The Sensory Bounce Therapy Blog:
Sensory Processing, Motor and Social Skills Resources
for Parents of Special Needs Children

Making Self-Regulation Child-Friendly

The Alert Program®: “How Does Your Engine Run?”®

Part 1 of 2: Program overview

yellow car engine run for web
What is self-regulation?
“Self-regulation is the ability to attain, change, or maintain an appropriate level of alertness for a task or situation” (Williams & Shellenberger, 1996). 
If we are droopy, in a low state of alertness, we are not ready to focus on a task (such as learning). If we are overly active, in a high state of alertness, we are not ready to focus either. We all need to regulate ourselves and attain a just-right state of alertness — attentive and focused — to be successful in learning, working, playing, and interacting with others. 
How can you help your child achieve this just-right state? Two occupational therapists, Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger, designed a simple, easy to use program for OTs, teachers, and parents:
The Alert Program®: “How Does Your Engine Run?”®
This program teaches children how to change how alert they feel, and teaches adults how to support children in self-regulating, along with learning, focusing, and positive behaviors. It uses a simple engine analogy: “If your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high, sometimes it runs on low, and sometimes it runs just right.”
Where did The Alert Program® come from?
The program was designed by two internationally known occupational therapists, Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger, for OTs, teachers, and parents to use in working with children. It is ideally suited for children who function at about a typical seven to thirteen-year old level, and can be adapted to suit children of a wide age range.
Is the program just for kids?
No! It supports self-regulation for all ages, populations and settings. Self-regulation is the basis of all of our goals; we all want to set our nervous systems so it’s easier for us to learn, work, play, and interact successfully with others.
The engine analogy is so simple and user-friendly, anyone can relate to it.
The analogy and vocabulary make this an easy approach that helps even very young children articulate how alert they feel. They can then develop strategies to turn this self-awareness into self-regulation, understanding how to change their alertness levels throughout the day so they are in the proper state of mind to wake up, to learn, to play, to relax, to go to bed. And their parents learn how to best support their children in this.
Until the child is able to do it on his own, the parent points out when his engine is running fast, slow or just right, and helps him figure out what he can do to get back to (or stay at) just right.
What is the program’s ultimate goal?
The goal is to help the child develop the self-awareness to identify his/her level of alertness, and the ability to choose the best sensory strategies to adjust his/her level for different tasks.
Additionally, being in an optimal state of alertness for each task makes it less likely to have behavioral outbursts while learning or accomplishing the task.
How can you help your child identify what speed his engine is running at?
You might begin by showing your child pictures of children in different situations and levels of alertness, and helping your child recognize what different levels look like. 
Another way to go about it is by using yourself as a model. You could talk about your own engine, mentioning to your child that your engine is on low while you’re listening to quiet music, or on high when you’re playing catch together, etc. 
I’ve identified my gear. Now what?
Once you’ve all gotten into the habit of identifying what speed your engines are running at, you can move into discussing strategies to change the gear speed.

Looking ahead:
In the next post, we will explore different strategies and activities to keep your engines running at their optimum.
Does your child usually run in high gear, low gear, or switch back and forth? What about you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about. 
Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.
I look forward to hearing from you!

All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.