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5 Steps to Self-Regulation in Children

I stride up the walkway and take my time as I enter the old building that has housed so many- so many minds, so many stories, so many life-changing moments. My heart is beating fast as I hope that I can take part in that history and convey important information to young minds in my hometown community.

I recently had the honor of spending the day with second and third graders, attempting to teach them mindfulness, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques, as part of an overall wellness day at school. My goal, as it usually is when I am blessed to engage in such events, is to make a difference in at least one child’s life. If I impart this wisdom onto one soul, I will have changed a life.

It’s no secret that kids can be a lot sometimes, especially when they are experiencing emotions that they have not yet been taught how to appropriately regulate. Teaching these skills can be an exceptionally difficult endeavor, especially when most adults struggle with it! So, let’s do our best by trying to teach the children in our lives the following skills in hopes of creating a more regulated, healthy tomorrow and maybe even learn a few tips for ourselves!

The first step in this process is identifying what self-regulation is because, we can’t teach something effectively to someone else if we don’t know ourselves. It is the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in relation to the demands of any given situation. This includes resisting the gut instinct to react in highly emotional tendencies to upsetting stimuli (things, events, people, etc.), to instead calm yourself, adjust to the change in expectations, and handle the situation appropriately.

Wow, that feels like a lot, so I’ll give an example. Five-year-old, Suzie, wants to wear her buffalo plaid pants with a bright purple and pink stripped shirt, and yellow rain boots to your cousin’s wedding at a beautiful resort. Naturally, you ask her to pick a different outfit. Suzie becomes upset because she likes her current outfit just fine and begins to throw a tantrum by yelling, crying, and stomping her feet.

Now, it is of course okay for Suzie to express her emotions; however, there are healthier and more appropriate ways she can communicate her feelings of upset and sad and still be able to achieve her goals in the situation.

The next step that needs to occur in the progression of teaching and learning appropriate self-regulation is for the adult to change their attitude regarding “behavioral issues”. Now I put those two words in quotes because, the majority of the time, unwanted behaviors are an ineffective response to a stimulus. Suzie isn’t screaming and stomping her feet because she knows it will increase your emotional thermometer; she’s just upset and responding thusly. If caregivers were to approach teaching self-regulation skills in a similar manner to teaching other skills it would change the tone and content of the response to the child.

Think of this: How would you react to Suzie learning how to ride her bike and falling off? You likely wouldn’t become frustrated and punish her, right? So why would we do that for teaching emotional and mental skills?

Once you have changed your attitude regarding unwanted behaviors and see them more as reactions to stimuli, you have transitioned into a more effective state to teach the child about delayed gratification. You don’t necessarily have to use the words “delayed gratification” to teach the skill, but you might be able to, depending on the age of the child. This is essentially the ability to suppress an impulse.

I encourage you to watch the following short video to learn more about the topic and get a good laugh:

You can teach this skill by creating an environment where self-control is constantly and consistently rewarded. Positive outcomes do not always have to be large or extravagant gifts but can sometimes merely be positive words and physical love. You can also model self-control behaviors and verbalize your thought process any time. For example, “I really want that cookie right now, but I am going to wait until after dinner”. Or “I really want those new shoes, but I don’t need them. So, I’m going to wait to buy them”.

Another skill in learning delayed gratification and healthy self-regulation is using distractions. Let the imagination run wild with this skill; kids can be exceptionally creative! Some typical examples can include counting backwards, getting the body moving with a dance party or other exercise, drawing pictures, taking deep breaths, or playing the color game: name something you can see that is each color of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple. Play board games with your children to remind them of the end goal of winning the game, which teaches patience and understanding.

Now that the child has the ability to more effectively delay their impulses, we are able to move onto the next step of regulating the emotion instead of merely pausing and deflecting it. In any given situation where the skill is attempting to be used, acknowledge that it can be difficult to do, acknowledge the desire, and then offer an alternative or a strategy. For Suzie’s instance, “I know waiting is hard and that you would really love to wear that outfit, but my cousin’s wedding isn’t the best occasion for it. Let’s pick another outfit from these two options, and when we get back home you can put that other outfit back on. Maybe we can even take pictures of it to send to those family members that you wanted to show it to”.

Of course, teaching these skills will take time, effort, and patience on both parties, just like teaching and learning any other skill. But consistency and follow through are exceptionally important! So, even when it becomes difficult and frustrating, use that time to practice your own impulse control. Remind yourself that the work you and the child put in today will grow into future accomplishments and opportunities.

At the end of my day with those second and third graders, I was honestly feeling mentally exhausted and hopeful that I had reached my original goal of helping at least one child. But I was not confident that I would ever know for sure, as I was merely the one to plant the seed. It is someone else’s blessing to see the growth and the flower bloom.

Later that evening though, I had the extreme excitement and relief of seeing a parent of one of the children I met with that day, say that their child felt my session was their favorite. It may seem like a small win, but I now know that I reached at least one child on a deeper level. I am hopeful they will be able to use those skills to self-regulate their emotions in a healthy manner even in the most difficult of situations.

Please let me know down below in the comments section if you have tried any of these skills yourself or with your children! Did they work? Did they not work so well? How could the situation have gone differently? Check us out on social media on Facebook and Instagram and take a look at previous blog posts on the website. Thank you for reading and have a great day!

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