The Alert Program®/Zones of Regulation®

As parents and caregivers, we want to help our children grow, play, and learn.

alert programme zones of regulation

For our young ones, we hope they will learn to dress themselves, write their name, good table manners. You might be surprised to learn that self-regulation is the basis of these. Why? “Self-regulation is the ability to attain, maintain, or change how alert one feels appropriately for a task or situation”. For example, if we want to teach a child to tie shoe laces, the child first needs to be in an optimal state for learning. If he/she is hyper or wildly unfocused (in a high state of alertness) or if they are lethargic and droopy (in a low state of alertness), it will be challenging to learn. On the other hand, if the child is in an optimal state (alert, attentive, and focused), the child is much more likely to learn and succeed and we are less likely to see behavioural outbursts while trying to encourage shoe tying.

The Alert Program® (also known as the “How Does Your Engine Run?” ® or Alert Program® for Self-Regulation) was created by occupational therapists, Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger. The program was developed to teach children- how to change how alert they feel and to teach adults how to support learning, attending, and positive behaviours.

By using an engine analogy, children learn “if your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high, sometimes it runs on low, and sometimes it runs just right.” This easy-to-teach, practical program shows parents, teachers, and therapists how to choose appropriate strategies and activities so children’s engines are running “just right.” Students learn what they can do at circle time or at homework time to attain an optimal state of alertness. Teachers learn what they can do after lunch, when their adult nervous systems are in a low state but their students are in a high alert state (running in from the playground after recess). Parents learn what they can do to help siblings change from a high state to a more appropriate low state at bedtime.

The Alert Program teaches children and their adults a wide range of simple, low-budget strategies and activities that can be incorporated easily into home and school routines. Calming, alerting and organizing sensory activities are recommended most often in the program to help shift the engines in high or low gear.

  • Some children may be able to remain alert, attentive, and focused for longer periods of time than others.
  • Some may need a movement break in the middle of the activity.
  • You might notice that after five minutes of concentrating, your child dips into a low state (lethargic and droopy).
the alert programme zones of regulation
the alert programme zones of regulation

By using an engine analogy, children learn “if your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high, sometimes it runs on low, and sometimes it runs just right.” This easy-to-teach, practical program shows parents, teachers, and therapists how to choose appropriate strategies and activities so children’s engines are running “just right.” Students learn what they can do at circle time or at homework time to attain an optimal state of alertness. Teachers learn what they can do after lunch, when their adult nervous systems are in a low state but their students are in a high alert state (running in from the playground after recess). Parents learn what they can do to help siblings change from a high state to a more appropriate low state at bedtime.

The Alert Program teaches children and their adults a wide range of simple, low-budget strategies and activities that can be incorporated easily into home and school routines. Calming, alerting and organizing sensory activities are recommended most often in the program to help shift the engines in high or low gear.

  • Some children may be able to remain alert, attentive, and focused for longer periods of time than others.
  • Some may need a movement break in the middle of the activity.
  • You might notice that after five minutes of concentrating, your child dips into a low state (lethargic and droopy).
reach therapy center for children

If so, suggest to your child to help you carry a heavy pile of books from one room to the other. Alternately, ask them if they would like to pretend to be a snake, elephant, or rabbit on their way to the book-shelf. Then, encourage slithering on the floor like a snake, stomp like a huge elephant, or jump like a bunny. In this way, you are providing heavy work to your child’s muscles, which help him/her return back to work in an optimal state of alertness, ready for more focused work.

Introducing the engine vocabulary in a family is a wonderful opportunity to focus on the positive rather than negative behaviors of children. Let’s be honest, as parents, our adult engines often go into high gear. Rather than shouting “You are out of control!” or “Go to your room!” use of a calm tone of voice that could say, “Gosh, my engine is in high gear right now” and “Looks like your engine is not in the best place for listening to me read this book aloud” enforces control on situations.

“Let’s go to our recycling bin and stomp on some aluminum cans (heavy work). Then we can come back to read our book together.”

The good news for parents is that many household chores and families’ daily activities involve calming or alerting or organizing sensory input.

Offering heavy work activities as “brain breaks” can be quite effective. For example: asking your son to rake leaves as a movement break half way through his homework. When engines are in an optimal state at home and school, not only do children learn more easily, there can also be less interfering behaviors seen.

Parents have found that less management of behavior is needed when they observe self-regulation in children.