What every child needs for learning self-regulation

This article first appeared on KidsMatter Early Childhood’s Shared Thinking blog on 30 June 2014. It was first shared on The Spoke in 2018 and was updated in July 2020. 

What self-regulation is … and isn’t

Self-regulation is not simply self-control. It is the ability to manage our energy states, emotions, behaviour and attention: the ability to return to a balanced, calm and constant state of being.

Lack of sleep, too much noise, flashing lights, an argument, certain foods, stress and traumatic events can all throw us off balance. Our energy depletes and managing our feelings, behaviour and attention becomes more difficult.

Self-regulation is vital for children to manage life’s normal ups-and-downs: for concentration, social relationships and learning. It is a major task for a young child to regulate their feelings and behaviour.

Learning to self-regulate begins at birth

For babies, the world is an endless series of new experiences of movement, lights, sounds, tastes and textures. Babies are learning to self-regulate and need co-regulation from a safe attentive adult. Babies will regulate to a calm tone of voice, holding, rocking and gentle touch as well as predictable routines and rituals with familiar adults. Eventually, they use the memory of comfort, created by calm regulating adult contact, to self-soothe or regulate themselves.

Key factors assisting children to develop their capacity to self-regulate

  • being with calm adults who provide safety and security
  • having predictable routines and clear boundaries
  • being listened to and acknowledged
  • watching the adults in their life manage their own feelings and behaviour
  • knowing the names of feelings and being able to identify their feelings by name
  • having adult support when they are upset, tired or angry
  • having lots of unstructured time to play and learn at their own pace

When self-regulation difficulties occur

Difficulties with self-regulation can arise when there is a lack of adult attachment figures, sensitivities in the child’s body, stress or trauma. These difficulties can look like tantrums, fighting with peers, not following adult direction, worry, anxiety, withdrawing from social situations and turning away from parents, carers or educators.

The Behaviour Emotions Thoughts Learning and Social Relationships (BETLS) observation tool can help you to recognise specific behaviours, and impacts to daily functioning, in children and young people which may indicate the need for further assistance, with developmentally specific versions for the early years, primary school years and adolescence.

What children need

We can support children finding the task of self-regulation too difficult by:

  • showing empathy and care
  • being close by until strong emotions pass
  • teaching children calming strategies
  • increasing ‘feel good’ hormones through exercise, healthy diet and plenty of rest
  • creating environments that support children’s developing capacity to self-regulate.

Visit Be You for more information about self-regulation.

Register your early learning service today at: https://beyou.edu.au/account/learning-community/apply. 

Be You provides educators with knowledge, resources and strategies for helping children and young people achieve their best possible mental health. This article was first published on KidsMatter (now known as Be You) Early Childhood’s blog in 2014.

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Be You

Early Childhood Australia’s Be You team is a highly qualified and experienced multidisciplinary team of professionals committed to promoting and supporting positive mental health and wellbeing in the early years. Together, with Be You partners, Beyond Blue and headspace, the ECA team support educators in implementing the Be You Professional Learning and continuous improvement processes across early learning services and schools.

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