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  • Writer's pictureA Cognitive Connection

How to teach self-regulation to kids

It is often hard for autistics to self regulate. This article addresses some ways to help with self-regulation.

Behavior that we label as “bad” or challenging is often caused by children not knowing how to handle big emotions like fear, sadness, anger, or frustration. They act instinctively rather than taking the time to think about the situation and how to react appropriately. Some children are innately better at self-regulation than others, but there are also steps we can take to teach self-regulation to our kids.

As a parent or teacher, one of the most important things you can do to promote self-regulation is to stay calm and model the behavior you’d like to see from your children or students. Now, let’s explore some strategies for teaching this critical life skill.


What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to control and manage one’s behaviors, emotions, and thoughts healthily and productively. Children who develop strong self-regulation skills are better equipped to handle difficult situations with calmness and resilience rather than reacting impulsively or with aggression.

In a study of 45 preschoolers, teaching self-regulation skills helped children experience more growth in academic achievement, executive functioning, and emotional knowledge than their peers. Providing opportunities for children to practice self-regulation, such as through reward systems or mindfulness activities, can help foster healthy habits and promote emotional maturity. By teaching self-regulation to kids early on, they can develop essential tools for success in all aspects of their lives.


Why is Self-Regulation Important?

Self-regulation is a crucial component for increasing self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It helps children develop problem-solving skills, as they can calmly analyze the situation before reacting. Self-regulation also teaches kids to take responsibility for their actions and be accountable for their choices.

Fostering these skills can also help children build and maintain better relationships with peers, family members, and teachers. It can also help reduce stress levels in the home or classroom environment as kids learn to manage their emotions positively.


Signs Your Child Struggles with Emotional Regulation

Children who struggle with emotional regulation may have difficulty managing their emotions, often responding to situations impulsively. Signs of this include outbursts of anger, constant defiance and aggression toward others, or frequent meltdowns. Other signs of emotional regulation difficulties can be physical, like restlessness and fidgeting.

Young children will naturally have a harder time regulating emotions, but as they get older, emotional regulation should improve. Parents and teachers need to recognize these signs promptly to support the child’s development.


Tips for Teaching Self-Regulation to Kids

Fostering self-regulation in kids can be a challenge, but here are a few strategies to help you get started:

1. Establish Clear Boundaries

Setting clear expectations is essential for teaching self-regulation to kids. Make sure your child knows what the boundaries are and that there are consequences for not following them. Explain why these boundaries are important, as this will help children better understand why they should follow them.


2. Use Scaffolding.

Emotional regulation is hard for kids! By practicing self-regulation skills in small, low-stakes situations, you’ll equip your kids to make better choices in the future.

If your child struggles with transitions, start with transitioning from an activity they’re not overly invested in. Give them a warning to finish up, such as “Once you finish coloring that tree, we need to put the crayons away,” and offer a reward for successfully transitioning to a new activity. Reward systems can include points they earn toward something special, a snack, a few minutes of screen time, etc. Gradually level up the difficulty as your child becomes more comfortable with self-regulation skills.


3. Help Your Child Reflect.

If you’ve ever tried to reason with your child during a meltdown, you know that they aren’t in a position to think rationally about their choices. But having an honest, reflective conversation once your child calms down can help them understand what went wrong. Ask them to tell you what they felt and review tools and appropriate alternative behaviors, such as walking away from the situation or taking a few deep breaths. Keep this conversation as calm and non-judgmental as possible.


4. Practice Self-Regulation

Modeling self-regulation is one of the best ways to teach it to kids. Show your child how you manage your emotions in difficult situations and explain why they should stay calm and think before reacting.

You can talk them through your feelings and explain the tools you’re using to cope, such as, “Mommy’s feeling frustrated right now, so I’m going to take a few deep breaths before we talk about this.” This will help them understand the value of self-regulation and give them an example of how to handle their own emotions.


5. Teach Self-Regulation Through Games and Play.

Play-acting can be a great way to practice self-regulation in various scenarios. However, your games don’t have to be specifically focused on self-regulation to teach emotional intelligence. Even card or board games teach a variety of important skills, including taking turns, following rules, and responding well when things don’t go our way.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed (or you’ve tried these strategies before, and they’re not working), reach out to A Cognitive Connection.


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