Self-Regulation: Building Blocks to Managing Big Feelings
Everyone experiences stress or discomfort in one form or another. It might occur through having to wait in a check-out line, losing the house keys when already running late for an appointment, or not receiving that well-deserved promotion. For kids, these stresses might be more along the lines of having to give up a favorite toy so their sibling can have a turn, being in the same room when a peer is crying loudly, or being told “no” by a parent or teacher. While any of these situations may lead to tears (from children or adults), through experience, we learn to identify the origin of discomfort that may arise and to balance our own emotions and behavior. This process is called self-regulation.
It includes being able to:
● manage reactions to strong emotions (e.g. frustration, excitement, anger or
● calm down after something exciting or upsetting
● focus on a task
● control impulses
● behave in ways that help you get along with other people.
Let’s see the effects of this in action! The following scenarios require varying degrees of
1) Whispering during a movie so not to disturb others
2) Asking to borrow an item
3) Waiting in line for a turn on a much-coveted playground ride down the slide
Believe it or not, kids don’t just magically know how to act in these situations. Whispering,
asking, and waiting are all behaviors that require self-control and an awareness of one’s
surroundings; but they are not inherent skills. You might be asking, “Why do children need to manage their emotions and actions? They are kids! Let them express themselves!” It is
important to note that self-regulation is not a dampening of one’s personality, but rather a taught set of skills that becomes an extension of the child as they transition into adulthood.
Let’s consider other behaviors that could arise without self-regulation. We will look at the
choices of young Alex, a child who is working on his own regulation skills:
1) Instead of whispering during a trip to the movie theaters, Alex shouts at the screen, runs
up and down the aisles with excitement, and disturbs other movie goers’ viewing
2) Instead of asking to use an item, he snatches it quickly out of another’s hand. This item
might be a desired toy or it might be a pair of sharp scissors that could cause harm when
not handled with care.
3) Instead of waiting for a turn on the slide, Alex decides to shove the other kids out of the
way and quickly throw his body down the slide with no consideration of the potential
harm this will cause.
In these situations we can rationalize the importance of self-regulation, but how do we get our children closer to independence with this skill? Step 1: breathe. It is not taught overnight and parents can’t do it alone! Working hand-in-hand with parents, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) at One of the Kids develop comprehensive (and individualized) treatment plans that encompass various aspects and building blocks of regulation. Self-advocacy, functional communication, identification of emotions, social skills, and more are layered and woven together to create what we know as self-regulation. It takes careful planning, problem-solving, collaboration, and A LOT of modeling.
Taking those same 3 scenarios, let’s see how we (parents, BCBAs, and other caregivers) could
use them as teaching opportunities for our young learner, Alex:
1) When Alex shouts at the movie theater screen out of excitement, his parents model a
whispering voice and explain that they are sharing a space with others. They provide
praise and hugs when he whispers.
2) When Alex wants an item while at One of the Kids, his therapist models a functional way
to ask for it and calmly explains why he needs to wait until it is his turn. She provides
tickles and positive attention if he calmly finds something else to engage with. If Alex
starts to tantrum, his therapist makes sure he has a safe spot to go to while modeling
deep breaths and calming strategies provided by Alex’s BCBA that are tailored to him.
When Alex has returned to homeostasis, the item might remain unavailable, but together
they can explore other toys or ways to have fun without it.
3) When waiting in line at the slide, Alex’s aunt shows him he can sing, drum, dance, or talk
with friends while waiting his turn. Waiting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be boring. When
he has successfully waited his turn and made it to the bottom of the slide, laughter and
enjoyment reinforces the effort of his patience.
We will never have full control over situations and others’ actions, but self-regulation empowers the individual to have control over themselves. It instills skills that will help them learn in school, behave in socially acceptable ways, make friends, and become more independent.
Even if we say and do all of the “right” things, that doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, but if we take the time to show our kids how to manage those big feelings as they arise, we will set them up for success in future endeavors. At One of the Kids, we understand there is no “one size fits all” solution and method to this, so collaborating with you (the parents and residential experts on your child), we can provide options that work for you, your child, and your home. If you are interested in specific strategies or new ideas to help with your child’s self-regulation skills, reach out to your BCBA today!