possible, I frequently talk about my engine speed and how or why it changes. I can change it with a warm tea, a brisk walk, or accidentally setting off the smoke alarm.  I talk about exploring calming, organizing, or energizing sensory strategies using my movement, my mouth, touch, eyes, and ears.  My goal, and the goal of the program, is to expose my children to language that helps them to talk about and understand their body’s engine better. I also want children to know that while life can be stressful, we all use strategies to help with self-regulation (becoming more calm or alert). We all have our own preferred sensory strategies and use them, many times without even realizing it!
 
So, think about what makes your engine run too fast, too slow or just right, AND what changes it. Changes in routine? Jarring, loud noises? Somebody standing too close? Swinging in a hammock for hours? A warm cup of tea? Sitting for a mindful minute or two of deep breathing? And when your dog’s barking is making your engine run fast, causing you to be distracted, share that experience with your child! When you’ve taken a long quiet warm bath and your engine has slowed down before bedtime, talk about that too! This will help you to see how sensory events (e.g. your dog’s barking) and sensory strategies (e.g. mindful deep breathing) play a part in your life. It will help your child if you can talk about your engine, and share or model using your own strategies to alert or calm yourself so that they can learn this important skill from you, too!

What helps your engine run just right?