Supporting Development of Self-Regulation Skills in Young Children
Self-regulation refers to children’s abilities to control their own behavior.
- Controlling physical, verbal, and mental impulses
- Setting goals and monitoring progress toward these goals
- Focusing attention on particular and appropriate tasks
This is demonstrated in their ability to control how they express their emotions and comply with requests, and in being attentive and persistent on tasks. Self-regulation develops as children gain the language, motor, and cognitive skills needed to control themselves. For most preschoolers, these skills are still relatively immature, and they need support from adults to be able to regulate themselves successfully.
In order to provide children with opportunities to develop self-regulation, adults must use these skills and model effective strategies themselves—to a high degree. The early childhood educational context may well be one of the most demanding settings for adult self-regulation—this is a setting in which interactions can be unpredictable, emotions often run high, and behavior is challenging. After all, it is between the ages of 3 and 7 years that children do the majority of the learning that is associated with their lifelong ability to regulate their own behavior, attention, and emotions.
Pahigiannis, Rosanbalm, and Murray (2019) suggest tips for supporting the development of self-regulation in preschool classroom settings. These six co-regulation tips are important for thinking about the climate and sense of community set by teachers in the classroom to positively promote self-regulation in young
- Start with you. We can all feel stressed at times and teaching young children can be demanding. Practice self-care and stress management for yourself to enhance your own well-being and resilience in the classroom.
- Establish a warm and responsive relationship with each child. Children learn to manage their own emotions and behaviors when they feel a positive connection with their teacher. Develop a warm relationship with every child to create a strong and essential foundation for your co-regulation practices.
- Create calm and structured environments. Preschoolers will experience moments of distress and conflict in any normal day. You can prevent and buffer some of this by creating a classroom environment that is predictable, fair, and positive.
- Respond with warmth and structure during stressful moments and teach children how to solve problems. Children need the most co-regulation support when they are upset and unable to manage their own emotions. Use your positive relationships with the children to give comfort and support practice of calm-down skills and problem-solving.
- Work closely with families to gain keen insight. Self-regulation development is influenced by home and school life. Engage with parents to learn about their efforts at home and to support self-regulation development across settings.
- Create a sense of community and friendship in the classroom. Positive peer relationships and social environments help children do better socially, emotionally, and academically. There are many ways you can encourage these relationships and a sense of community in the classroom.
Teachers can support preschoolers’ developing self-regulation skills by:
- Setting up clear routines and behavior expectations, and reminding students of them frequently.
- Modeling appropriate use of materials.
- Talking to children about their feelings and appropriate ways to express them.
- Helping children talk through a conflict and come up with a solution.
- Letting children know ahead of time when there will be a change in a routine or schedule.
Here are some specific strategies you can use to help children practice self-regulation and remember appropriate behavioral responses.
- Visuals: Make up a poster of rules to remember when starting a conversation (e.g. using a friendly voice, making eye contact, using appropriate greetings, such as ‘hello’)
- Role play: Practice playground/party scenarios where the child does not know anyone. Model and create a list of different things you can say.
– To join others who are playing (e.g., “Can I play too?”)
– To introduce yourself (e.g., “Hi my name is ….”)
– To politely negotiate (e.g., “I don’t want that one. Can I have the blue car please?”)
- Sing songs: Such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It” to help teach a child about different emotions
- Turn taking: Play turn taking games to encourage a child to say whose turn it is in the game (e.g., “My turn.”, “Your turn.”)
- Games: Play board games with the child. Make sure the child is not always the winner so that they learn about losing in a game and are able to cope better when this happens with their peers.
- Watch and comment: Role play different situations and comment about appropriate and inappropriate attempts of communication (e.g., standing too close or too far from another person, not using appropriate eye contact, interrupting a conversation)
With consistent and planned supports, young children can learn to focus their attention on shorter tasks, control impulses, and wait for longer periods. As they are better able to control impulses they can follow rules and accomplish goals. Helping children label and identify their feelings leads them to understand other perspectives and learn empathy. As they are able to express themselves with increased language skills they are better able to self-calm and more independently solve problems. Teachers need to provide consistent rules, routines, and model expectations. Responsive positive interactions with teachers will reinforce and connect children to expected behaviors. Children who regulate their behavior and emotions are viewed more positively by their teachers and their peers. Children who are able to sustain attention to tasks are better able to learn from the materials and activities in their classrooms. Therefore, self-regulation is important both to learning and to successful relationships.
Pahigiannis, K., Rosanbalm, K. and Murray, D. W. (2019). Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Young Children: Tips for Practitioners Working with Preschool Children (3-5 years old) in Classroom Settings. OPRE Brief #2019-29. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
You can find a comprehensive set of resources on CLI Engage to increase understanding of developing and supporting self-regulation. Below are several suggested social and emotional development resources and information on where you can locate each of these resources from the CLI Engage dashboard.
Screening, Progress Monitoring and Observation:
CIRCLE Progress Monitoring observable assessment: Social and Emotional Checklist
Online Learning and Professional Development:
eCIRCLE Professional Development Series: Social and Emotional Learning self-instructional course
Activities and Materials:
PreK/K CIRCLE Activity Collection: To find activities, filter using the learning domain Social, Emotional, and Regulatory Development
Quality Improvement and Innovation:
Classroom Observation Tool: Covers strategies and intentional planning for social and emotional development
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- To further improve the integration between CLI supported early childhood resources, a new section was added to the CLI Engage dashboard that provides direct access to the Texas Early Childhood Professional Development System (TECPDS). The new banner and buttons on the dashboard will only be visible to CLI Engage users who opted in to receive a free Texas Workforce Registry (TWR) account on the TECPDS platform. Teachers and directors who did not opt in originally can still get a free account and take advantage of the direct link between platforms simply by following these instructions.
- A family engagement tool kit was recently released that helps families better understand their child's development while engaging in fun, developmentally appropriate activities that build skills and strengthen family bonds. Included is an administrator’s guide that provides support on planning how to fold CLI resources into district-level family engagement plans. Teachers can use the new checklist to set goals for practicing family engagement strategies.
CLI Engage Website
Texas School Ready Website
Children's Learning Institute Website
Infant, Toddler, and Three-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines
Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines
Texas Early Childhood Professional Development System (TECPDS)