Connection is key

Regulation and dysregulation in the classroom

Occupational therapist Dave Jereb invites us to consider the idea of ‘dysregulation’ and the sensory condition of our classrooms in seeking to enhance student engagement.


Children come to our classrooms each day ready to learn, at unique developmental levels and with individual differences and backgrounds. Some settle in effortlessly, while others, particularly those with additional needs, may struggle to attain the level of alertness required for classroom tasks. Recognising and understanding a child’s need for ‘regulation’ and the threat of ‘dysregulation’ is crucial for educators to effectively support these children and enhance their classroom experience.

Regulation & dysregulation

For success both inside and outside the classroom, children must attain and maintain a state conducive to social engagement and learning. This ‘regulated state’ is one in which they are awake, alert, and connected.

‘Dysregulation’ occurs when the child is outside of their regulated state. This can happen when he or she becomes unsettled and enters a ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’ mode. In these instinctive survival states, a child’s focus shifts from learning tasks to seeking safety, impacting their ability to engage and learn. At its extreme, dysregulation can manifest in physical outbursts or complete withdrawal, causing a child to lose access to their higher cognitive functions, including thinking, reasoning, and language.

Dysregulation can also present as under-responsiveness; when a child’s alertness dips below the optimal level. These children might need more stimulation to reach a ready state for learning and engagement. However, it’s important to be aware that overstimulation can paradoxically present as under-responsivity, and stimulation can potentially push them further into a ‘freeze’ state.

Understanding regulation and dysregulation is therefore vital for educators, caregivers and anyone who interacts with children. A dysregulated child will struggle to engage and will require understanding, empathy and support to regain a regulated state in which he or she can learn effectively.

Causes of dysregulation

Dysregulation in children can stem from a variety of factors affecting their sense of safety and readiness for learning. Stephen Porges, creator of Polyvagal Theory, tells us that “not being scared is not the same thing as feeling safe”. Children might stray from their optimal state of calm-alertness if internal or external stimuli fail to meet their sensory needs or if they have difficulty with understanding tasks, planning actions, or social interaction, including communication and interpreting social cues.

These difficulties may arise from their inherited makeup, temperament, or past experiences, with trauma playing a significant role in some cases. However, it’s crucial to note that dysregulation isn’t exclusive to those with traumatic histories or challenging conditions: stress can lead anyone into dysregulation as a survival mechanism. An analogy from the natural world is the instinctual reaction of a deer fleeing at the slightest rustle in the bushes, prioritising safety over curiosity. Get safe first, think later. Similarly, for children and adults alike, factors as common as a poor night’s sleep can initiate a chain of stress and dysregulation.

Understanding the many causes of dysregulation enables us to provide more targeted support, helping the child return to a state conducive to learning and engagement. Yet, even when the cause remains unknown, recognising that the child’s behaviour is a response to not feeling safe allows us to approach them with the empathy and support needed to help them regain their regulated state.

Connection and co-regulation

In assisting regulation and recovery from dysregulation, connection is key. Co-regulation allows an adult’s regulated biological state to help organise a child’s rhythms. This bond not only aids in achieving a regulated state but also helps in preventing dysregulation. A warm, empathetic connection reduces the likelihood of ‘fight or flight’ responses, offering the child a sense of security and making them more receptive to learning and engagement.

Feeling safe in your sensory self

Everyone has a unique sensory profile influencing how we perceive and react to environmental and bodily sensations. Some seek sensory input to regulate themselves, while others prefer to minimise it. Each individual has an optimal alertness range in which they feel calm yet alert. Sensory processing significantly affects our ability to maintain this state.

Understanding a child’s sensory needs is therefore crucial. By observing their sensory responses, we can gauge what their body needs and identify any mismatches between their sensory needs and the task at hand. When a child’s state deviates from their optimal alertness or a task doesn’t align with their sensory needs, we can modify the task or employ ‘sensory diet’ strategies. A phrase coined by Patricia Wilbarger, a ‘sensory diet’ involves offering sensory experiences tailored to the child’s needs to help them achieve and maintain a regulated state. While we all engage in sensory diets to some extent, not all are beneficial. Providing appropriate sensory opportunities can help children regulate before or during challenging tasks.

The sensory quality of a learning environment should also be considered. This will encompass sights, sounds, touch and movement. Adjusting environmental stimuli or enhancing certain sensory qualities can support regulation and attention. Strategies to improve sensory quality could include decreasing clutter or background noise, or using rhythmic songs (50-70 beats per minute encourages a calm, alert state). If a child struggles with sensory regulation, consulting an occupational therapist for specialised sensory diet strategies may be beneficial.

Task fit

The tasks we ask children to engage in can impact regulation. Ensuring a child understands, feels capable of, and finds meaning in a task is crucial. When a child is uninterested or overwhelmed by the task, regulation comes under pressure. Tailoring activities to their interests and developmental level can support regulation, making engagement more likely and effective.

Supporting regulation

Understanding and fostering regulation in the classroom is therefore crucial, especially for children with additional needs. Dysregulated children are not ready to learn or engage, and it’s important to recognise that their disruptive behaviours aren’t intentional but a sign that they feel unsafe.

By approaching children with empathy, making judgement about their needs for connection and sensation and considering their unique profile in relation to their tasks, we are able to co-regulate with the child and provide supportive strategies to assist in achieving a regulated state, in which they ready to learn and engage. Such empathetic and informed support is key to helping children navigate their challenges and thrive within the classroom.


Dave Jereb is a paediatric occupational therapist. He and his wife, Kathy, co-founded MoveAbout Therapy Services in 2008 pioneering a new approach to paediatric occupational therapy in Australia.

Find out more about Dave’s work in his new book – Challenging the Story: A Surprisingly Simple Approach to Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviours.



FEATURE & SUPPORT IMAGES: by Claire Miles, Oak Street Creative Co

2 Oak Street, Blackwall, New South Wales 2256, Australia

0412 091 439

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