A child putting together a puzzle

Supporting Self-Regulation in Children: Tips for Parents

Developing the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, attention and emotions is a critical facet of early childhood. It supports children’s successful transition to formal schooling—including how they learn, as well as how they navigate the increasingly complex social worlds outside of their homes. At the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), I study how children’s experiences with their parents, teachers and peers can shape the development of these fundamental skills

Understanding Self-Regulation

I started down this road as an undergraduate student, working in a child development lab with Dr. Kathleen McCartney. I was fascinated by the connection between emotion and cognition—how the way we feel can affect the way we think (and the inverse). I was also interested in the way developmental science can be leveraged to support children, particularly those growing up in families facing economic adversity.

Prior to graduate school, I was able to explore these budding interests working as a research assistant at a non-profit research firm, Child Trends. There, I worked primarily on projects concerning early childhood education policies for children in poverty. In addition to receiving a wonderful education from this thoughtful group, my experiences there encouraged me to think about the mechanisms underlying the negative impacts of poverty on children’s academic and social development.

This is what ultimately led me to study self-regulation. Specifically, two aspects became increasingly clear to me: First, self-regulation is a foundational skill to a wide array of child outcomes (e.g., social and academic skills). Second, the neural underpinnings of self-regulation can be disrupted by the levels of chronic stress that tend to be more common in families struggling with economic adversity. As such, my thinking at the time was that—due to ‘trickle down’ effects of self-regulation on many other outcomes—studying self-regulation would provide the most efficient means for understanding a wide variety of developmental phenomena. Furthermore, clarifying the links between our physiological stress systems and self-regulation would provide a plausible mechanism through which children’s experiences “get under the skin” to support or hinder their development of these skills. These areas of interest have driven my research ever since.

The Power of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is an umbrella term that captures two inter-connected processes. The first is typically called executive functioning or EF, which refers to aspects of higher-order cognition that allow us to control attention and to hold and manipulate information in mind. The second has been called many things—for instance hot EF, effortful control, and emotion regulation—but it typically refers to the way we control more automatic emotional and behavioral tendencies. For example, in a typical preschool classroom during story time, a teacher might ask the children to make a prediction about what the story protagonist might do in a situation that differs from the story narrative that the child just heard. This would require the child to hold the existing story narrative and story character in her memory, as well as manipulate that information to consider alternative possibilities. This type of thinking draws on EF. In turn, once this child excitedly devises her answer, she’ll have to tamp down her automatic impulse to shout out the answer and raise her hand instead. This would be considered an instance of effortful control. Notably, the line between these two aspects of self-regulation are fuzzy—emotions, impulses and cognitive control are intimately and bi-directionally connected.

Here at the Bioecology, Self-Regulation and Learning Lab at CEHD’s Institute of Child Development, our research is giving us a better picture of how self-regulation impacts children’s social and academic development, as well as the ways through which children’s experience at home and school can support their self-regulation development.

Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Childhood

We know how important the development of effective self-regulation skills is for children, and we’re also learning a lot about how parents and teachers can help promote these skills. Below are a few tips on how to help support your child as they learn to regulate their thoughts and emotions.

“Serve and return” interactions. Substantial evidence highlights the importance of sensitive and responsive interactions between children and the meaningful adults in their lives –both at home and in school. This means being able to learn the child’s signals, interpret them correctly and respond to them effectively. It also means getting a sense of the back-and-forth, turn-taking rhythms that are inherent to supportive adult-child interactions. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child coined the phrase “serve and return” to capture these dynamics. Like a tennis match, the child “serves” a signal (e.g., a cry, a smile, a point, a question, etc.). We interpret the signal to the best of our abilities and “rally” back a response aimed at addressing that specific signal. In turn, the child rallies back her own responses, and we then fine-tune our next response as needed. The back-and-forth continues onward, paced by the child.

We think this supports self-regulation in at least three major ways:

  • First, learning to maintain, shift and coordinate one’s attention in infancy and toddlerhood is a foundational skill for later more complex aspects of self-regulation (e.g., EF). The “serve and return” provides an external support for the child to practice her nascent attentional skills—practice that would be too difficult for her without such external supports. We call this act of supporting children to function beyond their existing capacities “scaffolding” because it quite literally scaffolds developmental growth.
  • Second, maintaining an effective serve and return over time also helps parents to keep children cognitively, emotionally and physiologically Physiological arousal is important because there’s a “sweet spot” right in the middle where moderate amounts of physiological arousal are thought to support neural signaling patterns that create efficient neural networks in the brain. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that one is to try to keep one’s child engaged at all times. Indeed, knowing to “let off” when the child is becoming over-aroused is central to maintaining an effective back-and-forth. Rather, it’s the ability to vacillate to the child’s changing needs—particularly, scaffolding her to recover on her own–that is most likely to keep the child in the physiological sweet spot.
  • Third, self-regulation development occurs in the context of social relationships. Over time, the “serve and return” dynamic becomes internalized in the child’s mind. This mental representation of the relationship provides an internal mental picture of both you and how secure the child feels exploring the world outside of your relationship. As such, the relationship itself provides a self-regulatory scaffold for children as they gain increasing independence.

Use tools. As the examples above suggest, the relationships we establish with our kids can serve as scaffolding “tools” that provide them with a sense of security that they can carry with them as they take on new challenges. Notably, tools are everywhere. Anything that helps to facilitate your child’s ability to organize her attention, thoughts or feelings can serve as a scaffolding tool.

  • For instance, does your child have difficulty transitioning from one thing to the next? Perhaps, help her to make a plan describing how she’s going to move through a series of tasks and activities. Within reason, let her take control over some of the planning. The act of planning and owning that plan, can help her organize her ideas, while highlighting that she has some control over her life. Make that plan real, actionable and fun! Let her draw it out and decorate it. Then use it. Kids like crossing things off their lists as much as adults do. When it’s time transition to the next thing (e.g., bath, school, errands, etc.), ask your child to find her plan and then celebrate the accomplishment of finishing that preceding line item.
  • Is your preschooler having a tough time listening? Does she talk over you? Find a tool that makes the rules about listening more salient. For instance, the “Tools of the Mind” curriculum—a thoughtful program based on Lev Vygotsky’s theories—uses illustrated cut-outs of a mouth and ear to remind children of the rules in real-time. When you’re holding the ear, you listen. When you’re holding the mouth, it’s your turn to talk. Even such small reminders can have remarkable impacts on the way kids regulate their emotions and behavior.
  • Tools are everywhere. Get creative!

Ask “expanding” questions. When your children are older, take a real interest in their development by asking questions. The right questions can often be used to challenge them to extend their thoughts, integrate information and think about things from different perspectives. All of this is thought to support self-regulation.

There’s no one right way to do it; however, one way might be to: (1) Acknowledge what was said and ask for clarification. “…Interesting, so you’re saying that some dinosaurs had big sharp teeth and others had small teeth that were sharp but not that sharp?”; (2) Expand with a new question? “Why do you think different dinosaurs had different types of teeth?”; (3) Don’t forget to wait for the answer. Your child may need time to think! (4) Maybe your child doesn’t have any hypotheses or comes up with some random unrelated thought…Great! Bring in the scaffolding question. “Well, let’s think about it…do all dinosaurs eat the same kind of food?” (5) Repeat the process until it becomes pretty clear that your child is done with the topic. Sometimes it’s short lived. Sometimes it’s an extended dialogue. Either is fantastic.

Strike a balance of guidance and freedom. Play is a fundamental building block for learning. As above, it’s wonderful to engage in rich exchanges with your kids as they play. It’s also good to know when to let them do their own thing. Learn to read their signals. If your child goes off into his or her own pretend narrative or is happily thumbing through a picture book, or exploring some rocks in a garden, that’s a good thing. Indeed, the enjoyment of the play itself is serving as a scaffold to support your child’s abilities to maintain his or her attention over time. So, absolutely, be involved. Ask questions. But also know that sometimes less is more.

Give yourself a break. Parenting is hard. You’re not always going to get it right. A lot of the time it’s even hard to know what “right” is. Observe. Experiment. Repeat. You’ll find your rhythm.

Daniel Berry

About the Author

Daniel Berry

  • Director, Bioecology, Self-Regulation and Learning Lab
  • Assistant Professor, Institute of Child Development
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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