Fostering Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Are We Doing It Wrong?

Buzzwords and goals come and go in every field. In the early childhood field, self-regulation has been both a buzzword and a very big goal for children for a couple of years now. I suspect that’s because, as I’ve written previously, challenging behaviors are on the rise in early childhood settings. If only every child could self-regulate, we’d see far fewer behavior issues!

The problem is, there is often confusion about what self-regulation is and how it should be fostered.

With regard to its definition, many believe it’s all about self-control. And while self-control is indeed a part of it, self-regulation specifically refers to the ability to regulate oneself without intervention from an outside source, such as another person. In the case of young children, it means adults don’t always have to be telling them how to behave; they’ve learned to control their emotions and resist impulsive behavior on their own.

Obviously, that’s a good thing; the ability to regulate oneself is something we want for every individual. But, given its definition, many are going about “teaching” it in the wrong way: insisting that children sit still or be quiet, and assuming that once children are able to meet these unrealistic expectations they will have acquired the ability to self-regulate. However, this fails to meet the primary characteristic of self-regulation: that there be no intervention from an outside source. Also, such demands are typically met with resistance – i.e., challenging behavior – because, developmentally speaking, young children weren’t created to sit still or stay quiet.

So, how do we go about promoting its development?

It’s quite possible this might surprise you (or maybe not, if you know my work), but one of the best ways for children to learn to regulate themselves is through movement games! As with anything else, if it’s fun for them, they’re much more inclined to want to do it.

For example, if you ask children to stay still, it’s not likely to happen. However, if you’re playing a game of Statues, where they move while the music is playing and freeze into a statue when the music is paused, they’ll want to stay still – because pretending to be a statue is fun!

Similarly, moving slowly requires a great deal more self-control than moving quickly. Telling children to move slowly won’t inspire them to learn how. But asking them to move like an astronaut floating in outer space – or as though they’re trying to walk through peanut butter – provides incentive for them to move slowly. And, therefore, they learn how. The same applies to the ability to wait. Waiting is definitely not a young child’s long suit. But if you give them a good reason to wait, they’re more than happy to do it. What’s a good reason to wait? How about an activity like Blast Off, where the children crouch low while you count backward from 10, with as much drama as possible? Not until you say “Blast off!” are the children to launch themselves!

Human development professor Lori Skibbe and her fellow researchers followed a group of children from preschool to second grade and used the game of Simon Says to determine the children’s ability to self-regulate. They discovered that the earlier children acquired their self-regulation skills, the faster the skills developed. Their study also found that the benefits of self-regulation don’t dwindle over time. Moreover, the study demonstrated that, beyond the improved behavior it offers, the ability to self-regulate also improves the young child’s language and literacy development. Obviously, we have many good reasons to foster it.

I once heard a workshop leader (and I wish I could remember who it was so I could credit her) say, “We often set up environments for children that are contrary to what we know about who and what they are.”

Unfortunately, it’s true. Equally unfortunate is the fact that we often teach children in ways that are contrary to what we know about who and what they are. If we know that young children aren’t developmentally ready to be either still or quiet, why do we ask them to do so and expect they’ll comply? And if we know that joy is what inspires and motivates young children – and that movement is their preferred mode of learning – why aren’t we more often taking advantage of this knowledge?


Note: This post is excerpted and adapted from my online course, “Avoid Behavior Challenges in Your Early Childhood Setting.” 



  • Nic Russell says:

    I love this so much!! I create yoga programs for early childhood & I have worked out that children learn better self reg & SEL through movement!!
    There are many mindfulness based programs that are out there (which are brilliant in there own way) but …. children need to move!!
    Yoga offers the perfect blend of movement & stillness.
    I have so so many yoga games and creative storytelling, that I use with the children & they show amazing results!!!
    So when it’s time to sit still, they do! I also use only one rule in all of my teachings ‘the rule of respect’ – for me, others, your self, the environment you are in. It is like a magical spell cast over everyone when you use this!!
    Yoga is combining the use of mind, body & breath. Mindfulness alone does not do this ??
    I’m so happy to read this! Thank you ??

    • Rae says:

      I can feel your passion, Nic! I hadn’t given this much thought, but you’re right in that most mindfulness programs focus on the “neck up,” much in the way that classrooms do. The body isn’t involved.

      Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Cindy says:

    As a nurse working with children I naturally worked with the physiological aspect of obtaining wellness which involves movement (walking decreases release of stress hormones while increasing “happy” hormones). My partner in achieving this is my Therapy Dog. Not only are children motivated to move by working with a trained dog but they also reach personal goals with ease and no side effects. It’s truly a natural fit for both the child and the dog who tend to innately enjoy activities.

    Thank you for sharing this valuable approach!

    Cindy, MSN, RN
    Animal-Assisted Therapy Pratitioner

    • Rae says:

      Thank you for sharing this story, Cindy! It makes me so happy to think of the children with your Therapy Dog! Thank you, too, for the important work you do.

  • Renee says:

    I love this article! I’m an Early Childhood Professional & I do similar activities with the children in my care, as well. Even with the Mindfulness & Yoga ideas mentioned by Nic Russell, along with Music & Movement, or Eurythmy from Waldorf, as I study many different philosophies.

  • Lia says:

    How long is the course?
    I tried to watch the promo, in hopes the answer was included, but the link was unresponsive.
    Thank you for your time.

    • Rae says:

      Lia, the course is two hours. I’m not sure why you weren’t able to watch the promo. I clicked on the photo, which brought me to my course home page on the Teachable site, and when I clicked the Watch Promo button, it started to play.

      Thanks for your interest!

  • Neurologically we look at regulation as a process of the central nervous system. Arousal in the CNS is ‘regulated’ to match external information and stimulation. Muscle input (heavy work, push, pull, jump, stretch) all give sensory input that decreases CNS arousal. So in my view regulation is presenting kids with opportunities that increase muscle input materials that are stretchy, squishy, heavy… when they paly with them the muscles are activated and the CNS arousal is decreased. Self-regulation evolves as humans learn to recruit muscle input when they feel they need to turn down their arousal (hypervigilance traded for focus). Subtle techniques adult with normal CNS development use are twisting their hair, biting their lip, grimacing, tapping a foot, pen cap on & off …
    Denying children muscle input actually makes it impossible for them to ‘self-regulate’ unless they lie to themselves and ‘talk themselves into it’. Do we want children to ignore signals that tell their body to perk up, move, get ready?
    When someone has a sensory processing deficit, they may not respond to the typical amount of muscle input and need really dramatically increased, pushing, pulling, crashing, banging. This ‘behavior’ is driven by physical need. Provide opportunities to satisfy that need and their CNS arousal will regulate itself. Laura Hale

    • Rae says:

      Thanks for the input, Laura. And to answer your question: No, we definitely do not want children ignoring their body’s signals!

  • Yvonne Fowler says:

    The information is some what new to me but it is very helpful

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard