(Non)Compliance does not equal (Dys)Regulation

by Affect Autism

This Week’s Topic

Compliance is often mistaken for readiness to learn, but compliance does not equal regulation, and regulation is necessary for learning. On the flip side, dysregulation is often seen as noncompliance. In this podcast, we discuss the connection between regulation and compliance.

This Week’s Guests

Today I welcome back retired Special Educator and Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model Expert and Training Leader, Jackie Bartell in Rochester, New York, and Occupational Therapist, Amy Lewis in Charleston, South Carolina, co-developer of Powerfully You–a social emotional learning curriculum designed to foster self-regulation, and that values Individual differences. She has a special interest in Sensory Integration, is currently enrolled in a Floortime certificate course, and holds many other certifications.

Bonus Insights

Focus on Compliance

There’s a lot of focus on children being compliant and this usually goes along with the assumption that compliance is how children learn, Jackie starts. A child who is being noncompliant is not necessarily dysregulated and being dysregulated does not necessarily mean that a child is being noncompliant. When a child is noncompliant, they’re seen as being dysregulated and therefore unable to engage in the learning process. Jackie says there’s a lot of fables in this thinking.

A child does not get up in the morning and decide they’re going to be noncompliant, nor do they decide that they will be dysregulated, and one does not equal the other, Jackie stresses. Both are observed behaviours. A child who is well regulated can be observed to not comply because it might not be clear what the expectation is, or another reason, and a child who is dysregulated is truly not being noncompliant and not deciding that they don’t want to participate, as they are in fight or flight and don’t have access to the thinking part of their brain.

Focus on Regulation

Amy says it comes down to defining regulation. Regulation is really happening on two levels: both on what we observe as behaviour, but also on a neurophysiological level. Amy thinks of it as the ability to match our internal state to what’s going to serve us the best and what’s happening in the environment. An example is that we can be ‘meeting expectations’ and not be regulated. Internally, your heart might be racing, your muscles might be tense, and your thoughts might not be connecting.

Regulation impacts Interoception

Amy thinks of regulation as the ability to adapt our neurological arousal, our emotional state, our motor activity, attention, and behaviour to meet our own needs and the demands of the situation. So often we’re only focused on whether someone is meeting the demands of the situation and forget about whether or not they are meeting their own needs and staying connected to the experience, Amy adds. A lot of this has to do with interoception and the sense of what you’re feeling inside, I point out. 

Our interoceptive experience is very dependent on our regulation, which is built into us for the purposes of survival, Amy says. When our arousal–our neurological activation in our brain and body–gets high, our interoceptive awareness decreases, Amy explains. From an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn’t help us to survive to stop and think about things in the moment if we’re in danger, she says. A felt sense of safety is what facilitates regulation and interoceptive awareness.

Compliance does not equal Regulation

It reminded me of so many parents who say that their children are ‘wonderful’ at school but get so dysregulated when they get home. Jackie adds that when the child is ‘holding it together’ at school, their observed behaviour is compliance. They appear to be calm and in the space they need to be to learn, but they might not be. There is often, Jackie continues, an unintentional misunderstanding, or misreading, of what the child’s state is. That term ‘noncompliance’ is about whether they’re meeting our expectations or not, Amy adds, whether the expectations are appropriate or not, or whether the child is in a state that facilitates their learning or not. I referred listeners to the topic of autistic masking in this podcast.

Amy says that what regulation looks like is different for each person. If you’re looking at the goal of learning, some people learn in a calm, focused state, while others need to move to learn. They’re regulated when they’re connected to their own experience and what’s happening around them, which varies from person to person. From a neurological standpoint, everyone’s baseline of arousal is different. If the expectation is absorbing information, then that’s what you should look at as the goal and supporting regulation that facilitates that, not the behaviour of sitting still at a desk. We have to be really careful about our expectations and whether that equals the goal we have in mind.

Examining our Expectations

Jackie says that it’s really important for us to examine the expectations that we have and whether or not they’re a match to the person we have in front of us. If a child is not meeting our expectations, we can’t just throw the behaviour into the box of ‘dysregulation’. It could be that the child is using their agency to communicate that they don’t want to do what is expected of them. Amy says this is important. She shared a story about a student who was able to focus when she moved a lot, but she had been labelled as noncompliant because she could not sit still and attend to the teacher in a classroom.

The problem wasn’t the child and her dysregulation. She was supporting her own nervous system. The problem was that the adults had expectations that were about the outward behaviour and not about her learning.

Amy Lewis, Occupational Therapist

Upon further investigation, this child was hearing and taking in everything while bouncing or turning her head upside down. If the adults had asked themselves why they needed this student to sit in a chair and be quiet, the answer would have likely been, “So that I know she’s learning” Amy guesses, but if they examined that, they could have seen that she wasn’t able to learn at all in that state.

The child can eventually have her agency and tell someone that if they want her to learn, she needs to move. It’s ultimately agency when you can notice your own regulation and tell someone that it’s not a match for your expectations for me and this situation, Amy shares. As long as we are punishing kids and not providing them with the support they need to be regulated, Amy continues, we are hurting their chances of developing that agency.

Dysregulation does not equal Noncompliance

The assumption of noncompliance assumes that the child has control over their behaviour, but they don’t. Amy talks about state-dependent functioning of our brain. Dan Siegel‘s model is another way of looking at it where he talks about ‘flipping our lid’ when we have dysregulation. In that moment, we don’t have access to our whole brain, including our language and reasoning, Amy explains. When a child is screaming, running out of the room, throwing objects, or otherwise being dysregulated, the task demands might be too much for them. They might have motor planning challenges. 

If the child is dysregulated, they are no longer in control. So what do teachers do? Amy says that she has a lot of empathy for teachers and the situation they are in. They have been taught to operate a classroom, or work with a child, in a certain way. That’s really hard when that’s the expectation that’s been put on them for their class to be compliant. Amy says we need to ensure that people understand that regulation underlies all behaviour. 

Regulation Underlies all Behaviour

It’s our job to support regulation first, Amy states. If we don’t, we aren’t enabling a child to have their highest level of performance. It’s hard when we don’t have the training to support a child. Dyregulation could be individual differences of the person. It could be the environment they are in. It could be that the task expectations aren’t a match for the child’s skills–even in that moment. Our regulation varies from second to second. A child can do a task in one moment, but not in another. Backing up to support regulation is always going to be the most effective way to go, Amy concludes.

Whether you think that the child is choosing to have a ‘behaviour’ or not, if they are dysregulated, expecting them to meet your expectations is probably setting them up for failure, Amy shares, so it’s always worth backing up to regulation. When you have a child who’s screaming at you, our buttons are pushed and we can tend to threaten a punishment as parents, I share. As Dr. Ira Glovinsky talks about in his video on the Facebook page for The Glovinsky Center for the Child and Family, it escalates. Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about this, too. If you’re continually throwing consequences at the child and using the things they love against them, it damages the Relationship.

Regulation or Communication?

While we focus on regulation, we can’t forget our own regulation, too. When a child is being non-intentionally ‘noncompliant’, Jackie says she thinks about how we observe a child who is ‘falling apart’. She would question if it’s a regulation issue, or a communication issue. That child might be saying that they can’t do what you’re asking of them the way you’re asking them to, and turning up the volume to get you to listen to what they’re communicating! We can’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the child is dysregulated, Jackie insists.

We need to use ourselves as the conduit to understand and use the tools we have to help the child come back to regulation, if it is dysregulation, Jackie says. We need to examine what just happened. What did I do? What was my expectation? Was it reasonable? Then go to the child and say, “Something’s wrong. I’m going to help.” This throws us into the wonderful tool of co-regulation, Jackie continues. Let’s not look at it as noncompliance, but as, “Uh-oh. Something’s gone array. Let me see if I can help you either communicate or come into a better space of regulation or a more agreeable space of regulation” all while watching our own regulation.

Being Proactive

Jackie says that we need to examine where this behaviour started. A person doesn’t turn regulation on and off based on some external stimulus. Maybe the child doesn’t like what the teacher just asked and is communicating that they don’t like it in a way that is big and loud because the teacher doesn’t listen until they fall apart. Amy adds that it might not even be a conscious thing. It might just be a learned pattern they are repeating. What is most effective in the long term, she shares, is to be proactive.

What’s happening in the environment is often a reflection that we need to have outside of the time when the situation is happening because in that moment we’re all overstressed. In that moment, we just want the kid to do that thing we want them to do, Amy continues. Stepping back, we can look at what we’re chronically seeing happen for this child, what is the biggest problem in their day, what are our expectations, what is the environment, how is the environment supporting them, and look at what their individual differences are. Doing this reflection proactively then allows us to bring the tools Jackie mentioned to that moment of dysregulation when it happens.

Body Battery and Regulation

In the program Amy co-created, Powerfully You, they discuss Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett‘s concept of ‘body budget’ but changed the name to ‘body battery’ to make it easier for children to grasp. I asked Amy how they merge that idea of teaching this to kids cognitively while getting them to really understand and feel it? Amy shares that when creating the social emotional learning curriculum, they approached Dr. Feldman Barrett who invited them to come to her lab and collaborate. Amy says they teach kids what feeds their body battery, including nutritious food, sleep, etc. and they added ‘connection’.

‘Body battery’ is something that happens over days, Amy explains. They also teach ‘activation’ which is about how you feel in your body in this moment. It can shift from moment to moment. You can have a full body battery and be activated or deactivated in any moment, Amy says. They teach kids to differentiate ‘body battery’ from ‘activation’ through experiential learning. They play games with it and help the kids notice their internal experience of body sensations to learn about their activation. Body battery isn’t what we’re adjusting in the moment, Amy stresses. We want to think about how we support our body battery over time, she shares.

I shared how indeed, I can tell my son’s cues when his ‘body battery’ is starting to get low, such as if he’s coming down with an illness. And yes, I shared how Dr. Stuart Shanker also said, regarding Self-reg, that it is possible to teach these kinds of things to children, and I notice it myself. My son tends to be impulsive and can blurt out things like, “You’re stupid!” when he is dysregulated from hearing it on a cartoon. I might say, “Hmm… I wonder why you’re saying that to me” without actually questioning him with a demand. But over time, he has started to say, “I have a bad word for you, Mama! I feel like calling you stupid!” which is much less impulsive.

Taking Into Account Where the Child is Developmentally

Jackie brings us back to the DIR Model. We have to look at the Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities (FEDCs), she suggests. Where is this person developmentally in this moment? Jackie says that my son used to just blurt it out, but he’s on a journey along those developmental capacities and he’s starting to be able to think more symbolically by saying, “I have a bad word for you!” We teach, Jackie explains, by giving them the opportunity to experience it within the frame of those FEDCs. She had a child in her classroom who looked dysregulated and was throwing things in an upset way relatively constantly. Her instinct was thinking she had to stop this behaviour.

We have to reflect, Jackie continues. The problem was on her. She used too much language with the child, going from the second capacity of engagement and the third capacity of reciprocity way up to the fifth capacity of symbolic thinking and the sixth capacity of logical thinking. Everytime she started talking, the child started throwing things, which was her cue. Was he dysregulated or was he communicating and had to turn the volume up really loud? Probably a bit of both, Jackie assumes. It’s a key concept. What is the child’s capacity and how are we using ourselves and our communication?

Plug for my upcoming presentation at the International ICDL DIR/Floortime Conference in October:

Don’t miss one of my presentations at the upcoming International ICDL DIR/Floortime conference:

Balancing your FEDCs with your Child’s: Finding that ‘Just-Right’ Rhythm


Regulation comes first, whether you’re looking at it from a DIR lens where the first developmental capacity is regulation or from an Occupational Therapy perspective, Amy shares. She can’t work on skills or higher-level capacities if the child isn’t regulated. We are never at a point where we’re always regulated. We are always moving in and out of regulation up and down through those capacities. Jackie shares that if we focus on co-regulation, connection, and curiosity, the natural by product of that is compliance. I stressed that this is a process. Everything is always changing. Hopefully being aware of all of these things helps us understand the children we interact with.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s reflect on our child’s regulation in relation to our expectations around compliance.

For example: Can we look at our child’s incidences of what we consider ‘noncompliance’ and figure out if our expectations are inappropriate for where they are at in the moment, developmentally speaking? If so, what supports do they need us to provide to meet an expectation or can we change our expectation? Can we determine if they are regulated and enacting agency in communicating something to us versus assuming they are dyregulated? 

Thank you to Jackie and Amy for helping us break down dysregulation and noncompliance in understanding behaviour and our children. I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

Sign up for our updates

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP You can be assured that we will not share your information.