Self-regulation – A growing concern in elementary settings

The ability of young children to control or regulate their energy states in order to pay attention and learn, is rapidly becoming a skill of the past. Many educators are reporting increasing incidence of child “dysregulation”, or uncontrolled behaviors such as impulsivity, aggression, and tantrums, especially around times of transition from one task to the next. Children today don’t appear to know how to cope with even minor stresses or slight changes in routine, and have frequent melt-downs or “I can’t!” when asked to do a task they have never attempted before. In order to understand more about why dysregulated states seem to be on the rise, it’s important to learn more about the development of self-regulation, and how to help a child who didn’t get those critical factors they needed for self-regulation in early developmental years.

Self-regulation is defined as the ability to control behavior, and be able to focus and attend on tasks in learning environments such as daycares, pre-schools and elementary school settings. The better a child can stay calm, focused and alert, the better able they are to filter, integrate and make sense of information, and plan and sequence their thoughts and actions. Self-regulation isn’t just about “being good” and compliant, it’s about being able to cope with challenges and changes in routines.

Self-regulation has it’s origins in the early years, and is related to the quality of early attachment formation between infant and parent. During the first few weeks of life, an infant is dependent on their parents to meet their needs. If the parents are present and can anticipate and immediately meet the infant’s needs (hunger, wet/soiled, lonely, scared, pain), then the infant builds a trust base with the parent, and can begin the long journey toward waiting longer and longer periods for their parents to meet those needs. Alternatively, if an infant was neglected or their care was inconsistent, the infant has no predictability in their world, and never builds trust, so is never able to relax and know that their needs will eventually be met. This type of child is highly anxious and easily agitated when things don’t go their way, which is quite often in busy daycare, pre-school and elementary settings.

In today’s fast paced and busy world, parents don’t seem to take the time necessary to develop these close and intimate relationships with their babies, and when the child reaches toddler age, the stage seems to be set for a disruptive and chaotic existence, for both the child and the parent. Today’s parents are increasingly turning to devices to soothe their children, and even at the tender age of 6 months we see babies in front of TV’s, iPads, and computers. In 2010 the Kaiser Foundation reported that 25% of the 0-2 age population had an entertainment device in their bedrooms. Regulating infants, toddlers and children with a device is wholly detrimental to self-regulation, and in fact will ensure that the child never learns how to regulate their energy or behavior states. Children need to learn how to relate to other human beings, not devices, and it is this very relationship with other human beings that will sustain them when all else fails. Life is full of disappointments and things not going the way that a child thinks it should. Coping with these disappointments requires an inner stealth and ability to feel confident and reliant that eventually something good will happen…if they can just wait their turn things will come their way.

When a child is taught that they constantly are in need of a device to entertain them, they will never learn how to entertain themselves, which is a necessary reality in all daycare, pre-school or elementary school settings. With one kindergarten teacher for every 25-30 children, student self-regulation becomes a necessity if they are to succeed. Children can be taught how to self-regulate by using simple language and concepts. I developed the Zone’in Program for school and home settings to promote self-regulation of children ages 5-12 years. Based on a body energy model, children learn how to identify their body energy, and use different tools and techniques to optimize their energy and get it in the Zone to Learn. By watching a DVD and using a Zone-O-Meter, children learn how to first “Know Their Zone”, and later use Zone’in Tools and Techniques to “Tone Their Zone”. At the end of the Zone’in Program, the teacher simply points out to the children that their energy is all over the place, and needs to be in the Zone to learn, and then allows students 2 minutes to get their energy Zone’in to Learn.

For those parents and daycare/pre-school staff of younger children, you can still teach self-regulation concepts. In a home based setting, it’s important for parents to provide a period of time where they strive to meet the needs of the child, both physically (food, sleep, exercise) and emotionally (attention, caring, reading). Only when the child can build a trust base with the parent, can the parent then start to expect the child to wait and regulate themselves for increasing periods of time. For daycare and pre-school staff, visual schedules (check out Easy Daisies) offer predictability and control to a young child who rarely knows what is going on next. Warning children 2-3 times prior to a transition from one task to the next is imperative for the child to be able to prepare themselves. When wanting the child to balance their body energy states, and not be too hyper or too sleepy, understanding the need for adequate movement, touch and human connection will help that child toward eventual self-regulation needed for school entry.

Self-regulation game predicts kindergarten achievement

Science Daily June 8, 2009

Early childhood development researchers have discovered that a simple, five-minute self-regulation game not only can predict end-of-year achievement in math, literacy and vocabulary, but also was associated with the equivalent of several months of additional learning in kindergarten. “The evidence strongly suggests that improving self-regulation is directly related to academic achievement and behavior,” McClelland said. “If we can make a difference early in a child’s life, they have that much more of a chance at success.”


This article was written by pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan, CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc.