For many or perhaps most children, learning to self-regulate is an automatic process they go through as they get older.
However, it can sometimes be a problem area.
What are self-regulating strategies for young children?
Certain behavioural challenges are perfectly normal in toddlers, pre-school and even primary school children.
Some of these are instinctive at an animal level. They might include temper tantrums when the child can’t get its own way, lashing out in anger at other children at times, fighting over toys, sulking and so on.
As children age, most tend to develop what are called“self-regulating strategies” for learning how to understand and control their own emotions. Some of this learning seems to happen spontaneously or is influenced by play and social interactions with other children. Some learning takes place through direct help from parents and care providers.
The rate of this progress varies hugely by each child. The earlier teenage years and the onset of puberty with its hormone floods, can in some cases lead to children regressing in such areas, perhaps developing again some negative behaviours that parents might not have seen since their child was perhaps 4 or 5!
How parents and day-care centres can help
For the vast majority of younger children, the need for intervention is very minor. Also, in what follows we’re discussing toddler and pre-school children only. The approaches for school-age kids and teenagers may need to be very different.
Our top tips for 12 self-regulating strategies for young children include:
- encourage your child to explain how they felt when behaving in a way that needs to be self-regulated;
- ask them to try and imagine how they would have felt if they had been on the receiving end of their own behaviour;
- use the point above to explain to them why their behaviour needs to be controlled – both for their sake and the sake of others;
- make sure your child doesn’t get any ‘benefit’ out of uncontrolled behaviour through increased parental attention – that simply gives mixed messages. They should get plenty of your time normally and not only when an issue has arisen;
- give plenty of praise in situations where they have clearly managed their negative emotions, such as waiting patiently in a queue or simply taking their turn when sharing something with other children;
- experiment with calming-down strategies. This can be easier with toddlers than slightly older children and your specific techniques can only be developed based upon understanding your own child. Use calming-down as a first step before trying to reason with the child;
- think ahead and prepare your child for problematic situations. A good example might be if you have to go somewhere that’s likely to be boring for them. Explain in advance and ask for their help;
- moderate your own behaviours and role model types that you might be providing. For example, if you have a temper you struggle to control then your child might find it difficult to understand why they shouldn’t get wildly angry but it’s OK for you to do so;
- talk to your child about what we normally regard as the ‘negative emotions’ – well in advance of any specific issues. Tell them how they can sense these emotions are coming on and what they can do to avoid them – such as walking away if another child is becoming aggressive or behaving badly;
- be cautious about what they’re watching on TV and other media. Even outside of adult hours, it is disturbing how positively many negative emotions are portrayed. Expressions and their underlying values such as “it’s payback time”, “we’ll get revenge”, “he’s a wimp and won’t fight”and “stand your ground and hurt them” are appallingly commonplace even in children’s programmes. These values are exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to teach them through self-regulating strategies;
- praise the apparent model behaviours of another child in front of your own. Of course, the other child’s reality may be different behind the scenes but your child will be looking for similar praise and learn from the other child’s good behaviours;
- just encourage your child to talk to you as often as possible. Many behavioural issues are really no more than pleas for attention.
More serious problems with children’s self-regulating strategies
As said at the outset, these are moderately rare but not unknown.
It might be advisable to contact a professional for help if, in spite of your own bestpractices, your child is:
- suffering from temper tantrums that are becoming more frequent and/or more intense;
- seemingly intent on regularly trying to do physical harm to other children;
- demonstrating an increasing tendency to engage in fighting;
- becoming withdrawn and uncommunicative (ignoring the occasional sulk);
- apparently depressed – sometimes manifest as constantly crying for no obvious reason, is always sad or unhappy etc.