Self Regulation: A Crucial Skill For Learning Success

Self Regulation: A Crucial Skill For Learning Success


What is self-regulation? How do children develop it? We are told all the time how important that development is to future success in school and life. 

Self-regulation may be defined as the ability to control one’s own behavior and emotions and adapt them in response to a particular situation. For young children, self-regulation begins as external control by teachers, parents, and caregivers. As the child grows, hopefully that ability to control initial impulses and respond appropriately to the environment becomes internalized.

When a child sees a classmate playing with a desirable toy, his first impulse is to grab it away. If the other child resists, he may end up with a scratch or a bite. In class meetings, some children would like to talk all the time. Others might be attracted to toys on the shelves and leave the meeting to play with them. When young children play a board or sports game, at first it is always “my turn.” If one child wins, others may react with anger or break into tears. At snack time, a child may grab half of the crackers meant for the whole table. He or she may knock down someone else’s incredible building, just because it was there. 

Happily, usually around age 4 or 5, children begin to understand how to change their inappropriate first impulses and respond appropriately. They learn to verbalize what they want. “I’d like to play with that.” They understand that others need a turn, in conversation and games. They know that it is okay to talk to friends at snack time, but not when the teacher is reading a story. They stop destroying what others have done. How does this miracle happen?

Teaching self-regulation is not a curriculum in itself but part of the ordinary activities of every day. It involves adults who model how to ask for something rather than grab it, how to speak to someone, how to play a game, how to listen when someone else is speaking. It requires lots of prompts, reminders and strategies from caring adults, day after day. Once, trying to help a little boy who could not stop hitting his classmates no matter what his teachers and parents said, I suggested that when he felt like hitting, he should put his hands behind his back and hold on to them tight. Very gradually he began to remember to do it and the incidents of hitting decreased. Young children need many opportunities to practice self-regulation with teachers and classmates, parents and siblings. Luckily a nursery school offers almost endless possibilities for that practice.

Eventually most children are able, on their own, to control their impulses long enough to think of what the consequences might be. Then they can begin to consider and adapt alternative behaviors with better outcomes.

The development of emotional self-regulation is an essential skill for learning and life success. At the nursery school level, it is the first step a child takes toward becoming a responsible citizen.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years experience in working with young children.