The Alert Program for Self-Regulation

By Helen Rynaski, Freelance writer and speech/language pathologist.  

The Alert Program for Self-RegulationWhat are you doing right now? Yes, you are reading this article, but what else are you doing? Are you chewing gum or gnawing on your pen? Are you clutching a coke or a cup of herbal tea? What parts of you are moving? Foot tapping? Rocking in your chair? Fingers drumming on the table? Do you have music on?

These are just a few of the behaviors listed in the Sensory-Motor Preference Checklist (Adult), devised by Mary Sue Williams, OTR, and Sherry Shellenberger, OTR, co-owners of TherapyWorks, Inc., in Albuquerque, NM. Developed as a training tool for the Alert Program for Self-Regulation (AP), the checklist was designed to help adults understand what strategies their own nervous systems employ to achieve and maintain appropriate arousal states.

This understanding by the adults (teachers, parents, therapists) of the relationship between arousal states, attention, learning and behavior in a child’s life is an important component of AP. The program seeks to help students recognize the self-regulation strategies they use in different tasks and settings.

The end goal is independent self-regulation for the students, and understanding by the adults that “behavior reflects both the current level of organization of the student’s nervous system and the student’s best attempt to respond adaptively and efficiently to the demands of a situation or task.”

To facilitate self-regulation awareness, Williams and Shellenberger use a simple analogy: “If your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on low, sometimes on high, and sometimes on just right.” They describe a child whose “engine runs on low” as lethargic, having a “droopy” body, the kind of kid who is quiet in class but spends hours doing nothing.

A child who “runs on high” is often labeled hyper or out of control. This is the child who can’t “come down” after recess. They have found AP techniques to be effective with both high-and-low-arousal kids.

Williams and Shellenberger explain that all the little things we adults do to keep ourselves alert tend to be subtle and usually socially acceptable. But kids’ nervous systems are immature and they need to do things in a “bigger” way to get more intensity.

“While we might rock a foot back and forth as we’re speaking-the kids are up walking around,” Williams said. This doesn’t usually go over well with teachers. And adults often tell children to “sit still and listen!” not realizing that they need to move in order to listen.

AP is intended to be used in conjunction with other therapies as deemed appropriate-usually sensory integration therapy is needed. The ideal AP client is a student who is developmentally eight years or older-able to understand the analogy of the engine, without extreme emotional difficulties, and with supportive parents and teachers who are willing to learn the program vocabulary.

Through trial and error, Williams and Shellenberger have refined AP into three stages with a total of 12 sequential steps. They have also learned to use it in group settings. “As therapists we’re not taught how to work with groups,” Shellenberger says, “and in the school setting you really have to.” They are committed to sharing what they’ve learned with others, as they have consistently seen children become more successful on many levels. They now lecture fulltime within the United States and abroad.

They currently have three products available. Their 24 page booklet An Introduction to ‘How Does Your Engine Run?‘ provides the underlying theory and key concepts of sensory integration and self-regulation in an easy-to-understand format. It includes the Sensory-Motor Preference Checklist and is intended for parents and teachers.

Their book, “How Does Your Engine Run? A Leader’s Guide to the Alert Program for Self-Regulation”, contains all the information necessary to start using AP. It includes teaching tips, detailed descriptions of stages, low-budget activity ideas, clinical profiles, as well as worksheets and charts. Their audiotape includes excerpts from the book and booklet read by the authors on one side and songs for self-regulation on the other side.

Products may be ordered by visiting

Portions were excerpted and adapted from OT Week. November 24, 1994.  Reprinted with permission of Therapy Works, Inc.