When parents and self-regulation meet early childhood settings

In this blog post, QUT School of Early childhood researcher, Kate Williams talks about parenting and its influence on children’s self-regulation, and ways in which early childhood professionals can best engage parents around this topic.

Self-regulation is the ways in which we all regulate our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviour so that we can be acceptable members of society and have some degree of success and wellbeing. These skills develop rapidly across early childhood and set children up for learning and life success.

At birth we are all other-regulated. Parents must soothe us, feed us, help us transition to sleep, dress us, and swaddle when needed. We must then experience co-regulation  – the sensitive available adult teaching, coaching, soothing, talking, hearing, and being with children before withdrawing little by little over time as children develop the skills for full self-regulation.

Parents and early educators have key roles in this developmental path and do not need to be perfect but ‘good enough’ for the child they have.

Child temperament and ‘good enough’ parenting

Some children seem to be born ‘easy’. I tongue-in-cheek joke that you could pretty much give these children to a mother chimpanzee to raise and love, perhaps read them a few books every now and then… but essentially they will do just fine in any stable circumstances. Good enough parenting or educating this kind of child is largely a pretty cruisy affair. And for that reason they can sometimes get ‘lost’ in early childhood settings and left to their own devices, which can be a shame.

Then there are children who are born highly reactive, sensitive, a bit tetchy, a bit high maintenance. Parenting and educating these children is a 110% effort, all of the time, physical and mental challenge, push you to your limits, tough mudder, iron woman / man kind of affair. But like anything that you have to work hard for, the rewards are huge and exponential when all of the work begins to pay off.

So we have these two extreme types of early temperament in children – and hundreds in between – but we also have different types of parents in combination with these children. If one of those tricky infants meets a parent who is low on social support, perhaps vulnerable to depression, than this fussy infant might eventually get some pretty negative responses from this parent over time. These babies can be difficult-to-soothe, frustrating, and awkward to interact with. This baby will not get as many opportunities for positive regulation through co-regulation and may miss out on practice of the skills required for self-soothing over time. In fact in parents vulnerable to depression, these infants can make the mental health of their parents worse.

On the other hand, if this tricky infant is lucky enough to land with parents who are able to persist in co-regulation attempts, and provide the baby with lots of positive feedback, then the baby is more likely to begin to build up its self-regulation skills it can use to dampen down its own reactivity over time. These children might even start to look like those easy children on the outside, but those who know them well will understand they are still sensitive souls on the inside.

Being a positive, sensitive, persistent, and consistent parent or carer for children like this is hard yakka even for well supported and calm parents. And I would say that no one can do it well all day every day. So I would advocate for much empathy and support for all parents who report finding their child particularly tricky at times.

Self-regulation at home and in early childhood settings

How children exhibit self-regulation skills will be different in the settings that early childhood professionals see them in, compared to at home with their parents. This is because the home and childcare or kindy are two very different contexts that demand different things from the self-regulatory systems of children.

Generally speaking, at home there is less demand for children’s self-regulation. They are part of a smaller group there where co-regulation with adults is usually more available, just because the adult to child ratio is more favourable. Children can often set their own play agendas at home and parents can be sensitive to their likes and dislikes and sensitivities, thus not pushing the boat out too far in terms of self-regulatory demands.

In childcare or kindy, children need to function as part of a group, they usually have to fit into a routine that may not be their own, the adult to child ratio is different, and there are probably less opportunities for co-regulation and much higher demand for independent self-regulation from children.

And this leads me to a story about different parenting styles and how they can also mean that parent and educators see very different sides to children’s self-regulation skills. Last year at a kindy at a parent teacher evening earlyish in the year, one of the mums complained that her son had never been naughty or in any trouble at all until he had come to kindy. Kindy had taught him to be naughty; it must have been the other children there! He had not been to any other early childhood settings in terms of care or anything.

This mother also happened to have a highly permissive parenting style. The boy was allowed to do what he wanted, when he wanted, his demands were always met… pronto…. And thus he was never required to self-regulate at home. He rarely experienced disappointment, frustration, was never required to complete a task, do something he didn’t want to do etc. Parents like this might also present a preferred activity like an iPad or ice-cream at the first signs of the slightest upset. They might continue to pat or stay with their child until they are asleep right through early childhood and beyond. There are all sorts of ways in which children in this situation can miss out on opportunities to practice the shift from other-regulated to co-regulated to self-regulated.

Of course at kindy, the demands for self-regulation are quite high compared to this boy’s home life and this resulted in his behaviour being at odds with what the teacher needed, and his lack of self-regulation skills being really highlighted in that context. But totally bewildering to the mother who had never had any feedback from educators or carers about her child’s behaviour being a problem before. This certainly caused some tension between the kindy teacher and this mother over the course of the year…. And now some ideas on approaching issues like these.

Tips for engaging with parents around self-regulation

  • Get the self-regulation language in higher rotation and make it part of your regular work, curriculums, pedagogies, the way you write and speak, a focus of learning stories. Replacing discussion about ‘behaviour’ with one about ‘developing self-regulation’ will take the emotion and confrontational element out of these chats with parents. You are simply talking about yet another skill area that all children are working through at different rates across early childhood. Learning stories could document how children paid attention, used problem-solving in a social situation, used a particular strategy to calm themselves when upset. Even with very young children, you can talk about the co-regulation strategies that you and the children use in times of upset.
  • Maintain age and developmentally appropriate expectations – It is not age appropriate to have toddlers sitting still for long periods of time, and when they can’t they aren’t dysregulated… they are just two years old.
  • Remember that nothing can bridge other-regulated to self-regulation except for co-regulation. Infants and some toddlers will need physical help to be soothed, put to sleep etc. You could ask parents how they handle it if their child is upset or stressed at home, and this might give you an idea of what level of co-regulation is happening in the home. If you suspect children aren’t getting co-regulation experiences at home you might need to offer more of this in the centre. You could also document these strategies, particularly if they worked, and discuss them with parents who might get ideas for home. It might be that you are still co-regulating much older children if they haven’t had these experiences before.
  • Also if children are hungry, tired, stressed, or traumatised, lower or erase your expectations for self-regulation. Their system is caught up with other issues and until and unless you can address those things that are taxing their system, it will be very difficult to coach self-regulation.
  • Be clear and specific around why these skills are important (there are expectations for self-regulation at school) and discuss how your whole group is working together on improving attention, or calming etc – this will take the personal out of it.
  • Be mindful that children you find ‘easy’ might be quite ‘tricky’ at home with parents (these children are using all of their self-regulation capacity with you) and vice versa. Be empathetic to parent stories of a rough morning and avoid ‘oh gosh, that doesn’t sound like Beth, she’s an angel here’ – because this implies parents are the problem.

And finally, remember to care for yourselves and each other as early childhood professionals, and as parents. This is difficult work, but so worthwhile. Children will come to your care in various stages of other-regulated, co-regulated or self-regulated. You are in an important position to assess where they are at developmentally and work with them from there. As well as to try and engage with parents and bring them along with the ride too. The little and big successes you have along the way will have huge and long-lasting ramifications for the life stories of the children you work with.

Kate Williams

Kate Williams is an Associate Professor and Leader of the Centre for Child and Family Studies at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research program works at the interface of health and education to address inequalities that first arise in early childhood, often due to early adversity. Her primary research focuses on children’s development of self-regulation, the parenting, educational, and intervention contexts that support such, and associated longitudinal outcomes. Kate is also an interventionist, having designed and tested several early childhood and parenting interventions and professional learning programs for early childhood teachers and educators.

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