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How Do Emotions Affect Self Regulation

Sage Kearney

April 29, 2021

In our practice here at Children In Motion, it isn’t uncommon for our clients who have sensory processing challenges to also struggle with self regulation. During the beginning stages of our OT journey together, I like to dedicate a good chunk of time to education.  One of the cornerstone programs I use to educate my families on self regulation is the Alert Program®.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to talk with Mary Sue Williams (one of the co-creators of the Alert Program®!) about how they differentiate feelings from levels of alertness (or alert states). Understanding the relationship between your child’s emotions & their level of alertness will enable you to better understand & support your child on a daily basis.

Let’s start at the very beginning to make sure we are all on the same page. Self regulation refers to your level of alertness and your ability to adjust that level depending on your current situation.

Simply put, it’s how awake we are or the energy we feel.

Based on the Alert Program®’s teachings, there are three alert levels – low, high, and just right.

When we are in a  low alert state  we could be sleepy, spacey, droopy, or moving slow.

When we are in a  high alert state  we could be using a loud voice, moving too fast, or not have control of our body.

When we are in a  just right alert state , the Alert Program® explains children or adults could be feeling alert, attentive, and focused.

It is very normal to experience all levels of alertness multiple times a day. For example, morning time & the afternoon could tend to be low parts of your day, while mid morning & late afternoon could tend to be high parts of your day, with spurts of just right parts of your day sprinkled throughout.

The key here is that we need to be able to have the agency, or ability to change our level of alertness when needed. 


Although it may seem natural to associate a high alert state with emotions such as anger or excitement, and feelings of sadness or worry with a low alert state, it is important to keep emotions separate from the state of our nervous system.

 Our emotions can affect or influence our level of alertness, however, our level of alertness & emotional state are two separate entities.  For example, let’s take a look at the emotional state of anger.

When we are mad we could have a hard time listening or struggle to make good decisions, which would look like a high arousal state. At the same time we could be mad and withdraw into ourselves, shut down, or even leave the situation entirely, which would look like a low alert state. Lastly, if we have access to good sensory strategies (like counting to ten or deep breathing exercise) we could be mad but still be able to communicate our feelings clearly, which would look like a just right level of alertness.

The same could be said for other feelings such as excitement, happiness, loneliness, or frustration. The important thing to remember here is that emotions do not depict a specific level of alertness. We could experience varying degrees of all sorts of emotions at any level of alertness depending on how we process sensory information.

So while it may seem like a no brainer that your child’s level of alertness is high when they are angry, it’s important to keep in mind that they could be angry and have a low level of alertness as well. On the flip side, your child could also be happy and have a high level of alertness, like when their favorite team scores & takes the lead at a sporting event. Always, always remember that your child’s emotional state does not depict their level of alertness. It can influence it, but they are not one in the same.


Hungry for more information on self regulation?

Might I suggest you check out the Alert Program®’s online course “Your Best Self: The Alert Program For All”. We recently went through this course ourselves as a refresher and we loved it. It’s cut up into bite sized pieces & presented in a way that everyone can understand (which is saying something because self regulation is a very abstract concept).


If you think your child may be struggling with self regulation, we have created a free tool for you to use to keep track of their level of alertness throughout the day. After using this tool consistently for three to four weeks you will begin to see patterns arise.

These patterns will identify your child’s sensory preferences & will help you understand your child (and how to better support them on their unique road to success). Having this data will help you confidently make the best next step for your family, whether that be pursuing professional help or not.

Sound like something you could use? Download your copy of The Self Regulation Crash Course + Pattern Tracker here.

Always, always remember that your child’s emotional state does not depict their level of alertness. It can influence it, but they are not one in the same.

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