Self-Regulation – What every child needs to learn


The importance of children developing their self-regulation in the early years is a vital tool which allows them to navigate their way through life. This tool enables an individual to have the ability to return to a relaxed and calm emotional state as well as, manage their behaviour, energy and attention after experiencing external interferences such as noise, stress, trauma, lack of sleep, lighting, and food and nutrition.
Children learn through observing the world around them and seek adults who have the ability to be calm, and provide a safe and secure environment. Children need adults who can provide a predictable routine, listen to them and acknowledge their needs and wants. They also carefully watch adults who are able to steer their way through obstacles, observing how they react to these challenges and their ability to acknowledge and label their own emotions.
Children begin to learn to self-regulate from infancy known as other-regulated. During this time, children depend on adults to feed them, soothe them and aid them in falling asleep. As children grow older they then move into the next stage which is co-regulation. During this period, a child spends time with an adult as they teach, talk, listen, coach, sooth the child, before gradually ‘stepping back’ as the child progresses in developing their full self-regulation skills. In order for a child to develop self-regulation, they must participate in co-regulation first. An example of this for most toddler aged children is ensuring that it is developmentally appropriate, such as ensuring they do not sit for long periods of time, rather short periods of time that engage the children in an activity that’s of their interest.

There are several ways that we can support children in successfully developing self-regulation by offering activities such as:

  • Explaining how and why our behaviours affect others

  • Exploring calming strategies using movement such as yoga and slowed breathing exercises (“zipper breathing” and “hissing breathing”)

  • Inviting children to problem solve by encouraging deep breaths to calm themselves. This will begin to enable them to talk about what’s bothering them so you are able to try to solve this problem together by listening to the different perspectives involved. This strategy can be modified to be used with younger children by an adult supporting them through these steps.

  • Encouraging children to use prior knowledge of a similar situation, such as saying ”lets think back to last time this happened, how did you work through this problem?”

  • Ensuring that you congratulate children who ask for help from an adult to work through an issue, where they may have issues may have escalated in the past.
    Sense of agency and control in the environment, able to work in this space with others in order to self-regulate whilst playing in this space, otherwise it won’t work as they need to share the space, planning what you’re going to need in that space, making sure other people have things that they can use
    It is also important to encourage children to continue to persist in the task is difficult or if there are distractions or if they are briefly interrupted e.g. supporting a child through a tricky puzzle and for persisting for a age appropriate time, even if the puzzle was not completed.

  • Having a soft sensory space that children who are feeling overwhelmed can go to if they are feeling distressed, where they can explore a variety of sensory toys such as visual objects and stimulating tactile pieces. These objects allow children to have the opportunity to slow their bodies down gradually. This is a strategy for children to calm themselves, but an adult who has a trusting relationship with the child may cue them when to use the space in order to calm themselves.
    Adults can model self-regulation language through self-talk, such as talking aloud while you solve a problem by trying to think of different perspectives in order to solve the problem. This can also be done by reading stories to children about exploring a characters emotions and how the character reacts to these emotions.

  • Supporting children through pretend play as it enables a child to build the skills to problem solve whilst staying in character throughout their play. Adults can support this skill development by extending their play and aiding their needs e.g. helping children with turn taking, listening to their peers, cooperation skills etc.
    Inviting children to use music and participate in a variety of physical activity as it challenges fitness, continues to develop balance and stimulates coordination