Teaching young children self-regulation

Self-regulation is an important skill for young children to learn and practice. Being able to express and manage emotions is one of the predictors of later academic success.

Self-regulation for young children means that they are able to manage their own emotions and empathize with others around them. It is an important life skill that young children need to learn and practice on a daily basis. According to Michigan State University Extension, self-regulation is one predictor of academic success later in life.

Self-regulation isn’t hard to identify in young children and is even easier to identify if a young child is not able to self-regulate. When a child has a hard time self-regulating you will see behavior such as becoming overwhelmed and out of control; shoving, grabbing or pushing another child away from a toy they want. They may also become confused or oblivious to other children’s emotions when they are upset. When a child is able to self-regulate they can identify their own feelings and others’ feelings, they know that feelings change over time, and they can separate their feelings from their actions.

In the second edition of her book, Beyond Behavior Management The Six Life Skills Children Need, Jenna Blimes identifies strategies that can be used to help children learn and practice the skill of self-regulation.

  • Respond to children’s emotions: Listen to what the child is saying. Are they expressing an emotion such as frustration, fear, hurt, joy, etc., or are they looking for information; did they ask a who, what, where, when or why question?
  • Name and validate feelings: Avoid judgment about how a child is feeling. Name and validate all a child’s emotions because learning how to manage all types of feelings will help them as they grow up.
  • Emotional vocabulary: Use a varied and wide emotional vocabulary. Try to include words that are outside of the typical “happy,” “sad” or “angry,” but that express a wide variety of emotions such as “confused,” “generous,” “impatient” and many others.
  • Help children understand that feelings are responses: Children need to know what triggers feelings. Teaching them about cause and effect can help children understand that feelings are a reaction.
  • Help children notice that feelings change: Feelings are not permanent and they can change over time. Help children understand that they can manage their emotions by pointing out when emotions change in a child.
  • Change children’s destructive self-talk: how a child talks about themself is what builds their views of themselves and reality. Try to help the child recognize and name the underlying feelings that they have.

Self-regulation is a very important foundation on which many other skills are built. It is important that adults focus on helping young children express and manage their emotions so that they can effectively develop self-regulation skills. For more resources about teaching self-regulation in early childhood, check out the second edition of Jenna Blime’s book Beyond Behavior Management The Six Life Skills Children Need.  For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, visit the MSU Extension website.

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