What is Self-Regulation?
  • Natalia Sarabia

What is Self-Regulation?


What is Self-Regulation?


Self-regulation refers to our ability to manage our alertness to meet the demands of tasks, respond to stress appropriately, regulate our emotions, and control our impulses. Self-regulation is not the same as self-control, as the latter is more related to willpower (Shanker, 2016). It is also not the same as emotional regulation, but it does encompass that concept as well within its definition.


Self-regulation goes hand in hand with the executive functions of the brain, meaning the ability to plan and organize our ideas, sustain information in our head, filter out distractions, control our emotions and problem-solve flexibly. Children are not born with these skills, but have the capacity to develop them with support from their parents, caregivers, teachers or other adults around them.


Some kids have more difficulty learning them due to diagnosis such as SPD, ADHD and Autism. Nevertheless, even in regularly developing children, skill development might be delayed or impaired. Children with decreased self-regulation are often impulsive and struggle to learn how to wait or put a break on their actions. They tend to talk at the wrong time, get sidetracked during activities and strongly react to situations more than other kids their age.


Why is Self-Regulation important?


Self-regulation skills are a crucial for learning higher academic skills and the overall healthy development of the child. Children need to be able to self-regulate and sustain attention before they are ready for more challenging academic tasks like sitting down for longer periods of time while listening to school lectures. Some people refer to self-regulation skills and emotional learning as important as learning your ABCs and 123s. Michnick & Hirsh-Pasek (2014) wrote a wonderful piece describing self-regulation skills as a base for school readiness and explaining how they predict kindergarten reading and math achievement. Self-regulation is such an undervalued life skill. I would argue that it is, in fact, extremely important for the development of a healthy self-esteem.



Games To Work on Self-Regulation:


The following are some games you can play at home to promote the development of self-regulation:

  • 1. Games such as red light/green light, musical chairs, and freeze dance can be played as a family to help children learn how to control their bodies according to situational demands. These games allow kids to practice their ability to follow directions and control their impulses. Children with self-regulation difficulties often have a hard time participating in these games. They might move at the wrong times, become extra silly or get very frustrated when they lose.

  • 2. Board games can be used to teach children how to take turns, follow specific directions and control their impulses.

  • A rule of thumb when choosing a board game to work on self-regulation, try to aiming for one that is below age-level for your child. The child needs to feel it's a game he or she can master.

  • If emotional control is also an issue, a winning/losing element should be added into the games. Begin by allowing the child to win so you can model what it should look like to lose and gradually start introducing a couple of losing scenarios. You’ll be surprised at how useful this is to help children get better at controlling their emotions. Ask them to be happy for you when you win! Tell them things you’d want them to tell themselves when they lose “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and it’s okay”.

  • 4. The “magic word” game can be used to help children learn how to wait. The idea is to substitute a "stop and go command" (e.g. ready, set, go!) with a "magic word" (e.g. bananas). For example, you can ask the child to wait for the "magic word" before they slide at the playground.

  • It is important to grade this activity up/down according to the child’s ability. If they cannot hold attention for a long time, keep it simple and choose a color as the "magic word". If this is too easy for them, pick a random word like “spaghetti” and tell them a story including that word. They will have to practice the ability to sustain that word in their head as they pay attention to your story. Children love this game!


The Center on The Developing Child from Harvard University has also compiled a list of activities according to age that are useful when teaching children self-regulation skills. You can refer to this website for more ideas.



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