Self Regulation

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behaviour in relation to the demands of the situation. This means being able to control strong emotional responses to upsetting stimuli, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to be able to adjust to a change in a situation or expectation, and to handle frustration without an outburst. This is an important set of skills that enables children, (and many adults!) as they mature, to manage their own behaviour, to work towards a goal, and to do so despite the unpredictability of the world and their own feelings. In a nutshell it is the ability to control yourself and your emotions by yourself.

What do children need to develop self-regulation?

  • Emotional Development/regulation: This is the ability to perceive emotions, integrate those emotions so that they can control their thoughts, understand their emotions and regulate those emotions.

  • Attention and Concentration: The ability to maintain sustained effort, complete tasks without distraction and being able to keep up the effort long enough to get the task done.

  • Executive Function: The ability to develop higher order reasoning and thinking skills (e.g. what would be the right thing for me to do in this situation?).

  • Receptive Language: Developing comprehension of the spoken language.

  • Social skills: Are determined by the ability to engage in two way interactions with others, both verbally and non-verbally, learning to compromise with others, and be able to recognise and follow social rules.

  • Working memory: The ability to temporarily retain and manipulate information involved in language comprehension, reasoning, and learning new information.

How can you tell if your child has problems with self-regulation?

If a child has difficulties with self-regulation they might:

Have difficulty regulating their own behavioural and emotional responses; increased tantrums, emotional reactive, need for control, impulsive behaviours, easily frustrated or overly compliant.

  • Have tantrums that last for longer than typical or are not appropriate to the situation

  • The number of tantrums or behavioural episodes per day is more than typical

  • They are difficult to discipline and display oppositional behaviours

  • Typical behavioural strategies are ineffective.

  • Is easily distracted, shows poor attention and concentration.

  • Have poor sleep patterns.

  • Have delayed communication and social skills, is hard to engage in two-way interactions.

  • Have difficulty making and sustaining friendships.

  • Seem immature compared to other children of the same age.

  • Has exaggerated changes in mood.

What can be done to improve self-regulation?

  • Try a range of Management strategies: Have a range of management strategies as not all management strategies work with all children. And what worked really well once may not work the next time- so frustrating!

  • Sensory Processing: Sometimes children can be over or under stimulated by their environment- light, sound, smell. It is important to help them with strategies to manage their sensory issues.

  • Social stories: These are visual stories developed to target specific social skills that children may have difficulty understanding. The goal of the story is to increase the child’s understanding by describing in detail a specific situation and suggesting an appropriate social response. Often used for ASD children but are helpful for all children

  • Role playing: Giving children the opportunity to practice possible scenarios is a great way to teach appropriate ways to act and interact. In younger children puppets are an excellent way to teach as children as they well to the issues being discussed via a puppet.

  • Improve language and communication – giving them the vocabulary means they can express their needs better.

What activities can help improve self-regulation?

Sensory diet:

To provide sensory feedback to the body which enables better sensory regulation. These activities might include:

  • Using a trampoline or rebounder

  • Swings (forward and back, side to side, rotary)

  • Rough and tumble play /squishing or sandwiching with pillows or balls.

  • Weighted items (wheat bag on lap while sitting or heavy blanket for sleep).

  • Chewy toys

  • Wheelbarrow walking

  • Animal walks

  • Playdough, bubbles, scented pens, aromatherapy.

Discrete skills:

Activities such as Spot it games, puzzles, construction tasks, mazes, and dot to dots. These help with focus and concentration.

Visual schedules

Visual schedules are valuable in helping a child to see and understand what is going to happen next. Schedules also help people to organise themselves and to plan ahead. When used as a whole class they will support all students not just your target child.


Timers allow us to pre-warn the child when a favoured activity is coming to an end which can prevent a meltdown. These help with transitions as they tell the child how long and when they are going to have to do an activity.

Break cards:

Giving children the opportunity to take themselves to a calm space when they are feeling overwhelmed can stop meltdowns from happening.

If left untreated what can difficulties with self-regulation lead to?

When children have difficulties with self-regulation difficulties, they might also have difficulties with:

  • Making and keeping friends.

  • Anxiety and stress in a variety of situations leading to difficulty reaching their academic potential.

  • Challenges working in small groups/with others for play or group learning tasks.

  • Families of a child experiencing self-regulation difficulties are also under a lot of stress and are likely to be negatively impacted. They can experience an inability to participate in day-to-day activities due to their child’s difficulty coping with change.

Sensory overload and trouble with executive function can make it hard for kids to self-regulate. Self-regulation skills develop gradually, but there are ways to help your child improve (as mentioned above). Working on self-awareness, impulse control and goal-setting can help your child learn to self-regulate. Children who can self-regulate are able to develop autonomy.

Autonomy in relation to early childhood means letting children know that they have control over themselves and the choices that they make. From the activities they participate in, to how they play and interact with peers, autonomy plays a role in everything a child does in the classroom.

Autonomy also affects teenagers as their growing ability allows them to think, feel, make decisions, and act on their own. This is why teenagers often seem oppositional and will argue every point you make! The development of autonomy does not end after the teen years. Throughout adulthood, autonomy continues to develop whenever someone is challenged to act with a new level of self-reliance.

Self Regulation ages and Stages
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Resources to Teach Children how to Calm Themselves:

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9 Calm Down Ideas for Kids Poster
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APPs to support Self-Regulation:


Great books that can help children identify their big emotions and strategies they can use to support their self-regulation.

Picture books to discuss emotions
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