Lessons on Co-Regulation
By: Nicole Beurkens, M.Ed.
As I observed my son’s piano lesson recently the concept of co-regulation came to mind. He had practiced a song by himself for a week, and after he played it for his teacher she suggested they play the duet together. She joined him at the piano and they played the song together – my son doing the part he had practiced and his teacher doing the more difficult part. The thing about a duet is that both people play different notes, but they have to play in a synchronized way with each other. If one person plays their part without any regard for what the other person is doing it is very unlikely that the song will sound like it’s supposed to. In fact, it will probably end up sounding like two people playing two totally different songs at the same time.
The essence of playing a duet is co-regulation – each person has a role to play and there must be continuous awareness of what the other is doing. They must check with each other for readiness to start and to stop. Each must constantly monitor their tempo / pace in relation to the other. Each must continuously check their volume in relation to the other. If one person fails to do their part and takes off on their own, one of two things happens. Either the other person constantly adjusts their actions to stay coordinated or the entire thing falls apart.
I noticed these concepts in action with my son and his teacher today. He is only 7-years old and has been taking lessons for about 7 months, so he is not very good yet at monitoring lots of things at once when playing. His teacher recognizes this so she makes sure to regulate her playing around what he is doing. If he loses his place for a moment she pauses her playing to wait for him to get back on track. If he starts playing faster she speeds up to match his pace. She knows that with practice he will get better at knowing how to do his part and also monitoring what she is doing so they can each share the responsibility of staying in synch with each other. Sometimes she doesn’t change her pace and lets him finish well before her – and he learns that people can get out of synch and that he needs to change something when that happens. He will continue to become competent at taking more shared responsibility for maintaining the co-regulation of duets by practicing with her and making these discoveries. She will continue to let him experience success for the most part, but just enough difficulty to allow him to learn something.
This is the same process we use to help our children learn about co-regulation within any activity. This is a critical concept for remediation and we need to be working on it in everything we do with our kids on the autism spectrum. They need to learn about co-regulation; not just you and I both doing something in the same place at the same time, but true co-regulation where we both have a shared responsibility to make things work. As parents we need to balance carefully between modifying our own actions enough that we can experience success together, but not so much that the child has no recognition of the importance of continuous monitoring of us in relation to what they are doing. The next time you are doing something with your child think about the piano duet. How much are you both doing to contribute to the success of your activity? If you stopped modifying your actions in response to what s/he is doing would the whole thing fall apart? What kind of discovery can you help your child make about his/her own actions in relation to yours? Thinking about these things will make a dramatic difference in your child’s ability to function both independently and in relationship with others!