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Teaching Self Regulation Skills in Early Childhood

Help preschoolers develop self regulation skills for success in the classroom and life.

Teaching Self Regulation Skills in Early Childhood

Teaching Self Regulation Skills in Early Childhood

Self regulation skills influence critical developmental milestones in a preschooler’s life, such as making friends, following adult instructions, showing empathy, and performing tasks without guidance. 

Preschoolers can independently manage their emotions and behavior when taught self-regulation effectively. As a result, they become less disruptive and more collaborative in the classroom. 

Implementing self regulation strategies can be challenging, especially if you have limited experience. It can also be tough when you’re dealing with varying emotions from several three to five-year-olds. However, it’s possible, and in this article, we discuss how to teach self regulation skills to preschoolers. 

What is self regulation?

Self regulation is a foundational skill that helps children understand their environment and calmly manage their emotions and behavior. Children aren’t born with self regulation, but it develops during early childhood as their brains rapidly mature. 

With the help of nurturing adults, children can learn and practice self regulation skills to become well-adjusted and independent. Self regulation will also help them build healthy friendships and adhere to social norms, like showing empathy, waiting their turn, making eye contact, and following directions. 

How to teach self regulation skills

Teaching self regulation takes dedication and consistency to achieve positive results. Let’s look at some self regulation strategies and how to use them.

Be a positive role model

As a childcare professional, your behavior will affect how children learn self regulation skills. Think about how you react physically and emotionally to stimuli. Would you say that you demonstrate a lack of self regulation? For example, do you raise your voice when the students are talking instead of listening? Dealing with young children all day can bring up a range of emotions, so no one expects you to be perfect. However, you should be open to showing your students how it looks to manage emotions and behavior.

Sharing your feelings is one of the most effective ways of teaching self regulation in the classroom. When you share experiences, you’re helping your students understand how to recognize, identify, and label their feelings. For example, you could model this by saying, “I feel frustrated when you talk while I’m giving directions, but I take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘It’s okay, I’ll try again.’” Explain to them that it’s okay to feel frustrated, and though you might feel like yelling at that moment, you decide to respond differently, and they can do it too.

Practice deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing is a popular exercise for managing emotions during stressful situations. When children engage in deep breathing regularly, they will relax and refocus. 

  • Have the children lie on their backs and relax their muscles. Next, they should place their hands on their bellies.
  • With closed mouths, have them breathe in until they feel the air in the belly.
  • Have them hold in the air for a few seconds.
  • Have them slowly blow all the air out of their mouths.

Start practicing this exercise even before stressful situations arise. Over time, your students will use it independently whenever they feel stressed. 

  1. Create a structured and positive learning environment

A structured learning environment with routine and consistency helps children regulate their behavior because they can easily predict the next activity and transition from one task to another. For example, if a child is playing before transitioning to story time, they'll know to put their toys aside and settle for the story.

Other ways to create a conducive learning environment include:

  • Arranging furniture according to tasks. For example, row seating for personal tasks and group seating for collaborative tasks.
  • Ensuring appropriate lighting and temperature levels.
  • Using dividers to maximize focus and minimize distractions.

Read books

Reading to children stimulates their brains and influences behavior. Preschoolers aren’t aware of how to handle their emotions, but they can relate better to a book character. So, read stories to your students about self regulation regularly. The book should have characters that are successful and unsuccessful at self regulation so the children are exposed to examples of both behaviors. 

Go into detail about the consequences when the characters don't self regulate. For example, physically hurting their peers, feeling terrible, losing friends, ruining property, getting into trouble with their parents, and so on.

When your students see the consequences of both types of behaviors, they'll want to emulate the successful ones.

Excellent books that teach self regulation include:

  1. Have a reflection exercise

Avoid correcting a child’s behavior in front of their peers. Instead, observe and figure out the cause first, then address the issue when the child is calm. Arrange a reflection exercise for children who find it difficult to self regulate. The exercise should be relaxed, positive, and non-judgmental. When a child feels safe, they're more likely to engage in the reflection exercise.

Discuss the distressing event, why it happened, and how the child can handle it better next time. The student will become mindful of their emotions and how to respond. Ask reflective questions like, “How does my body feel now?; How did it feel at that moment?; What can I do next time I feel that way?

Approaches to learning—self regulation domain

The Approaches to Learning-Self Regulation (ATL-REG) domain is one of the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) domains. It assesses two strongly connected abilities crucial to a child’s school success: Approaches to Learning and Self Regulation. 

The Approaches to Learning skills include engagement and persistence, attention maintenance, and curiosity and initiative. The Self Regulation skills include imitation, self-control of feelings and behavior, self-comforting, and shared use of space and materials. 

These ATL-REG skills affect a child’s ability to engage positively in classroom activities, persevere through challenging tasks, and regulate their feelings and responses to frustrating scenarios while interacting with their peers.

Childcare professionals use the DRDP (2015) Preschool Fundamental View Measure to assess a child’s developmental levels with examples of activities a child would typically engage in at each level. The different levels include responding, exploring, building, and integrating. Let’s look at the different ATL-REG measures in detail.

Attention maintenance

This ATL-REG measure focuses on a child’s ability to focus and pay attention to people, objects, and events of interest.  Unlike infants, whose attention frequently shifts among objects, people, and sounds, preschoolers can maintain focused attention with adult support.  

Engagement and persistence

This measure focuses on a child’s ability to understand and master an activity, no matter how difficult or challenging. Although preschool-aged children enjoy learning and discovering, they may not persist when they face difficulty. Conversely, a child’s ability to continue through a challenging activity shows development in their executive function skills.

Curiosity and initiative in learning

This measure focuses on a child’s ability to explore the environment in progressively focused ways to learn about people, things, sounds, materials, and events. For example, early preschool-aged children explore their surroundings by observing, asking questions, or manipulating. However, in late preschool, children can use tools, familiar strategies, or information sources to learn about people, things, and events.


This measure assesses a child’s ability to comfort or soothe themselves, mainly through managing emotions, when facing distress from internal or external factors. Children will respond to internal or external stimulation in the early preschool years by fussing when hungry or crying when they hear a loud noise. As they progress, they will comfort themselves, for example, by seeking an adult’s help when another child takes something from them or finding a quiet place to get away from active play.


The imitation measure focuses on a child’s ability to repeat, mirror, and practice the words and actions of others. A child at the responding developmental level will imitate simple actions or sounds. For example, smiling when an adult smiles or mimicking an adult’s facial expression. At the exploring level, they’ll imitate familiar actions like repeating “bye-bye” and waving after an adult does it.  

Self-control of feelings and behavior

This measure focuses on a child’s ability to regulate feelings and behavior without adult guidance. In preschool, children acquire behavioral management strategies like taking turns and using words instead of having outbursts. However, they usually need adult guidance to help them manage their emotions. 

Shared use of space and materials

This measure focuses on a child’s capacity to share space and materials with others. In the early preschool years, children primarily play by themselves with limited peer collaboration. However, as a child advances in preschool and goes on to kindergarten, they’ll start collaborating with their peers by voluntarily offering to share space and materials.

DRDP domains

Besides the Approaches to Learning-Self Regulation domain, the DRDP has seven other domains, including:

Social and Emotional Development (SED)

The SED domain assesses a child’s ability to interact and form positive relationships with peers and nurturing adults considering these skills; symbolic and sociodramatic play, social and emotional understanding, identity of self in relation to others, relationships and social interactions with peers, and relationships and interactions with adults. 

Language and Literacy Development (LLD)

The Language and Literacy Development domain assesses a child’s abilities in foundational language and literacy skills development. The child may demonstrate these skills in any language or two languages. The foundation for learning English develops from language and literacy skills in their first language.

English-Language Development (ELD)

The ELD domain assesses the English communication skills progress of preschool-age dual language learners whose home language isn’t English. The domain uses four measures to evaluate a child’s English communication abilities considering their experience with English and not their age.  

Children acquire English differently depending on factors like the level of exposure to English, age of exposure to English, and measure of support at home (first language). 

Cognition, Including Math and Science (COG)

The COG domain assesses a child’s observation, exploration,  and investigation skills concerning objects and concepts.  This domain includes these skill areas: number sense of math operations, number sense of quantity, spatial relationships, classification, cause and effect, measurement, shapes, patterning, inquiry through observation and investigation, knowledge of the natural world, and documentation and communication of inquiry.

Physical Development—Health (PD-HLTH)

The Physical Development-Health domain assesses a child’s motor and routine personal care, nutrition, and safety development. This domain includes these skills: fine motor manipulative skills, gross motor manipulative skills, gross locomotor movement skills, perceptual-motor skills and movement concepts, active physical play, safety, nutrition, and personal care routines (like, hygiene, dressing, and feeding).

History-Social Science (HSS)

The HSS domain assesses a child’s ability to understand social situations, group participation, and relationships between people and their environment. This domain includes these skill areas: a sense of time, sense of place, responsible conduct, conflict negotiation, and ecology. 

Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)

The Visual and Performing Arts domain assesses a child’s awareness and engagement in artistic expression. The skills in this domain include music, dance, drama, and visual art.

The bottom line

Emotions can facilitate learning or become a roadblock. It all depends on how a child manages them. Children won’t develop self regulation skills in one day. It’s a long-term process that requires patience and persistence. Remember that children struggling with self regulation aren’t “bad,” they just need help with that part of their development. Staying patient and positive when teaching self regulations skills, will equip children with life-long success.

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