Self-Regulation in Children

Photo Credit: Free stock from Stock Snap user Afrah

Photo Credit: Free stock from Stock Snap user Afrah

The Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative (CSRI) was launched in the fall of 2012.  The goal of this initiative is to embed practices designed to enhance self-regulation in the classroom.

The initiative starts from the question, “Why self-regulation?”  The answer they propose is because we are dealing with more energy-draining stressors than ever before:

  • “Affluenza”
  • Cyber
  • Current or intergenerational trauma
  • Family economic pressures
  • Fear of failure
  • Global issues
  • Healthy/unhealthy routines around nutrition and sleep
  • Media frenzy
  • Social belonging
  • Urgency to succeed

The outcome is that kids who are overwhelmed are less able to choose.  The goal of self-regulation is to increase children’s capacity to:

  • Meet life’s challenges, responding to life’s stressors, returning to a calm and alert state, ready to deal with new circumstances
  • Rise to life’s potential, supported by optimal conditions for learning, mental health and wellbeing, social engagement, and thriving.

Self-regulation looks to integration of four essential dimensions:

  • Cultural: healthy cultural values, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions; social capital; political will
  • Physical and Behavioural: healthy body, healthy actions
  • Psychological and Spiritual: healthy mind, healthy spirit
  • Social and Ecological: healthy environment, economy, social systems, institutions, policies, services

The initiative has recognized that most approaches to self-regulation are focused on the individual.  They state, “While this is important, it’s not sufficient.  Our efforts become more effective and more sustainable when we recognize the collective factors that influence self-regulation:  the systems and structures in which we work and learn, for example, and the culture of our organizations and communities.”  They are working towards the premise that “by working together to foster self-regulation in kids, and the adults that support them, we can change lives and build healthier, more sustainable communities”.

For more information about the initiative, as well as useful tips and practices for parents and educators, go to

Dr Stuart Shankar of York University has produced an information sheet for the initiative, entitled Calm, Alert and Happy, looking at the physiological and psychological impact of self-regulation on the child.

Drawing on research showing that self-regulation lays a foundation for a child’s long-term physical, psychological, behavioural and educational well-being, the information sheet provides a definition for the term “self-regulation” and looks at what sorts of things parents, caregivers and early childhood educators can do to enhance a child’s ability to self-regulate.

Dr. Shanker begins by pointing out that self-regulation differs from the commonly used term “self-control” and is not to be confused with compliance.  He says, “A child might behave the way we want because he is afraid of being punished, or solely in order to obtain some coveted award; but this is not at all the same thing as the child who actually wants to behave this way, where the consequences of such an attitude for healthy development are profound.  Self-regulation has nothing to do with being strong or weak, and to punish a child for a ‘lack of self-discipline’ when his problem has to do with an over-stretched nervous system risks exacerbating the self-regulatory problems that the child is dealing with.”

Dr Shanker provides a definition of self-regulation based on research findings:

In simplest terms, self-regulation refers to how efficiently and effectively a child deals with a stressor and then recovers (Porges, 2011; Lillas & Turnbull, 2009; McEwen, 2002).  To deal with a stressor, the brain triggers a sort of gas pedal, the sympathetic nervous system, to produce the energy needed; and then applies a sort of brake, the parasympathetic nervous system, in order to recover.  In this way the brain regulates the amount of energy that the child expends on stress so that resources are freed up for other bodily functions, like digestion, cellular repair, maintaining a stable body temperature, or paying attention and learning.

The development of self-regulation is a long process from infancy to young adulthood, but a key developmental stage occurs in the years from 0-5.  Dr Shanker notes, “Over the past decade, developmental neuroscientists have learned that it is by being regulated that these robustly growing systems are wired to support self-regulation.” Right from birth, the tactile stimulation the baby receives when being held, stroked, spoken to, smiled at, rocked or gently bounced, help lay the foundations for self-regulation in the child.  During the “Social Engagement” period of development, which begins whilst the child is still pre-verbal, “the more calmly and warmly the caregiver responds to her baby’s crying, and the better she reads the cues as to what her baby is feeling or wants, the better she can ‘up-regulate’ or ‘down-regulate’ her”.  Both up-regulation (energizing the baby for eating or playing) and down-regulation (calming the baby when agitated or in need of sleep) is key to developing self-regulation.  Once the child is verbal, the verbal responses given by the caregiver are key to helping the child develop the functional language skills that enhance self-regulation. [Cf. Keeping in Touch article 9 November 2015 on “Early Adverse Experiences: what does the latest brain research tell us?”]

Although the teen years mark a gradual transition to independence and increased connection to peer relationships, the rate at which this occurs varies considerably amongst individuals.  Dr Shanker points out as well, “children suffer all sorts of setbacks and regressions in their ability to self-regulate, and in times of acute stress it is not at all unusual to see a child or even a teen revert to the infant stage of needing a parental hug in order to get calm”.

The sheet looks at important recent discoveries in regards to children’s stress, primarily:

  • While some stress is highly motivating, too much stress can have long-term negative consequences.
  • Too many children are dealing with too many stressors in their lives today.
  • There is a need to develop better understanding of the nature of stressors and how to relieve them.
  • There is a need for children to learn the skills they need to recognize when they are becoming agitated and to bring themselves back to a calm, focused state.

Dr Shanker gives a number of examples of stress triggers for different children and gives an excellent outline of behavioural symptoms indicating that a child is under stress.  Finally, he outlines three key steps to self-regulation:

  • Reduce the child’s overall stress level (e.g. by creating a calmer environment and promoting sleep).
  • Help the child learn to be aware or what it feels like to be calmly focused and alert, and what it feels like to by hypo- or hyper-aroused.
  • Teach the child the skills they need to return to being calmly focused and alert and what experiences they may need to manage or even avoid.