Updated: Nov 20, 2021
Much of the misbehavior seen in children and youth today is rooted in a lack of self-regulation, the conscious management of one’s own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions. On a daily basis self-regulation enables us to manage impulses and short-term desires critical to personal, social, and academic success.
More children than ever before are demonstrating difficulty with self-regulation, both in and outside of the home. Sadly, as increasing numbers of students struggle with self-regulation, order in classrooms all over our country is being maintained through teacher/administrative regulation. When children’s behavior is predominantly controlled by external coercion or force, the result is temporary at best. The increase in the number of children struggling with self-regulation is one of the reasons cited by teachers for leaving the profession within their first 5 years.
During my time as an elementary school administrator, I regularly witnessed the temporary impact of external regulation on children’s behavior while watching bus videos. When reviewing the videos, it was not unusual for me to see children, whose conduct was controlled during the school day by strong teacher management, failing to apply self-management skills once left to their own devices; a contrast that was often quite dramatic and always unsettling.
Teaching children how to self-regulate (or not!) begins in the home. Though the process continues to develop into adulthood, learning to self-regulate is accomplished predominantly during the toddler and preschool years. Children should be able to demonstrate age-appropriate self-regulation with a high degree of effectiveness by the time they enter kindergarten. The good news: Children who self-regulate are happier children. More good news: It’s not rocket science!
So, what can parents do to promote self-regulation?
Be the change you want to see in your child. It is through watching their parents conduct themselves appropriately in everyday situations that children come to understand how to manage their own frustration, anger, excitement, impatience, desires, etc. Consistently modeling the behaviors we want to see in our children is powerful. They really are watching everything we do!
Within the bounds of safety, allow children to experience natural consequences of their actions. If a child leaves a favorite toy outside and finds it damaged or gone the next day, do not immediately go out and replace the toy. It is the missing of the toy that will cause the child to think twice in the future. Allowing children to feel the discomfort that accompanies poor choices helps them learn to better 'regulate' their behavior and actions, which leads to making better decisions.
Engage your child in activities that require focused contemplation. Jumping rope, riding a bike, playing Hopscotch, board games, constructing (Legos, model rockets, model cars), playing an instrument, coloring/painting, doing chores, etc. all require focused contemplation on the part of the participant. Focused contemplation strengthens self-regulation.
Provide opportunities for make-believe play. Children demonstrate the highest levels of self-regulation when engaged in constructive, make-believe, play. When young children pretend to be a firefighter, police officer, doctor, nurse, mother, father, baby, etc., the participants engage in dialog, cooperation, and problem solving. Make-believe play requires deliberate attention. Those who step out of their role are typically corrected by another participant. Through make-believe play, children learn what is and what is not acceptable behavior and to apply the rules of society with one another.
The bottom line is that self-regulation must be modeled and taught starting at an early age. Limiting passive activities (television, movies) and engaging children in activities that require deliberate attention and meaningful contemplation goes a long way towards ensuring that children develop this all-important life skill. Another bonus - fewer discipline problems!
©Sharon Knapp Lamberth, December 2020