Nov 152012

I stumbled on the Alert Program® rather unexpectedly and I was intrigued by its name. I wanted to find out more so I emailed to Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger, occupational therapists and co-authors of the program’s books, games, and songs. With plenty of their help, I found out that the Alert Program is unique in that not only does it help children with special needs, or children diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, ADD/HD or autism, but it is a wonderful tool for all children. (And adults, too.) This impressed me because over the years since I’ve started writing this blog, I’ve come into contact with many parents whose children can’t get a SPD or ADHD diagnosis but they still suffer from some or even many of the same symptoms. I’ve been wondering what would be the best way to help these children (and parents).

An interesting thing is that as soon as I describe the purpose of the Alert Program, I know you, and any adult, will automatically “get it.” And the Alert Program was created to make it easy for children, also, to “get it” and understand what they can do to self-regulation (change how alert they feel to be ready to work or play).

Anyway, I hope this doesn’t sound too simplistic because it isn’t. The Alert Program is an evidenced based, step-by-step approach that teaches children to feel and recognize their level of alertness, and how they can balance it appropriately throughout the day in order to accomplish their daily tasks. The Alert Program uses the analogy of an engine in high, low, or just-right gear. Once the child can recognize which gear he’s in, he can learn specific self-regulation activities to properly adjust his energy level (simple sensorimotor activities or “sensory diet” activities that can be incorporated easily into daily routines).

For example, let’s say that when a child wakes up at 6:30 AM he’s sluggish for about 20 minutes or so until he awakes fully. For that time period his engine would be running in low gear. By 7 AM he’s getting dressed and ready for the day (engine is in a just right gear for his morning routine). He fulfills all his tasks successfully until about 11 AM. From 7-11 his engine fluctuates somewhat (while on a long bus ride (and dips into low gear) but by the time he walks into school his engine is ready to learn. At 11 he goes to recess with his class who have been sitting at their desks all morning. He runs wildly around the recess court, playing ball, shouting with his friends. This is the point where his engine is in high gear. When recess is over and he is calming down to get ready to be at his desk again, his engine is adjusting once again (and he knows automatically how to self-regulate and change how alert he feels concentrate on learning). Most children and adults can change how alert they feel and obtain an optimal engine speed to be focused, attentive, and alert for play, school, or work.

Now let’s take a child like my son MeMe who would have trouble waking up in the morning. At 7 AM he is awakened by his siblings and he refuses to get out of bed until 7:30 (with a lot of urging on my part). At 8 AM he isn’t dressed yet because he’s been distracted by about a dozen different things and hasn’t yet found his clothing. He’s in school by the 9 AM bell but has difficulty sitting in his seat and concentrating because he feels it should be playtime by now. He chatters incessantly and rocks back and forth in his chair, disturbing the class. Here his engine is running in high gear at the inappropriate time, while in the morning he was running on low when he was supposed to be moving and getting ready for the day.

Adults can see similar patterns happening inside themselves too. Some of us are “morning people” and are slow to get up and get going (low engine speed). Some of us pop out of bed and have our engines running on high immediately upon waking. Some people work best early in the day while others work best during the nighttime hours and need numerous morning coffees. And many of us experience a 5 PM energy low when the day isn’t yet over and much more is still expected of us for at least another few hours.

In the Alert Program, once a child understands how to recognize the signs of his engine in high, low, and just-right gear, he learns what to do to moderate his engine level. When he finds himself overly hyper or lethargic, he can self-regulate and be able to get himself into the appropriate gear. The Alert Program teaches children, parents, and teachers how to support “engines to run just right” so morning routines, school work, homework, and bedtime routines can be much smoother and easier.

I urge parents to check out the Alert Program and even let your school principal know about it. It has been around since the early 1990’s, is used world-wide and successfully adapted for use from preschool to high school (and adults). Their website ( has an extensive list of research to support its use in home and schools, along with lots of “freebies” (under the Resource tab). The Alert Program has been incorporated in general education curriculum in many schools across the USA and Canada. For example, in a Winnipeg school district, there are 31 elementary schools who have incorporated the Alert Program into their core curriculum with excellent data collected to prove to administrators it works! Imagine the difference we could make in kids’ lives if we would each do our best to get our kids’ schools to do the same!






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