Why Your Child Might Find it Hard to Self-Regulate

What does ‘self regulation’ mean?

Every child is unique. Some children can get overwhelmed easily, and others remain calm. In the same way, some kids can be highly attentive and alert, while others are very withdrawn.

Self-regulation is an important strategy that your child can use to be calm and alert, so that they can take part in activities, interact with those around them, and process new information. There are many factors that may be influencing a child’s inability to focus or cope with new information. These can include being tired, over-stimulated, or anxious.

For example, the end of the day might prove difficult for some children to follow instructions, as they are tired and therefore not able to calm themselves and focus on a task. Some children may seem bored while reading a book or participating in quieter activities, or they may feel overwhelmed at birthday parties and events with lots of stimulation.

What are stressors?

Another key aspect of self-regulation is the ability to recover from stressors. ‘Stressors’ are anything that disrupts someone’s calm state and affects their participation. They are unique to individuals and can include things such as feeling hungry, emotional or tired, or they could be the sounds and sights of a busier environment.

Some children are able to deal with their stressors. They may become emotional at first, but then are able to manage their emotions and thoughts in order to return to an alert and calm state. On the other hand, some children may become inconosable when presented with their stressors.

Why is self-regulation important?

Nearly every aspect of a child’s learning, growth and development requires self-regulation as a foundational skill. These areas include:

  • Overall physical and mental health
  • Attention and problem-solving skills
  • School success
  • Language learning

What can affect your child’s ability to self-regulate?

As a parent, it’s likely very easy for you to identify a shift in how your child is participating and responding. There are many different ways in which you can make it more difficult or easier for your child to regulate themselves. Have a think about what works to allow them to move into a place where they are more alert and calm.

Areas to consider:

Your child’s temperament

  • Some children can easily become overstimulated around new people, and therefore may need more time to warm up. Some children may only tolerate one element of change at a time. Other children may need a higher level of stimulation to be alert enough to respond appropriately.

Your child’s environment

  • It’s important to think about whether there is anything that in your child’s space that could be overwhelming or distraction for them. What is making it hard to focus, and what is their attention diverted to?

How you interact with your child

  • By tuning in to your child’s cues, you will start to pick up on signs that could indicate that they are having difficulty with self-regulation. You can keep an eye out to see if your child is reacting to situations in the way that you expected. Are they under-reacting, or overreacting?   
  • You can then respond with the appropriate support that your child requires. For example, if your child is not paying attention, you could add more intonation to your voice or more movement. If you feel your child is agitated and over-stimulated, you can model calmer movements and a quieter voice.

Self-regulation can be aided by interacting with your child in an engaging or meaningful way. This occurs when we follow our child’s interests, and respond to their communication and ideas. By doing these things, we can work towards supporting our children to be calmly engaged, attentive and motivated.

Thanks for reading!

-Emilia

If you would like some further information regarding self regulation and your child, please feel free to look at some of the resources listed below:

-Aro, T. Laakso, M. Maatta, S., Tolvanen, A. & Poikkeus, A. (2014). Associations between toddler-age communication and kindergarten-age self-regulatory skills. Journal of speech, Language, and Hearing Research, doi: 10.1044/2014_JSLKH-L-12-0411.
-Gulsrud, A. C., Jahromi, L.B. & Kasari, C. (2010). The co-regulation of emotions between mothers and their children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 227-237.
-Hamoudi, A., Murray, D.W., Sorensen, L., Fontaine, A. (2015): Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: A Review of Ecological, Biological, and Developmental Studies of Self-Regulation and Stress. OPRE Report # 2015-30, February, 2015: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/opre/resource/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-a-review-of-ecological-biological-and-developmental-studies-of-self-regulation-and-stress.
-Laurent, A.C., Gorman, K. (2018). Development of emotion self-regulation among young children with autism spectrum disorders: The role of parents. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48 1249-1260.
-McClelland, M.M., Cameron, C.E., Connor, C.M., Farris, C.L., Jewekes, A.M. & Morrison, F.J. (200&). Links between behavioural regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology, 43, 947-959.
-Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014c). How does learning happen? Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years: A resource about learning through relationships for those who work with young children and their families. Toronto: Author.
-Schmitt, M.B., Justice, L.M., & O’Connell, A. (2014). Vocabulary gain among children with language disorders: Contributions of children’s behavior regulation and emotionally-supportive environments. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, doi: 10.1044/2014_AJSLP-12-0148.
-Vallotton, C. & Ayoub, C. (2011). Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddler’s self-regulation. Early Child Research Quarterly, 26, 169-181.