Staying Calm-Alert

A calm-alert state

A Calm-Alert state is the window of optimal arousal when we are ready to learn.
Poor modulation of sensory information due to sensory processing difficulties is linked to self-regulation. Helping children become better regulated enables them to adapt better to the environmental demands, be more tolerant and flexible, be willing to engage, process and learn, have better attention, focus and behavioural regulation, and engage with more purpose.


Recent research has identified that one of the keys to student success is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and modify emotions, to focus or shift attention, to control impulses, to tolerate frustration or delay gratification. We all have a ‘tool kit’ of strategies that help us to achieve a calm-alert state in order to learn.

Signs of challenging environments

The most common signs that someone or something in the environment is too demanding is either hyperactivity or distractibility; hostility, aggression, withdrawal or emotional liability are common behaviours. Prevention is better than a cure, so being observant to the ‘warning signs’ is imperative to prevent melt-downs and achieve self-regulation.

Ideas to help support Staying Calm-Alert in the classroom

In order to learn, a child must be able to pay attention to a variety of different stimuli whilst filtering out irrelevant stimuli together with maintaining a Calm-Alert state. This can prove difficult for many children whose systems are not quite ready for it.

  • Start learning sessions with a movement task or brain gym activity.
  • Sit a distractible child away from busy parts of the classroom i.e. away from doors, windows or other distracting sounds.
  • Ensuring a child is sitting with feet flat on the floor or with feet supported with a footstool.
  • Allow for changes of position e.g. sitting or lying on the floor, a standing station or easel and going for a walk.
  • Consider the use of alternate seating e.g. move-n-sit or disc-o-sit cushion, ball chair, Hokki Chair, or Zuma chair.
  • Using a stretchy exercise band around the chair legs to allow movement whilst doing table top activities.
  • Consider the use of a weighted lap bag or shoulder pet.
  • Using ear defenders for focused times. Some children will benefit from the use of a personal music player with instrumental music to filter out other auditory distractions. Ensure they have understood the instructions before using these items.
  • Reduce visual distractions in the classroom.
  • Hand fidgets may help some children by keeping their hands busy while they are listening e.g. stress ball, koosh ball, rubber band, blu tack – Consider using a fidget contract.
  • Using chewing gum or a chewable item e.g. necklace, bracelet or pencil end.
  • Allowing movement breaks as needed:
    • Chair push ups
    • Wall push ups
    • Table push ups
    • Throwing and catching a heavy ball
    • Animal walks
    • Hand pushes and pulls 
  • Identify non-verbal signals to use when overwhelmed or needing a break. Some children find it difficult to articulate their needs or ask for help, by providing a ‘time out card’, ‘toilet pass’ or other means to indicate that they may be feeling anxious and/or need a break.
  • Giving advanced warning and verbal reminders of loud noises e.g. bells, announcements or planned fire alarms.
  • Call the child to get their attention before giving them an instruction. Get the child to repeat the instruction back so you know they have understood.
  • Research has shown that the more senses used during a learning experience the more likely the child will retain the information; therefore provide learning in a multi-sensory manner – use of smells, sounds, visuals etc.
  • Some children find the transitions and moving through busy environments difficult to manage and this can impact on their class learning. They may benefit from coming in first, to minimise distractions. Try moving the child’s peg to one end and/or allow them to organise themselves within the classroom.
  • Use calming tools if a child is showing signs of becoming overwhelmed:
    • Go for a walk
    • Go to a quiet sensory space
    • Deep breathing
    • Drinking water through a straw
    • Blowing up a balloon or blowing through a straw
    • Yoga