Self Regulation


One of our experts explains self regulation and what it means in children and introduces some simple concepts you can practice at home to help.


 By Karen Beardsley 


Have you ever found yourself tapping your foot while you wait in a long grocery checkout line? Have you ever doodled on the margins of your paper while listening to a lecture, or played with a paper clip while you talked on the phone? How about standing up and stretching after you’ve been working at your computer  for a half hour? All these little things  that we do are methods of self regulation. Most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing them and most people do these things naturally to keep their behavior in check.

pic 1-1Children who have neuropsychological conditions like autism or ADHD, however, may not develop self regulation skills naturally and may need assistance to learn how to control their bodies and behavior.  The dictionary defines self regulation simply as “control by oneself”. In psychological terms, self regulation is the ability to control our own behavior in order to comply with the standards of any given situation.


The amount of effort needed to self regulate varies depending on the person involved, the environment, and the tasks required. For example, self regulation while watching a movie requires more effort as the person is expected to sit in a seat, turn off cell phones and tablets, and quietly watch the movie. Any deviation from this behavior will be noticed by everyone in the theater. On the other hand, self regulation at a football game requires less effort because standing up, jumping up and down, yelling, talking, and moving in and out of the stands are all expected behaviors.


How does self regulation develop?

During childhood, self regulation develops along with all the other developmental stages. Infants and toddlers typically have immature self regulation and parents must often help them regulate their behaviors by setting limits and offering rewards or consequences. As children get older, this begins to develop through make-believe play and engaging in simple games or activities that have rules to follow.

Children continue this development as they enter school. While they learn additional rules for self regulation through academic work and classroom routine, the most important activities to facilitate development of self regulation continue to be play based.


What interferes with self regulation development?

Children who do not engage in self regulation at young ages may not fully develop the corresponding brain areas. These children have difficulty regulating their behaviors as they get older and enter school or other environments with higher expectations. A child with autism, ADHD, or another cognitive or psychological disability may not attend to the environmental or social cues that help them adjust and control their behaviors, and so these areas of their brains do not retain the information and do not develop. In addition, children who are abused or neglected may experience maladaptive methods of regulating their behaviors due to the abnormal environments they live in and poor examples they have to follow.


Can self regulation be taught?

Self regulatory techniques can be taught to children who have not learned them. In fact, it’s beneficial to all children to learn and practice new self regulatory techniques. In school, teachers often teach self regulation to all students by setting classroom rules, posting written classroom schedules and assignment due dates and giving students prompts regarding asking and answering questions. A “5 minute stretch break” or “snack time” or mindful “quiet breathing” are examples of self regulatory activities that can include the entire class.

Children who have extreme difficulty regulating their own behaviors may need individual help. Special education teachers and occupational therapists often provide these children with accommodations to help them. These might include visual schedules to help pic 2-1children move from one activity to the next or specific prompts to remind children to raise their hands or sit in their seats. Children who cannot self regulate their body movements might be provided with adapted seating, such as ball chairs or “wiggle” cushions, or might be allowed to stand to work. Movement breaks outside of the classroom might be provided to children who experience extreme difficulty with self regulatory behaviors.

As parents, you probably offer opportunities at home for your children to practice self regulation. Teaching your children to run outside instead of in the house, to sit quietly and draw or read during times they may have to wait, or to not yell or climb on the chairs during a movie or in a restaurant.

There are dozens of examples and you have probably thought of several while reading this article. Self regulation is an important life skill. If your child has significant difficulty with self regulation, talk with his or her teacher or school occupational therapist for ideas to help develop this ability.


Reference: Bodrova, E. and Leong, D.  “Developing Self-Regulation in Kindergarten Can We Keep All the Crickets in the Basket?”. Beyond the Journal: Young Children on the Web, March 2008,

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