Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions, control impulses, and exert self-control. It involves skills like focusing attention, delaying gratification, persisting on tasks, and controlling behavior. These skills don’t come naturally to children – they need to be nurtured and developed. Self-regulation is crucial for success in school and life. Children with poor self-regulation struggle to follow directions, get along with others, and do well academically. The good news is parents and teachers can actively help children increase self-regulation skills.
Here are some effective ways:
Establish clear rules and expectations
Children thrive when they know what is expected of them. Set clear, simple rules and outline routines for completing homework, getting ready in the mornings, behavior at the dinner table, bedtime and so on. Be as specific as possible – for example, bedtime is 8:30pm instead of just “early.” Make sure the expectations are age-appropriate. Post visual reminders like charts. Praise and reinforce children when they follow the rules and meet expectations. This boosts self-control.
Help them manage emotions
Teach children to identify and label their feelings using rich vocabulary beyond just “happy”, “sad” and “mad.” Provide words to express emotions like frustrated, disappointed, jealous, excited, bored, proud, anxious and calm. When children get upset, help talk them through what they’re feeling and appropriate ways to cope, like taking deep breaths, temporarily distancing themselves from the situation, or talking it through. Model managing your own emotions calmly.
Practice following instructions
Give children multi-step instructions and have them repeat back what you asked them to do. Start with just 2 steps and gradually increase to 3 or 4 steps as they build skills. For example, “First put on your shoes, next get your backpack, and then wait by the door.” Following multi-step directions requires focus, listening comprehension, short-term memory, and self-control. Make practicing this fun by letting children give you multi-step instructions as well.
Incorporate movement and exercise
Physical activity, especially aerobic exercise that gets the heart pumping, is proven to help kids concentrate better, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve self-regulation abilities. Make sure children get at least 60 minutes of vigorous exercise per day. Even better, break up study and homework sessions with “brain breaks” to get in some movement. Things like jumping jacks, dance breaks, or taking a short jog around the block can provide a quick reset.
Play games that build these skills
Games that require focus, following rules, taking turns, and stopping and starting activity are great ways to build self-regulation skills. Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light, freeze dance, and musical chairs are all fun examples. Card games and board games that involve turns also promote self-regulation as children have to resist the urge to go out of turn and pay attention to when it’s their turn.
Teach children to talk themselves through challenging tasks and situations using positive phrases like “I can do this” or “First I will , next I will.” This self-talk improves their ability to maintain focus, make plans, follow steps, and self-motivate.
Help set goals
Guide children in setting short-term and long-term goals and breaking bigger goals down into smaller action steps. For example, if a child wants to get an A on their next math test, help them set mini-goals like dedicating 30 minutes to study each night, reviewing harder concepts, and completing all homework. Achieving small goals builds toward bigger goals while requiring organization, planning, and discipline.
Establish daily routines
Structured yet flexible daily routines help children’s days flow with healthy predictability and consistency. Have set wake-up times, meal times, chore times, homework times, activity times, and bedtimes. Routines support self-regulation by minimizing uncertainty. Allow flexibility for some choices within the routine too.
Developing strong self-regulation skills early in childhood leads to incredible benefits throughout life. While not easy, parents and teachers can implement strategies like the ones above to help children master critical abilities like managing emotions, focusing their attention, persevering through challenges, and making smart choices. With time and consistency, their self-regulation capacities will flourish.
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