Does your child become upset when things don’t go as planned? Your child may struggle with managing their time or their emotions. They may feel anxious about a test at school or participating in a sporting event. Teaching your child self-regulation strategies can help them overcome obstacles, complete tasks on time, and manage emotional reactions. Self-regulation is a proactive, self-directed process for attaining goals, learning skills, managing emotional reactions, and accomplishing tasks. For children, we explain self-regulation as a process that will help them make progress and meet goals.
Children with strong self-regulation:
- calm themselves in stressful situations,
- take ownership of their learning, and
- resist distractions.
Helping your child learn and practice self-regulation strategies will improve their abilities to stay focused, manage stressful situations, and strengthen relationships with family and friends. Explain to them that self-regulation will help them improve their abilities and learn new things. The “self” in self-regulation means that, with practice, they should eventually learn to plan and manage their own actions.
You can help your child understand self-regulation better by asking them to brainstorm times when they have used self-regulation. This process will help them discover things they have already learned by using self-regulation. Use these questions to guide your conversation:
Tell me about a time when you accomplished learning or doing something challenging. What did you do? How did you keep making progress? What actions did you complete? What thoughts did you have along the way?
Tell your child that they were using self-regulation when they learned something challenging. Explain that we all have times when we self-regulate and times when we find it hard to self-regulate. Help your child understand self-regulation more deeply by reflecting on situations when they didn’t self-regulate. Use these questions to guide your conversation:
Can you think of a time when you tried to get better at something like sports or reading but your choices kept you from improving? (For example, someone may have wanted to get better at basketball, but instead of practicing shooting baskets, they played video games with their friends.) What caused you not to make progress?
Explain that it’s important to identify times when we find self-regulation hard, like when reading or cleaning your room. By identifying those times, we know when to use self-regulation strategies to keep making progress.
Using self-regulation strategies will help your child become more proactive. It will also give them knowledge they can use whenever they experience setbacks, have strong emotions, or want to improve their abilities. Let’s focus on three self-regulation strategies: break it down, manage big feelings, and choose my response.
Ask your child to identify something they want to learn or improve. For example, say your child struggles with time management and always waits until the last minute to finish their homework. Their goal could be to finish a project for school in a timely manner. If your child stresses about tests, their goal could be to calm themselves before tests so that they can concentrate.
Once your child determines what they want to learn or improve, help them determine smaller, actionable steps using the strategy break it down. This strategy requires them to develop a detailed plan that they will follow to make progress toward their goal. At first, your child will likely need help developing these smaller, actionable steps. Use these five questions to guide them. Remember that you are coaching your child in answering these questions, not telling them what to do.
Consider printing the Self-Regulation Planning poster and displaying it in your home. This will help your child remember to use the strategy break it down whenever they have a new goal they’re working toward.
Another strategy to help your child learn self-regulation is manage big feelings. Explain to your child that by breaking down their goal into smaller action steps, they are more likely to accomplish it. However, sometimes when we are trying to improve or learn a new skill, we might experience big feelings, like frustration, anxiety, or discouragement. Tell your child that as they are breaking down the steps they will need to follow to meet their goal, they should also consider including steps that will help them manage big feelings. If your child’s goal is to finish a school project in a timely manner, they may want to include a step that will help them calm down if they become overwhelmed as due dates get closer. Ask your child to identify some ways they currently manage their big feelings, like taking a walk or taking deep breaths. Watch this video of Dr. Jacque Bogdanov explaining how to create a calm basket, which is one way to help manage their big feelings. After the video, you can help your child make their own calm basket using items such as stuffed animals and fidgets.
There are many other methods for calming emotions. Intermediate-level students often experience test anxiety as they enter the grade levels where they are expected to complete state exams and other high-stakes assessments. Help your child brainstorm options for calming emotions related to testing, like taking deep breaths, remembering their past successes, engaging in physical activity, or writing down their worries, and remind them to use the strategy manage big feelings when they start to feel strong emotions.
Another strategy to help your child learn self-regulation is choose my response. This strategy helps them understand that they can choose how they respond to obstacles blocking them from their goal. Explain to your child that they will be faced with choices and consequences as they carry out their steps. Understanding how those choices affect outcomes is an important part of practicing self-regulation. Emphasize that they are in control of how they respond to situations. Before responding, they should think about the consequences of their actions and the impacts on progress toward their goal. Watch the video SEL: Actions & Consequences.
Ask your child:
What are some choices you’ve had to make recently? What choice helped you make progress toward your goal? What choices kept you from making progress?
Help your child understand that part of learning self-regulation is to think about how our actions affect outcomes. Encourage them to remember the strategy choose my response. We can choose actions that will help us keep progressing toward our goal, or we can choose actions that will derail us and make it more difficult to accomplish something. For example, your child might plan to start their homework as soon as they get home from school. They should also consider what they might do if they have an activity after school or if their friend asks them to play video games.
Explain to your child that one way to use the strategy choose my response is to think about all the different obstacles that could get in the way of completing each step. Then they can plan ways to overcome these obstacles. Help your child use the strategy choose my response by creating statements for how they plan to respond. Here are example statements for the scenario about finishing homework after school:
- If my friend asks me to play video games after school, thenI will choose to tell them I need to do my homework first and that I can play video games in an hour.
- If I have an activity after school, I will choose to work on my homework in the car on the way home from the activity.
To make sure that your child grasps the strategy choose my response, have them practice making statements for the following scenarios.
- Your plan for getting better at shooting baskets includes practicing after school, but you started to feel frustrated after a few minutes of practicing. What response would you choose for this scenario? (Example: If I start to feel frustrated, I will choose to take a short break before I go back to practicing.)
- You want to remember to do your chores each night. One of your actionable steps is to list all your chores and check each off as you complete it. You have posted your list on the refrigerator, where you can easily see it. You notice that the list is no longer on the refrigerator, and you aren’t sure if it is your night to load the dishwasher. What response would you choose for this scenario? (Example: If I lose my list of chores, I will choose to ask my dad to help me make a new list and post it on the refrigerator.)
- You had a goal to get better at reading by reading aloud to your younger brother as soon as you get home from school. Your mom offers to take you to the park after school. (What response would you choose for this scenario? (Example: If I don’t read right after school, I will choose to practice my reading after dinner).
- Download and review Self-Regulation Resources for Home Learning.
- Learn additional techniques to help you use the strategy manage big feelings by watching the video Emotional Regulation for Kids. After watching the video, review the strategies with your child and ask them to consider incorporating them into their plan.
- Expand your child’s understanding of the strategy choose my response by talking to them about how they can’t control what others think, say, or do, but they can control how they react to others. Watch the video Taking Responsibility for Your Actions with your child and discuss the importance of taking responsibility for your own actions. After the video, ask your child to brainstorm things that are in their control and things that are out of their control. For example, they have control over how much they study for a test. They do not have control over how often the teacher gives tests.
- Visit your local library or encourage your child to check out one of the following books, which have main characters using self-regulation to overcome obstacles.
- The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz and Peter Sís
- Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box: The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer by Marcie Wessels
- Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Magdelena Newman