Self-regulation, in a very basic description, involves controlling our behaviour, emotions and thought so that we are able to complete a task or perform a particular motor output in line with an instruction. It requires us to filter out unimportant stimuli, focus on important stimuli, manage our impulses, frustrations and emotions.
Children develop regulation skills through practice with a close caregiver. At each developmental stage the ability to calm and soothe when we feel angry or sad, to work through frustration or disappointment or to make transitions takes practice.
The processes involved in self-regulation can be divided into three broad areas: sensory regulation, emotional regulation and cognitive regulation.
When we consider sensory regulation, it is important to remember that this forms the foundation of our academic learning and social behaviour and is an unconscious process of the brain. Sensory regulation allows us to maintain an appropriate level of alertness through the way we process and respond to messages from our environment and our own bodies.
Throughout the day we get bombarded with sensory stimuli. As adults we have learnt to manage this and to keep ourselves (mostly) in a zone of optimal engagement through various strategies or activities. In a simplified way, imagine that you have a bucket that gets added to as the day goes along. You will have your own strategies and preferences to manage your bucket level in an attempt to keep it from spilling over (which can be challenging in the current circumstances).
However, children have not yet developed these skills. Initially infants are fully dependent on their caregivers for their regulation needs. Thereafter, a period of co-regulation between caregivers, toddlers and younger children. Older school going children become more skilled, over time with reflective practice with a caregiver, with regulating themselves in a variety of learning and social situations.
When our buckets are filled to the rim and something triggers us, that last straw, this can cause our bucket to overflow and we are prone to “flip our lid”, even as adults. This “flip the lid” activates our downstairs brain which includes our emotional centre and “lizard brain” and can result in a fight, flight or freeze response. This response can range from: shutdown, withdrawal, emotional outburst, fussiness, clinginess, excessively stubborn, overly tired, teary, irritability, low frustration tolerance, attempting to control others or the situation, hiding or trying to run away as well as physical reactions as part of a “fight” response.
Here is where the “Regulate, Relate and Reason” concepts are useful. In “flip the lid” moments we need to start with regulation, not reasoning. By screaming, talking loudly, trying to problem solve with a little one (and adult) who has flipped their lid won’t be effective. In these instances, you are only adding more sensory input, that they cannot process, to a cup that is overflowing.
First, we need to regulate, and help the child to find a calm state. This may include various deep pressure or proprioceptive strategies. Deep pressure calms the nervous system while increasing our feel-good hormones, such as a good old bear hug. Minimise additional sensory input, if possible, whether taking them outside if they are in a loud space, another room, or a quiet and dark fort space.
Secondly, once their breathing pattern starts to slow down, tears start to subside, relate and connect to the emotional centre in the brain (limbic system). Get down on their level, speak in a soft tone, let them know they are loved and safe. Once their breathing pattern starts normalising and you can notice they are calmer, then start to reason and problem solve together. It’s not about jumping to problem solving in these “flip the lid” moments, regulate, relate and reason.
Dysregulation can be contagious and as adults we need to model self-regulation and remain calm in these very testing moments. Fortunately, calmness also has a contagious effect.
Similar to other developmental skills such as learning to walk, write their names or tie shoelaces, self-regulation takes time and practice. One recipe does not work for everyone and sometimes it may take some trial and error to find what works well.
Incorporate a range of movement and deep pressure sensory experiences on a daily basis to manage your little one’s bucket level. Keep an eye out for areas of sensitivity, such as a low tolerance for loud noises for example, and have access to headphones or quieter fort spaces to minimise spill over effects. Free play, glorious free play, provides children with an opportunity to unwind, to self-regulate and to follow their own needs as they venture on a play adventure. Don’t underestimate the value of free play for children’s health and well-being.
This post was authored by Anandé Ferreira, founder of PlayMore. Anandé is a pediatric occupational therapist with a special interest in playfulness and sensory integration.
PlayMore launched an online platform in 2019 where caregivers can learn practical ‘how to’ tips and strategies on various play and child development topics. The platform functions as a monthly subscription, with new monthly content and is most relevant for caregivers with children between birth to 7 years of age.
Play deprivation can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development and it is therefore critical to enable caregivers and children with opportunities to play within their context. PlayMore aims to support and empower caregivers with knowledge and practical strategies to help children reach their full potential.
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This article includes knowledge from Dr B. Perry and Think:Kids, who have led the work in developing the concept of Regulate, Relate, Reason.