Cool Down Crew: Empowering Teachers to Support Student Self-Regulation in the Classroom
Jessica Pryt, MA, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist and USC Doctoral Resident, The Help Group
Doctoral Candidate, USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
For children and adolescents, attending school is one of the most relevant and important daily occupations that consumes their time. Foundational education is essential for progressing a child’s development: socially, cognitively, physically, and emotionally (Digital Class Educational Marketplace, 2021). However, for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) going to school comes with a number of complex challenges and unmet needs that can hinder this development. Between 69% to 90% of children with ASD experience sensory processing difficulties (Baranek, et al., 2006, as cited in Chiang, et al., 2019), and these difficulties have a significant impact on a child’s ability to engage in a wide array of daily occupations, but especially within the school setting.
As an occupational therapist completing my doctoral residency at The Help Group, during the 2021-2022 academic year, I had the opportunity to develop and implement Cool Down Crew: an occupational therapy group program involving both direct services for students, as well as modeling and mentorship for teachers, with a focus on supporting students’ self-regulation and sensory processing in the classroom.
Cool Down Crew was run for 12 weeks and involved the Occupational Therapy Doctoral (OTD) resident integrating into two Sunrise School classrooms for one 30-minute session per week to model strategies with the students, and to provide direct training and mentorship to the classroom staff. Two classrooms participated in the program and the students consisted of kindergarten through sixth grade students.
The strategies and activities for each week were divided into two main themes: body and mind. In the body category, sensory-based interventions and environmental modifications were included as regulating strategies that could be utilized to help calm the student’s physical body. Six weeks of the program were spent exploring activities involving deep breathing and different calming and organizing sensory strategies and environmental modifications incorporating proprioceptive, vestibular, tactile, and visual experiences. In the mind category, cognitive approaches for self-regulation and sensory processing, including Social Story and social-emotional learning interventions, were utilized to support students to calm their minds. The activities included learning to take a ‘pause’, identifying and expressing basic emotions, positive self-talk, and connecting with others through kindness. The final week of Cool Down Crew was used to review all the strategies that were learned throughout the program. Classrooms were provided with a large calm choice board for students to utilize compiling the strategies introduced in the program.
At the end of the 12 weeks of Cool Down Crew, a survey was distributed to the two participating teachers to learn their qualitative feedback and to gain insight into the preliminary outcomes of the program. One of the main outcomes that arose from the survey was that the classroom staff demonstrated an increased understanding and utilization of supportive and accessible self-regulation strategies. One teacher described that the program was beneficial in supporting her to “…[find] new materials and methods… to use in [her] lesson planning.”
Another teacher stated, “The sessions with [the OTD resident] were very effective, especially because we watched how it was implemented in class first and then discussed the educational value afterwards. We saw the fun and accessible aspects of the session before the philosophy behind it. This allowed us to get a grasp on how it will be effective with the students and its value for education.”
The second clear outcome from the survey was that the program supported the identification and implementation of a number of effective self-regulation strategies for the Sunrise student population. One teacher stated, “The program was very effective in creating new activities in our classroom that we utilized at the start of the day and helped get the students ready to be focused. The exercise of moving the heavy ball up the wall is one we use often.” The second teacher stated, “The most impactful part of the program was creating a calm choices folder. It created a series of pictures showing a series of calming actions that a student can have in lieu of a tantrum. We have been using these choices in class.”
Cool Down Crew established strategies that worked for individual students and contributed to the classroom staff. By supporting teachers to implement the strategies on their own with students, sustainability of the program is ensured. The program brought valuable support to the students and classroom staff in two Sunrise classrooms and positive feedback from the teachers demonstrates the success of the program.
The Help Group – USC Occupational Science Initiative, established in 2015, is dedicated to developing evidence-based intervention programs for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) through the guidance of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, educators and clinicians.
“We are delighted to have this wonderful program at The Help Group,” shared Dr. Barbara Firestone, President and CEO, The Help Group. “Our congratulations to Jessica Pyrt on completing her doctoral project and for developing this meaningful intervention for our young people.”
Under the direction of Dr. Sarah Bream, USC’s Associate Chair of Academic and Community Program Support and Development, Associate Professor of Clinical Occupational Therapy, and Director of the Post-Professional Doctorate of Occupational Therapy program, this Doctoral Residency opportunity provides a one-year clinical experience within The Help Group’s specialized day school setting.
With instruction in the foundations of pediatric occupational therapy practice, school-based practice and participation in research projects for the USC Chan Division’s SensoryIntegration, Engagement and Family Life Initiative, Dr. Linsey Grunes, OTD, OTR/L, USC, provides clinical and coursework guidance to The Help Group’s doctoral resident.
Chiang, W.-C., Tseng, M.-H., Fu, C.-P., Chuang, I.-C., Lu, L., & Shieh, J.-Y. (2019). Exploring sensory processing dysfunction, parenting stress, and problem behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder. The American journal of occupational therapy : official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30839268/.
Digital Class Education Marketplace. (2021, July 21). Why School is Important in Child Development – Digital Class. Best Blogs & Insights From Digital Class E-Learning Marketplace. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.digitalclassworld.com/blog/why-is-school-important/.