S is for Self-Regulation: Lessons in ADHD Emotional Control from “Sesame Street”
Emotional self-regulation is a complex neurological function. It helps us pay attention to shifting stimuli, evaluate them, and respond in appropriate ways. When it is lacking — as it is for many children with ADHD — parents often struggle to explain and teach “self-control.” This is where the long-running television show “Sesame Street” steps in to help.
Whether you’re 4 or 74, chances are you know how to get to Sesame Street.
Since its debut in 1969, “Sesame Street” has defined educational television, delighting generations of kids (and their parents) with its friendly Muppets, diverse cast, and honest, comforting lessons. Through the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, the show uses research-backed curricula to teach social skills, emotional regulation, and the academic building blocks that prepare its preschool audience for school, independence, and more.
During its 43rd season (2012-2013), the show’s creators began to overtly focus on executive functioning and self-regulation and executive function skills. Research has shown the importance of these fundamental skills for children’s academic, social-emotional, and health development — fundamental skills that few children (and adults) are ever formally taught. Self-regulation is especially critical for kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), whose brain chemistry often leads to poor emotional management and impulse control. They need to practice harder at modulating their feelings, thoughts, and responses — and not allowing their emotions to control their bodies.
Attention and ADHD coach Jeff Copper — founder of DIG Coaching and moderator of Attention Talk Radio — invited Autumn Zitani, M.A., senior director of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, onto his program to discuss how Sesame Street identified self-regulation as a curriculum focus and what lessons are especially useful for kids with ADHD. Read on to learn how self-regulation skills help kids with ADHD master their emotions and control their own behavior.
Self-Regulation and ADHD
As our understanding of ADHD has grown and changed, many experts have come to view attention deficit not as a disorder of attention, but rather one of self-regulation. According to the Child Mind Institute, “self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of [a] situation.” A child with ADHD who throws frequent tantrums in public struggles with self-regulation, as does one who chases a baseball into the street without first checking whether any cars are approaching.
Self-regulation helps us learn, too — meaning that a child who struggles to self-regulate is also likely to struggle when faced with a boring lesson, a difficult homework assignment, or, in adulthood, a new task at work. In other words, self-regulation is one of the most foundational skills a child can have — not only to succeed in school, but also to succeed throughout her life.
Self-Regulation on Sesame Street
Self-regulation – of which executive function is a part — grows by leaps and bounds during the preschool years. And research shows that self-regulation abilities during the early years of a child’s life are strong predictors for how that child will do later on. Kids who learn to manage their emotions and impulses early are found to have higher school achievement, better health, better credit scores, and fewer criminal convictions as adults than children whose self-regulation was lacking.
Sesame Workshop has taken this research to heart. By modeling real-world situations where children may need self-regulation — Rosita learning how to wait before opening a birthday present, for instance — the residents of Sesame Street impart the importance of self-control and the strategies needed to manage impulses. They also teach kids to identify their emotions, recognize when they’re overwhelmed, and develop the tools to calm themselves down — all critical for hyperemotional kids with ADHD.
One of Sesame Street’s most recognizable characters, Cookie Monster, isn’t exactly known for his self-control. But that actually makes him well suited for teaching these lessons to children — especially those who already struggle with self-control — because it’s obvious that it doesn’t come naturally to him, either. “Me want cookie… but me wait” sums up self-regulation in a clear, simple way for kids with ADHD.
Exercises to Improve Self-Regulation
“Sesame Street” teaches self-regulation through more than just situational modeling. It also makes use of easy-to-follow techniques that emphasize pausing, naming the emotion you’re feeling, and implementing a strategy you know for controlling it:
Stoplight Strategy: The stoplight strategy may help your child pause and ponder before acting on a stressful situation. It consists of three steps:
- Stop (red light): Take a long, deep breath, say the problem, and how you feel.
- Make a plan (yellow light): Asking, “What could I do? How could I make these solutions work? Which of these solutions are best?”
- Go (green light): Try your best idea. Reflect on what happened. Try another idea if needed.
Emotional Vocabulary: Kids experience a range of emotions (sometimes even more than one emotion at a time) such as anger, sadness, nervousness and happiness, but they may not always be able to clearly identify which the emotion is rearing its head — or even have the words to describe what they’re feeling. Talking with your child about what different emotions feel like — anger can make him feel hot inside, while anxiety can feel like butterflies in his stomach — will help him identify what he’s feeling and brainstorm specific strategies to manage it, which is a key part of self-regulation and impulse control.
Belly Breathing: This simple breathing exercise can help your child re-center and calm down when faced with emotional, stressful or impulse-testing situations. First, she should slowly breathe in through her nose, pushing her belly out, and then slowly breathe out through her mouth while pulling her belly back in. Repeating this cycle a few times will put some distance between your child and whatever triggered her; once she’s calmed herself down a little, she can revisit the situation in a more productive state of mind.
Self-Talk: It’s normal for very young children to talk aloud to themselves, particularly while they’re playing. This “narration” helps them solve problems and figure out what they’re going to do next — but unfortunately, once that talk moves inward, kids with ADHD often find themselves unable to keep track of ideas in their head. Encouraging your child to talk to himself — whether it’s to problem-solve out loud, or just to remind himself to calm down — can help him adapt his whirlwind inner monologue for his ADHD brain.
Self-Distraction: Distraction isn’t all bad! Sometimes, kids can learn how to purposely distract themselves from a tempting or uncomfortable situation. They can do this by playing with a fidget toy, sitting on their hands, counting aloud, or making up a song to pass the time. Help your child experiment with a few self-distraction techniques, to see which ones work best.
These skills and strategies can be useful across all age ranges, even beyond the age of most Sesame Street viewers. Even if your older child struggles with self-regulation now, it’s not a lost cause — research shows that these skills can be taught in later years.
Additional Resources for Parents
For more information, visit Sesame Street in Communities, where you can find free resources on a range of topics. Sesame Street videos are also available on YouTube, and an app called Cookie Monster’s Challenge teaches self-regulation skills in an interactive, engaging way.