Self-regulation involves children’s developing ability to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behaviour to enable them to act in positive ways toward a goal.
Self-regulation grows out of co-regulation, where adults and children work together toward a common purpose, including finding ways to resolve upsets from stress in any domain and return to balance.
The foundations of emotional and cognitive self-regulation in the early years are integrally tied together, and both are necessary for behavioural self-regulation.
A pedagogy which includes co-regulation strategies will help children develop self-regulatory skills.
Developing self-regulation, like many elements of development and learning, is not something children do by themselves. It is a process that grows out of attuned relationships where the caregiver and baby or child are closely attentive to each other and engage in sensitive, responsive exchanges.
There is no single definition of self-regulation, with aspects of it being referred to in many different ways – including impulse control, behavioural control, emotional competence, self-direction, and executive function. While there are other domains such as biological self-regulation (e.g. babies building their ability to regulate body temperature and recognising body sensations such as hunger), it can be most helpful to focus on the interlinked aspects of emotional self-regulation and cognitive self-regulation, and how these work together to enable children to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Self-regulation involves children’s developing ability to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behaviour to enable them to act in positive ways toward a goal. The rapid brain development which takes place in early childhood paves the way for the growth of self-regulation, which develops both through the maturing of the brain’s neural systems and through opportunities to practice. It continually develops through to adulthood, with further development of self-regulation taking place in adolescence. Self-regulation is now recognised as crucially important in young children’s development, strongly predicting children’s later success in relating to others and in their learning, while supporting lifelong mental and physical health.
Self-regulation depends on and grows out of co-regulation, where adults and children work together toward a common purpose, including finding ways to resolve upsets from stress in any domain, and return to balance. Over time and with consistent practice, the process shifts from co-regulation between adult and child to the child’s self-regulation. The flexibility of brain cells and pathways in the early years means that the brain’s architecture is altered in response to the quality and consistency of co-regulation experiences, building the capacity for self-regulation.
In its earliest stages, co-regulation involves a carer helping a baby who is overwhelmed by feelings – perhaps from being hungry, uncomfortable, or unhappy for any reason – to return to a state of calm. Through voice, sensitive handling, and tuning in to respond promptly to a baby’s signals, the adult helps the baby experience returning to balance after being in a state of emotional arousal. Each experience of co-regulation helps to build the neural pathways that regulate emotion.
Cognition interacts with emotions, as the baby learns to recognise and interpret situations which then results in a different emotional response. For instance, a fretful baby who needs attention and can wait when hearing the carer’s voice, rather than wailing in deep distress, has learned from the adult’s prompt responses to their cues that help will be provided and it is possible to wait. Gradually an adult’s soothing a baby toward sleep at bedtime can be transferred to the baby who learns to self-soothe when waking in the night.
For young children, co-regulation also has both emotional and cognitive aspects. It includes the adult modelling calming strategies and naming and talking about feelings and ways to manage. This helps children learn to recognise their feelings and builds their cognitive awareness of strategies to reduce or manage extremes of emotion. At the same time, adults scaffold cognitive self-regulation by talking with children about thinking and learning.
The foundations of emotional and cognitive self-regulation in the early years are integrally tied together, and both are necessary for behavioural self-regulation. Emotions running very high get in the way of cognitive aspects of self-regulation, as a child who is experiencing very strong emotions will have difficulty in holding back impulses, focusing attention, or thinking in flexible ways to solve problems. Over-arousal of the emotional part of the brain constrains the thinking part, so a child who is very upset will first need help through emotional co-regulation before they can begin to think about the situation.
Cognitive self-regulation includes focusing attention, executive function (usually defined as including mental flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory), goal-setting, self-monitoring, problem-solving, taking different perspectives (such as being aware of others’ thinking and picturing the future), and decision-making. When feelings are in balance, a child is able to use developing cognitive skills to make decisions about their goals and what behaviour is needed, such as choosing to apply the executive function of resisting impulses or concentrating. At the same time, children can begin to use cognitive self-regulation to support emotional self-regulation, by monitoring their emotional state and deciding on strategies to calm themselves if necessary. A child managing their behaviour, then, depends on emotional and cognitive self-regulation working together with both aspects in balance.
Self-regulation is not the same thing as compliance, such as sitting still and listening when expected to. A child who is stressed and struggling to resist the impulse to move or speak is very different from a child who is calm and alert, in a balanced state of feeling, thinking, and behaviour. Children can fluctuate in their capacity to self-regulate just as adults can. It is not a fixed state. However, noticeably large regressions may indicate high levels of distress or be in response to a traumatic experience.
A pedagogy which includes co-regulation strategies will help children develop self-regulatory skills. Researchers have identified three basic strategies for co-regulation:
- Positive Relationships – Provide a warm, responsive relationship where children feel respected, comforted and supported in times of stress, and confident that they are cared for at all times.
- Enabling Environments – Create an environment that makes self-regulation manageable, structured in a predictable way that is physically and emotionally safe for children to explore and take risks without unnecessary stressors.
- Learning and Development – Teach self-regulation skills through modelling, suggesting strategies, providing frequent opportunities to practice, and scaffolding to support children to use self-regulation skills.
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