If a child’s behavior is the visible part of the iceberg, self regulation is the 90 percent that is below the surface. On a basic level, it includes emotional literacy, calibration (responding in proportion), and self control, both with respect to inhibiting impulses and directing attention.
As children develop, they also begin to incorporate skills from the other core social domains into their self regulation repertoire. What do I mean by that? They adjust their responses to stressors based on a clearer understanding of others’ perspectives, decentering from their own point of view and thinking as part of a group, and shifting their focus to reframe a situation in terms of the big picture instead of focusing on one detail that is bothering them.
The overlap and integration of all these sophisticated skills make self regulation a complex process, so there’s no one right way to teach it, no linear A-B-C method that always works. But here are a few principles I’ve developed over the years to help parents and teachers to support children and teens in learning new self regulation skills without getting lost and overwhelmed.
- Pick one thing. Some children will present with several areas of need. It’s wise to choose one skill to work on at time. You might feel neglectful putting a known concern on the back burner. But if doing so allows you to focus on making real progress in a specific area, it’s a good investment. Picking one thing will protect your relationship with your child, maintain their positive self regard, and bolster your sense of self-efficacy. Then you can move on to the next goal.This is easier said than done. Sometimes, helping parents focus on supporting their child in just one specific area of self regulation is 80 percent of what we work on for a few weeks.
- Pick a good time. If you’re training a dog, it’s best to provide a correction or reward immediately. If you’re working with a tender, impressionable, struggling human child on self regulation, it’s better to wait for the most teachable moment. Often, we must contain or direct behavior in the moment. But to help scaffold and support the growth of independent self regulation, you usually need a calm child and a few moments without competing demands and distractions.
- Get in front of the problem. If your child is struggling with some area of self regulation, they will learn best if they are set up for success just before the triggering situation arises. We can’t get in front of everything, but when we recognize a problematic pattern, we can make a plan with the child’s input and then remind them about it right before the end of the playdate, or first thing in the morning, or as we drop them off at school.
- Draw more, talk less. Even talkative kids with big vocabularies benefit from having good visuals paired with language-based support in self regulation. Why? Because language is a more abstract medium than visuals, and the self regulation concepts we are sharing are also inherently abstract. But for children who struggle with language, listening, and self regulation, a purely language-based approach is almost a waste of time.Our signal that we need to draw or write more and talk less is when we find ourselves thinking or grumbling, “I’ve told them a hundred times!” That’s our sign that we need to slow down and “break it down until we hit concrete” by incorporating drawings, posters, photos, videos, hand signals, and more. Parents worry that kids won’t tolerate them making stick figure drawings, but I have consistently found that if we start drawing in front of them without talking about it or demanding that they participate, they get nosy and want to fix my work, which I welcome.
These are just a few of my own core practices in approaching self regulation. I also highly recommend reading The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene, Helping Your Anxious Child, by Ronald Rapee, and Self-Reg, by Stuart Shanker.