Self-Regulation Skills

The ability to manage emotions, behaviors, and attention is often referred to as self-regulation.  It is a term closely related to executive functions, which is the topic of this month’s CCEI Newsletter. Essentially, self-regulation is the ability to stop and think before responding to a situation. It means taking a breath to calm down before responding to someone’s actions or words. It is noticing when you need to walk away to compose yourself and having the skills to do so. Self-regulation impacts how we set and achieve goals and how we bounce back after experiencing challenges.

There are a number of strategies that can be used to promote the development of self-regulation. First and foremost is modeling. Educators and parents must be able to regulate their own emotional responses so they can model self-regulation to children. Imagine trying to teach a child how to manage strong emotions by expressing strong emotions in from of the child. It is not exactly a recipe for success.

Adults should model for children how to practice deep breathing during stressful situations, how to take a break during times of frustration, how to ask for help when feeling overwhelmed, and how to communicate needs in safe and respectful ways. Children are watching the adults around them for clues on how to respond to different situations, so adults must be on their A-game at all times!

After modeling, adults can help children begin to recognize and label the strong emotions that they experience. Teach children emotional vocabulary words so that they can express themselves effectively. Before children are overwhelmed with emotion, read books and tell stories that contain characters who experience strong emotions.  Talk about how the characters feel, how they react, and different options they could use next time they feel strong emotions.

Have conversations with children about how they feel inside when they are mad or sad. See if children can compare those physical feelings to how they feel when they are happy or excited.  Pointing out these differences helps children become aware of the changes in their bodies that often accompany strong emotions.  You can use color charts to help children identify how they are feeling, with green meaning great, yellow meaning, bothered by something, and red meaning upset.

Mindfulness practices include bringing attention to what is going on inside our bodies and minds in the moment. Children can be taught to check in with themselves to identify how they are feeling.  This can be done on a regular basis to help build this skill as a habit.

Self-regulation develops slowly and children will probably make many mistakes before they master the ability to regulate their emotions and reactions. In all fairness, adults often lose their tempers or become frustrated with situations, too. Everyone benefits when there is an intentional focus on teaching and practicing self-regulation in learning environments.  How will you incorporate some of these ideas into your practice with children?