A Movement Sequence to Help Students Maintain Self-Regulation
An occupational therapist offers a series of calming whole-body exercises for students to do as a class throughout the school day.
I’ve been a practicing school-based occupational therapist for many years, working with children ages 3 to 18 who have a variety of sensory, self-regulation, and emotional regulation difficulties. In that time, I’ve honed a whole-body movement sequence that provides body awareness and mindfulness on a routine basis.
The sequence works well with a whole class, it takes only about 5 minutes, and students can do the exercises on a rug or mat right next to their desks. It’s best to do the sequence regularly and consistently—I recommend mornings, after lunch or recess, before transitions, and after any high-stimulation activities.
I utilize this sequence before my therapy sessions, and I’ve recommended it to many educators to maintain regulation and decrease fight-or-flight behaviors. The sequence should be done in order, from step one to step eight, and works for students in early elementary and middle school grades.
Note: It’s important to get medical clearance for students with possible musculoskeletal or physical contraindications before having them attempt any exercises in this sequence.
Steps in the Sequence
1. Downward-facing dog. This exercise provides proprioceptive input and vestibular input to the hands, arms, shoulders, and legs, so it’s helpful when students are feeling low levels of physical energy, high levels of physical energy, or emotional dysregulation (an inability to manage emotional responses well).
Students lie on their stomach with flat palms next to their shoulders, and push their body up so their weight is on their hands and feet, keeping their legs as straight as comfortably possible, and hold for 10 seconds.
2. Upward-facing dog. This provides proprioceptive input to the belly, back, arms, and legs and is especially helpful when students are feeling low levels of physical energy or high levels of physical energy.
Students lie flat on their stomach, palms flat on either side of the chest. They then press their body up, keeping their knees on the floor, bearing their weight through their palms. Next, they push their chest up from the floor, feeling the weight pressing down through their palms, and hold for 10 seconds.
3. Tabletop. Not only does the tabletop pose require a lot of physical strength and endurance, but also it has elements of sustained proprioceptive and vestibular inputs (rotational/head below knee). It’s a powerful exercise that can benefit students who are feeling low levels of energy, high levels of energy, or high levels of emotionality.
Students should begin on their hands and knees, shoulder width apart, palms flat on the floor with fingertips pointing toward their toes. They then straighten out their elbows and lift their hips up toward the ceiling, drawing their shoulder blades into their back and lifting their chest, while keeping their back flat (looking straight ahead). If they feel comfortable doing so, they should carefully and gently drop their head back slightly and hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
4. Child’s pose. This position provides both proprioceptive and vestibular inputs. By curling inward, students also have an opportunity to take a moment for themselves and visually block out the world. This is a good exercise to try if students are feeling high levels of physical and/or emotional energy.
Students start by kneeling on both knees and visualizing any challenging physical and/or emotional feeling as being at the center of their body. As they move their body inward, they should picture that feeling being squeezed away. Students bring their bottom toward their heels and stretch the rest of their body down and forward. Once they’re fully stretched, they relax their arms along the floor and rest their stomach along their thighs, with their forehead on the mat, holding the position for as long as it’s comfortable.
5. Wrist cross, ankle cross. This exercise can help your students feel where their wrists, hands, and ankles are by providing proprioceptive (deep pressure) input, while also crossing midline (which is great for focusing and calming). It is helpful when students are feeling emotionally or physically dysregulated; it also can wake them up if they’re feeling low levels of physical energy.
Students cross their wrists together, with the inside of one wrist pressing against the back of the other. They then push their wrists firmly together and hold for at least 5 to 10 seconds. Then they cross their legs together, with the inside of one leg pressing against the top of the other. Students push their legs firmly together, and hold this position for at least 5 to 10 seconds.
6. Students feel where their body is. When students feel physically and emotionally dysregulated and begin to enter fight-or-flight mode, it can be difficult to feel all the different parts of their body. Doing this exercise correctly is very calming because it tells each of the joints of the body where they are through proprioceptive input and relaxes the nervous system.
Students gently squeeze and say the name of each joint in the following order as they do the following:
- Cross their hands over opposite shoulders
- Cross their hands over opposite elbows
- Cross their hands over opposite wrists
- Squeeze each finger and the palm of their right hand, then do the same on their left hand
- Cross their hands over their hips
- Cross their hands over their knees
- Cross their hands over their ankles
- Cross their hands over their feet
7. Bubble breath with extended exhalation. This is a good strategy to use whether your students are feeling low energy, high energy, or high levels of emotionality. Getting oxygen to the brain can also help students think better and make clearer choices. The exhale breath is longer than the inhale breath.
Students breathe in through the nose slowly for 4 seconds and hold, then breathe out through the mouth slowly and with control for 6 seconds. Alternatively, they can breathe in through the nose slowly for 5 seconds and hold, and then breathe out through the mouth slowly and with control for 7 seconds. Repeat as needed.
8. Picture their peaceful place. Have your students visualize a moment or place that makes them feel the most peaceful. This is a good strategy for students to use when feeling high levels of emotionality.
Students close their eyes and think of a place that makes them feel calm and peaceful. Tell them to picture every detail—what it looks like, what different objects there feel like, any smells and any sounds—and to picture themselves there. Where are they in that special place? What are they doing? When they’re ready, they open their eyes.