By Tracy Stackhouse and Sarah Scharfenaker

You may recall the line from Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, played by the former senator from Minnesota, Al Franken:

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!

One of the highlights from last year’s participation in Advocacy Day was seeing Senator Franken on the Senate floor. While most of our therapy techniques are sophisticated and learned from professionals, rather than Saturday Night Live cast members, mantras, like positive affirmations, really do have power. In our case, we have found mantras to be useful for both skill development and self-regulation.

So what are mantras? Mantras are short, positive, instructive statements full of action words. We use them to quiet the mind and focus on thinking and action. Of course, there is a spiritual tradition from which mantras are derived. We will leave that explanation to those wiser than us! Ommm …

Mantras and Skill Development

Most of us have had a coach, or instructor, try to assist us in learning a new motor skill. One of the tried and true techniques in skill acquisition is focusing on a particular aspect, or subset, of the skill. Rather than trying to develop the entire skill in one swoop, the teacher emphasizes a discrete part of the skill and then has the student practice to achieve mastery. For example, a beginning downhill skier will learn to shift her skis by using the mantra and visualization of “French fry” (skis together parallel for going down the hill) and “pizza pie”(ski tips together in a wedge shape to slow down). The verbalization and mental imaging drive the motor action, and repetition builds confidence and focus. As mastery and ease with the skill develop, the mantra is allowed to fade out.

Individuals with Fragile X syndrome are prone to self-talk and perseveration so in a significant way, teaching them to use constructive mantras harnesses their natural tendency to narrate their lives. Some examples: A common skill we have to foster in children and adults with FXS is eating normal size bites, chewing and swallowing, and minimizing mouth-stuffing. Mantras can play a role in the rehearsal and reinforcement of the skill you are encouraging. In many cases, we have used the following mantras successfully:

  • Take a bite, take a bite, take a bite … CHEW!
  • Take a bite, take a bite, take a bite … DRINK!
  • Dip a little, dip a little, put it in your mouth! (This is particularly helpful for introducing novel foods.)
  • Feet together … JUMP! (Used to promote a correct motor plan for trampoline jumping.)
  • Thumb to the ceiling with my scissors! (Used to promote a correct motor plan for holding scissors and cutting.)

If you’ve ever listened to the Ms. Marnie TV Teacher videos, you’ll see how she uses short, catchy phrases to reinforce motor planning skills related to drawing and handwriting.

Sometimes we’ll use a favorite phrase, utterance, or silly sentence to prime a child’s rhythm for working on timing and generation of verbal speech.

One boy loved barbecues, and we used the phrase, “I went to a bar-b-cue, and I had some …”

Of course, everyone’s favorite mantra relates to the early developing skill of cleaning up, although Mouse’s 25-year-old is still working to master that, “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere!”

Mantras and Self-Regulation

Mantras are powerful for quieting and focus, and thus lend themselves well to the arena of self-regulation. The common experience of talking yourself through a stressful situation reveals the human tendency to derive comfort from repetitive, focused self-talk. “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this,” you say, as you step from the plane and open your eyes to cast a last glance over your shoulder to make sure your instructor remembered to secure your parachute.

As therapists, we realize the power of focusing on the precise quality that can promote the shift that is desired. Often the phrase that comes to a person naturally may be too negative to be effective. For example, we have a boy we work with who repeats over and over, “Shut up. I hate you … I’m sorry!”

Sometimes letting him vent with this phrase can be helpful, but more often, he becomes stuck in this negative space and attitude. Working with him to shift this to something more positive and empowering such as, “I need some space … that’s better,” allowed him to express the source of his negative affect.

With another young man, being precise about what needed to be regulated was effective. His mantra was, “I am the boss of my hands, I am the boss of my feet.” These were encouraged when he would impulsively run, grab or throw. Some other examples of self-regulatory mantras are when we use a phrase to target “stopping,” a self-regulation capacity that is often difficult for individuals with FXS.

“Stop … take a breath,” and “Stop … think … now do,” or “Think it, say it, do it” are all examples of how we would work on inhibition and impulse control. These are often paired with a gesture since the verbal and nonverbal combination can be very effective. For example, with “Think it, say it, do it,” we pair a pointing gesture to the head, the mouth, then the body, and find that sometimes we can fade the verbal to just the gesture, which teachers can often incorporate in classrooms.

The “Five Finger” approach that we have discussed previously is a gesture and mantra self-regulation cueing system. The individual first grabs the thumb and says, “stop.” They then grab the index finger, saying, “Take a breath.” The final three fingers are paired with, “What’s wrong, what can I do, and now do it!”

Besides pairing mantras with a gesture, we often couple them with a visual to better facilitate learning. For example, a two-sided card with a green, or red circle, on either side, paired with “Ready … not ready” is basic self-regulation support that is visual and “mantra-ized.” We might have a “take a break” card, a stop sign, a breath sign, or an individual-being-the-boss-of-their-hands photograph to pair visuals with mantras.

Finally, as therapists, we are sensitive to varying degrees of cognitive understanding and verbal expression and find we can easily adjust the cues and method of accessing the mantra as needed.

Mantras can play a role in anyone’s learning. Choose your favorite and adopt it! And our thanks to Stuart Smalley for empowering us. As we started our writing process for this article, we adapted one of his favorites that started us off here,

We’re gonna help people! Because we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and, doggone it, people like us!

Tracy Stackhouse

Tracy Murnan Stackhouse, MA, OTR
Tracy Murnan Stackhouse is the co-founder of Developmental FX in Denver. She is a leading pediatric occupational therapist involved in clinical treatment, research, mentoring, and training regarding OT intervention for persons with neurodevelopmental disorders, especially Fragile X syndrome and autism. Tracy teaches nationally and internationally on sensory integration, autism, and Fragile X. Tracy is a member of the National Fragile X Foundation Clinical Research Consortium (FXCRC), the FXCRC Advisory Council, and the Scientific & Clinical Advisory Committee.

Tracy Stackhouse

Sarah K. Scharfenaker, MA, CCC-SLP
Sarah K. Scharfenaker, fondly known as “Mouse,” is the now-retired co-founder of Developmental FX. She has worked in the fields of Fragile X syndrome and neurodevelopmental disorders for more than 25 years. She provided speech pathology services to the Denver Fragile X Treatment and Research Center at The Children’s Hospital in Denver, and accompanied Dr. Randi Hagerman to the UC Davis MIND Institute to initiate its program. She has a master’s in speech pathology from the University of Montana.