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Managing Behaviors and Emotions: Developing Self-Regulation

Dinusha Manjarie Wickremesekera

Learning how to keep our attention on a single task for a longer period, and managing our behaviours and emotions start at a very young age. Our ability to self-regulate continues to develop well into adulthood – because, at any time in our lives, we can learn essential skills, and change the way we approach experiences.   However, starting to learn from a young age makes it a lot easier. 

Self-regulation, essential to developing social relationships, refers to learning how to manage our behaviours, emotions and attention.   This article will look at what is self-regulation, how to nurture it in children and how to address dysregulation.    

Self-regulation is important when ….  

Let’s start with two scenarios. In the first scenario, two parents and their two young children are talking about their day. The children and parents are listening to each other and taking turns to talk – everyone gets a turn to be heard uninterrupted. Can you imagine what it is like to have a conversation like this?  Doesn’t it feel good to be heard?  

In the second scenario, there are two parents and two children who are also talking about their day. In this scene, you see that there is a lot of interruption and excitement in both the children because both want to be heard and are talking and jumping in for the parents’ attention. In this situation, while the children want to be heard, but they are not listening.   Such conversation can be both exhausting and frustrating.    

The difference between the two scenarios is self-regulation. 


In the first, the children have learnt that given the situation of a conversation, there need to be two actions – listening and speaking and each will get a turn. They have learnt when to speak and when to listen. In the second scenario, the excitement of being listened to is not as managed and therefore listening is minimal.  

Relationships are developed through conversation and the more we can manage our ability to speak as well as listen the easier it is going to be to make friends. This would be the simplest reason why self-regulation is important. There are many more instances – think of learning experiences (in and outside the classroom) without focused attention. How about feelings of frustration or upset that could lead to anger and a temper tantrum unless the child can calm him/herself down?   

How to develop the practice of self-regulation  

Birth to 5 years of age is the foundational years for building the skills of self-regulation. Children learn through imitation.  Modelling behaviours that you would like the child to follow is important. As understanding grows it would be best to build on this with verbal instructions on what to do. So let’s say a child has dropped something and thereby lost something that s/he wants – crying and/or a temper tantrum could follow – a way to avoid this is to start immediately, acknowledging that the particular incident has happened, bringing focus to staying calm, giving instructions on how to be calm and following through with action to become calm.  A good practice could say take a couple of deep breaths which allows for calming down. And then look at how to deal with the situation.

Any games with a start/stop element, for example, Red Light / Green Light – where the instruction is for red light stop, for green light go; or Simon says where children must only follow actions when Simon says. 

Keep in mind that the skills of self-regulation can be developed at any age.   First, think of the circumstances of the behaviour – is the child tired or hungry? Are these behaviours frequent? Start today with modelling desired behaviours, verbal cues detailing what could be done, and reinforcing with praise and appreciation. Remember to be kind to yourself as a parent.  

Interesting readings: 

The Importance of Self-Regulation and How to Teach it to your Kids, Moshi

How to help emotional dysregulation in children, Your Therapy Source Blog


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