Staff Workshop Teacher Handout: Self-Regulation in the Early Childhood Classroom

Helping children regulate their emotions and behaviors is key to school success

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K, 1–2

Leadership: A Special Section for Administrators

SELF-REGULATION is a skill that is taught. It doesn't emerge naturally.

Every day in every classroom, there are children who challenge even the best, most experienced of teachers. Roberto and Susan are typical of children who can present unique challenges.

Roberto is large for his age. This morning was typical. As Roberto walked into the classroom he turned around too fast, and knocked all the puzzles off a shelf. During group time he squirms, wiggles, and finally tumbles over-falling on another child. At work time, Roberto grabbed things from others, shoved children, and spilled materials.

Susan is another challenge. She is smaller than Roberto, and quieter. But she seems to be unable to adjust to being in a group. Her vocabulary is limited and she often hits others to get what she wants. Listening and speaking seem hard for Susan. Transitions are very difficult. If you ask her to stop doing something, she starts crying and falls on the floor. During work time, she starts something, leaves it, and runs to another activity.

What's happening with Roberto, Susan, and all the other children who just seem to be unable to control themselves? Children, in order to adjust to a preschool setting and achieve, need to be able to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Self-regulation, the ability to control one's emotions and behaviors, is key to social and academic success.

Remembering "On Purpose"

Self-regulation can be thought of as having two parts, both cognitive and social-emotional regulation. In reality, self-regulation is a combination of the two. Cognitive self-regulation is the degree to which children can regulate their own behaviors, are reflective, and can plan and think ahead. They have control of their thinking. They plan, they monitor, they evaluate thinking strategies, and they can attend and remember on purpose. It is not to say that children without self-regulation cannot attend or remember at all-some children can remember remarkable things like the names of all dinosaurs if this is what interests them. But when you're trying to teach these children to remember something, such as their phone number, it seems they can't remember a thing. What children need to learn to do is to "remember on purpose," to remember things they must learn and know, and to remember how to act in a given situation.

Social-emotional self-regulation means being able to inhibit and delay gratification. Being able to do this means being able to control emotions. If someone knocks you down, pushes you, you don't erupt into anger. With social-emotional self-regulation, you know when you're talking too loud, when you're irritating other people, or when you need to stop a behavior. Social-emotional regulation also means being able to internalize standards of behavior and apply these standards without being reminded. Children who have social-emotional regulation internalize the rule about not knocking down others' block constructions and walking around these constructions instead of into them.

A number of things influence cognitive and social-emotional regulation. These include individual differences such as temperament, parental behavior, and brain development, as well as the classroom environment and what the teacher does.

The Classroom influence

If the classroom environment is responsive to children's needs, children will learn to regulate their behaviors in school. And instead of the home influencing what happens in school, children who learn to self-regulate in school learn to use the same skills when at home. Teachers are responsible for making sure children develop control over their own behavior. When problems arise, it isn't because children have "bad" personalities, or that their parents are not doing their job, but because children are very reactive. They grab toys from others because they want them. They push other children out of their way because they want to get to the books. Children simply do not think ahead about what's going to happen to them or the other children after they grab a toy or push a classmate.

When teachers handle the disruptive behavior by saying to a child, "What could you have done?," this will not be effective. If children really could have thought ahead, asking themselves, "What would happen if..." they would have done so. If they could have thought, "If I take this toy someone will get mad, and I'm going to get in trouble," or "If I use words instead of hitting, no one will get hurt," they would have.

The Role of the Teacher

Self-regulation is taught. It doesn't emerge naturally. Part of the role of the teacher is to realize that children who hit, push, and fight are exhibiting reactive behavior. Three-, 4- and 5-year-olds are not "bad children," they are simply being reactive. One way researchers have found to enable children to develop self-regulation is to have children practice what's called "other-regulation." Here's how other-regulation, which seems to lead to self-regulation, works:

Young children seem to want to regulate others all of the time. They love to tattle on others. A child may have nine cookies in front of her and point out that someone else has two more than they should have. Children are great at saying what everyone else should do. That's part of human nature. But when children are in a situation in which they should be in charge of themselves, they're not even aware that they have a problem. When children come to you saying "Mrs. Baily, Vanessa is taking all the puzzles, the rule is work with only one," you can say "Yes, that's the rule," understanding that children don't want you to punish the other child, but by trying to regulate others, they are really on their way to learning self-regulation.

Learning to Listen

Listening to a book without interrupting the reader requires children to exercise their social-emotional self-regulation as well as cognitive self-regulation. A literacy activity designed to develop self-regulation involves children reading together. Each child is given either a picture of an ear or a picture of lips. The child with the ear is the child who is to listen. The child with the lips is the one who is to picture-read. When a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old were paired with a book, the 3-year-old was going through the book chanting "Ants, ants, ants come marching one-by-one." The 5-year-old kept saying "That's not the story!" over and over. The 3-year-old finally turned to the 5-yearold and said, "Well, I've got the lips!" The point is that by picture-reading to one another, children are learning to regulate themselves. They're taking turns and working together.

As children were paired off being the lips or the ears, we found that it's not the loudest child, oldest, largest, or even most assertive child who regulates the activity. It's the assignment of lips or ears that determines the children who regulate the activity.

Fostering self-regulation during the early years is a readiness activity. There is so much emphasis on learning content and developing specific academic skills in order to get children ready for school that other areas of development could be easily overlooked. Readiness for school, however, involves more than just knowing about print or numbers. Teaching children to regulate themselves is getting them ready for school. Children who are able to "remember on purpose," and to control emotions and behaviors, are those who will succeed in school and in life.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Childhood Behaviors, Classroom Management, Social and Emotional Development, Learning and Cognitive Development, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Teacher Training and Continuing Education
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