Self-Regulation in Children
For young children, emotional upset is triggered every day. Emotional outbursts, temper tantrums, and sulking are a natural part of growing up.
Although these behaviors are natural, they’re often major triggers for adults. Despite our best intentions, we snap, “Stop crying/whining/complaining!” or, “It’s not a big deal. Just calm down!” We often see emotional upset as disruptive, disrespectful, or a discipline issue.
In reality, children need to learn self-regulation… how to manage their emotions.
As adults, our job is to see emotional upset as a teaching moment. We can coach children through their upset and teach vital social emotional and self-regulatory skills.
Five Steps to Self-Regulation
Dr. Becky Bailey, the creator of Conscious Discipline, teaches a five-step process for self-regulation.
Conscious Discipline is an internationally recognized social emotional learning program that blends SEL, school climate, classroom management, and discipline. Dr. Bailey’s book Managing Emotional Mayhem takes an in-depth look at self-regulation, teaching adults how to master the process and teach it to children.
In short, the five steps for self-regulation are:
- I Am- Becoming aware that something has triggered an emotion
- I Calm- Breathing deeply and noticing emotions without judging them
- I Feel- Identifying and naming the emotion (Name it to tame it)
- I Choose- Accepting the feeling and choose a calming activity to help self-regulate
- I Solve- Now in a calmer state, solve the problem that originally triggered the emotion
In this article, we’ll take a brief look at each of the five steps and how they are helpful for children.
Adult First, Child Second
It’s important to recognize that managing and regulating emotions is a difficult skill for adults, too.
For many of us, this is because these skills were never taught. The concept of teaching children to recognize and manage their emotions in a healthy manner is still relatively new.
Dr. Bailey emphasizes that adults must learn self-regulation before attempting to teach self-regulation to children. After all, how can you teach a skill that you don’t have?
If we haven’t mastered self-regulation, we’ll be triggered by the child’s upset. We will then respond to the child’s upset with our own upset. In this way, we merely add fuel to the fire and model the exact behaviors that we are trying to eliminate in children.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on coaching children through this process. But remember that before you can effectively teach a better way, it’s necessary to learn a better way.
As you practice the coaching tips below, remind yourself to pause and take deep, calming breaths before addressing a child’s upset. Tell yourself that the child’s behavior is not personal and that this is an opportunity to teach the child important skills. Losing your temper in these situations is counterproductive.
The “I Am” step is about becoming aware that a situation has triggered an emotional upset. When children are upset, they become fixated on whatever it is that they want in the moment. The world is not going their way, and they express their displeasure in a variety of ways.
When the child is triggered, it’s important for you to remain calm so that you can help the child begin to calm. Get to know children well enough to recognize their triggers and help them identify their triggers too.
In Conscious Discipline, schools and homes are encouraged to have a Safe Place where children can go to practice the self-regulation process. If you don’t have a Safe Place, guide the child to a quiet, comfortable area to start the coaching process.
If you do have a Safe Place, children who become aware of their triggers can choose to go there to begin the self-regulatory process.
When children (and adults) are triggered, only the lower centers of the brain are accessible. Skills like fight, flight, surrender, and emotional outburst are the only tools available.
The goal of the second step of Dr. Bailey’s process is to create a pause between being triggered and acting out (just as adults are encouraged to do before responding to upset children). Helping students learn about various coping strategies is beneficial at this step.
Children learn to pause and take deep breaths to shut off the body’s fight or flight response. When this response is shut off, children can choose a healthier response to the triggering situation.
To coach children in this step:
- Model deep breathing when you are upset.
- Practice deep breathing with the child when the child is not upset. Deep breathing involves breathing in through the nose (belly going out) and out through the mouth (belly going in). The exhale must be longer than the inhale.
- Conscious Discipline uses four deep breathing techniques that are fun and easy for children to learn: S.T.A.R., Drain, Pretzel, and Balloon.
- Make eye contact with the child when he/she is upset and take deep, calming breaths. Say, “Breathe with me.”
Children sometimes struggle to identify and label their emotions. Dr. Bailey often refers to Step 3 as “Name it to tame it.” It involves helping children learn to recognize their emotions.
Understanding an emotion (“I feel angry”) makes it easier for the child to separate their identity from the feeling they are experiencing. Only then can the child regulate the feeling.
In Conscious Discipline, teachers and parents use Feeling Buddies and Feeling Faces. Children look at the Buddies or Faces to help them identify what they are feeling. The Buddies and Faces are also used in lessons that teach children about “big feelings.”
Alternatively, you can have children look in a mirror, and you can post clip art or pictures from magazines depicting emotions. Spend time discussing feelings and their physical and visual cues when children are in a state of calm too.
It’s also helpful to make an educated guess about what the child is feeling: “You seem angry,” or, “You seem sad.”
At this point, you can also try to understand why the child is triggered. “You wanted _________,” or, “You were hoping ________.” Often, this phrase alone helps children feel understood, enabling them to calm.
During the I Choose step, continue to offer empathy to the child: “You wanted to spend more time with your mom. It’s hard to say goodbye to the people we love, even when we know they’ll be back soon. It’s hard. You can handle this. Keep breathing.”
It’s vital to offer empathy instead of trying to negate the child’s feelings or push them away. Help the child understand and accept what he or she is feeling, making it possible to learn from the experience and change their state from upset to calm.
Next, help the child make a healthy choice for shifting from upset to calm. Choices can include more deep breathing, drawing, writing in a journal, reading a book, squeezing a stress ball, talking about the feeling, looking at family photos, or hugging a stuffed animal. Ask the child, “What would help right now?”
The Conscious Discipline Safe Place is equipped with the materials listed above, as well as an I Choose Self-Control Board. With the board, children choose a Feeling Face icon that indicates how they’re feeling, then a calming strategy icon.
Now that the child is calm, he or she is in an optimal state to learn a new skill or problem-solve. Coach the child to handle the trigger differently in order to solve the problem the next time it happens.
If the child was triggered by a hard math problem, for example, you can say, “Next time you need help with a math problem, raise your hand and I will come and help you. We can figure it out together.”
The way we respond to children when they’re upset will either help or hinder their self-regulation and social emotional development.
We don’t want to teach children to fear, distrust, bury, or ignore their feelings.
Instead, we can coach them to identify their triggers, recognize their feelings, and change their state from upset to calm. In this calm state, children can resolve conflicts and problems and learn better ways to respond to their triggers.
Whether you use Dr. Bailey’s five-step self-regulation process or another approach, the keys are:
- Remain calm yourself
- Teach children useful calming strategies
- Help children learn to recognize and label emotions
- Offer empathy and encouragement
- Problem-solve or teach new skills when children are calm
In this way, you can help raise a generation of children who know healthy, helpful ways to handle their feelings and make wise choices.
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