How’s your engine running? A strange question to ask your child, right? Well, not really. Lots of young children have been exposed at school to similar concepts which are simple ways of helping children figure out if “their engine” is running in the blue (low energy or even sad), green (just the right amount of energy, feeling good), or red (super high energy, or even mad/angry). Truly, this is a great help in teaching a child the skill of noticing how one is doing- am I low energy or even sad? Am I super high energy, even ‘hyper’, or very angry/mad? The beauty of a child learning to notice ‘how their engine is running’ is so that they can begin to learn how to self-regulate their ‘engine’ or overall mood and/or energy level. We as parents or caregivers can actually teach children not only how their engine is running, but what they can do about it!
As parents we spend our child’s first year providing lots and lots of co-regulating – rocking a crying baby, swaddling and singing to a sleepy baby, so many ways to help baby calm down, perk up, and everything in between. Over time, children can begin to learn in toddlerhood, preschool, and school-age years, the really important skills of building their own abilities to self-regulate.
Help your child use a paper plate to make a visual of ‘how is my engine running?’ Have them draw a line across the center of the plate. Now, on the upper half of the plate, help them make three pie-shaped sections. Have them color the first section blue, the middle section green, and the last section red. Next help them cut out an arrow out of a piece of black construction paper and fasten the arrow with a paper fastener to the center of the line drawn across the plate. Now when you notice your child appearing low energy, or sad, high energy or angry, or even ‘just right’ energy, ask them to notice, “how is your engine running?” and have them move the arrow to whichever color applies to their engine level. Now begin teaching your child skills of self-regulation, “Oh, your engine is in the blue! What could we do to help move it to the green?” and help the child figure out ways to increase energy level (dancing to some fun dance music, jumping jacks, whatever it is that your child enjoys to move their body and increase energy!) The same concept applies to ‘running in the red.’ Help your child begin to identify activities that are calming (deep breathing, wrapping up in a blanket, squeezing some playdough, coloring quietly, etc).
Being able to self-regulate is so important - particularly to young children. When children can manage their own physical and emotional internal states, they can then manage impulses better, which leads to abilities in making friends through sharing toys, taking turns, sharing thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. In other words, increasing their ability to connect with others in their own little community of friends and family.
Remember: When we have the ability to connect with the hearts of others, all things are possible. Isn’t that what we want for our children - building a world for themselves full of all the possibilities!
Written by Deb Levenseller, Clinical Director at The Maine Children's Home for The Connected Community @ MCH.