Self-regulation refers to one’s ability to control their emotions, thoughts and behaviors when faced with tough situations. And while some children will naturally be better regulated than others, self-regulation is also a teachable skill that can be reinforced in the learning environment.

Children are faced with challenging situations often. Whether it’s the first day of school or a difficult math problem, experiences like these may cause distress, and children will most likely express their frustration in a number of ways such as crying, withdrawing or fighting with their peers. However, teaching self-regulation can help them avoid these negative behaviors when challenges arise.


Three Key Aspects of Self-Regulation


Most experts agree that learning self-regulation skills is just as important as learning academic skills. Students with self-regulation skills are able to pay attention during activities, ignore distractions, remember instructions long enough to complete a task and resist impulses. And a study conducted by Michigan State University found that children who can self-regulate early on have higher language and learning skills through at least second grade.


To effectively teach self-regulation, it’s important to understand the three main areas that impact students’ ability to manage their emotions and actions:


  • Executive/Cognitive Function - This involves the mental processes that help students plan, focus their attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully. For instance, executive function helps them follow directions and give appropriate responses, like listening during storytime.
  • Emotional Regulation - This helps students manage how they express and experience emotions. For example, students who struggle to manage their frustration may find it hard to concentrate during learning activities.
  • Behavioral Regulation - This helps students demonstrate control over their actions. For instance, behavioral regulation helps students resist the urge to speak out of turn during a group discussion.


5 Tips and Strategies for Promoting Self-Regulation


1. Promote goal-setting


Goal setting is an important part of self-regulation. By focusing on a goal, students learn to direct their behavior towards accomplishing the goal, and not on their feelings or unexpected challenges. The key is for them to set goals that can be attained quickly so they can experience a sense of accomplishment and move on to the next one. A student who struggles with homework, for example, may set a goal to ask his parents for help every night.


2. Serve as an “emotion coach.”


According to an early childhood study, children learn to regulate thoughts, feelings, behaviors and emotion by watching and responding to adults’ self-regulation. In other words, you’re tasked with modeling self-regulation and encouraging your students to follow suit.


3. Scaffold self-regulation


Don’t avoid situations that are difficult for children to handle. Instead, practice self-regulation skills in naturally occurring situations. For example, maybe you have a student who has trouble reading and becomes frustrated when asked to read aloud. Rather than avoiding to call on her, practice with her - within the group or one-on-one - and coach her through her frustration.


4. Provide games to practice self-regulation skills


Research shows that games and fun activities can be effective at promoting self-regulation for young students who are struggling. Simple games like “Red Light, Green Light” and “Simon Says” have been shown to help children control their impulses. What’s more, exercises like yoga and guided meditation can help build self-awareness, which also supports the development of self-regulation skills. And games that help students identify emotion, like this Make a Mood Educational Magnetic Activity, can also boost emotional regulation.


5. Empower students to put their skills to action


The ultimate goal is for students to manage their emotions and actions on their own when stressful situations arise. Reinforce self-regulation strategies constantly, and provide positive feedback to encourage appropriate behavior. Try to avoid “hovering” or providing too much guidance because they’ll learn to rely on external factors to regulate their behavior.


Self-regulation is an important skill that can help students succeed in school and in life. And children with self-regulation skills grow into adults who can effectively manage their emotions, thoughts and actions. Use the information above to teach self-regulation in your program and develop better regulated, less impulsive students.