I was a ski instructor during college, and 95% of the lessons that I taught were with children. Often, they were group lessons with up to a dozen children in my charge at one time. Even twenty years later I can still recall the ten-year-old girl that whined, cried, and threw tantrums all day long in my maxed out class of 12 children.
We had a bunny hill for learning, and she would screech in a whiny voice that her skis were not going the direction she was wanting them to go every time she skied down the small hit. That would be followed by her throwing herself in a mound of snow at the base of hill and wailing. It was an awful day as an instructor. I still wonder why her parents put her in the class if they knew she had this kind of behavior. My guess is that they wanted to ski by themselves and didn’t care if she learned to ski. It was simply the most available childcare at the resort.
I was a psychology undergrad student at that time, and I knew that her behavior was not normal. Looking back at the situation, she did not appear to be autistic as her social skills were quite adept. She is a perfect example of a child who lacks good self-regulation skills.
What Is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation skills include a child’s ability to manage their emotions and behaviors in different situations. “It is related to emotional control and planning as well as the control of one’s own behavior.”
If your child doesn’t win a board game, do they throw a tantrum or pout more than other children their age? Does your child become enraged or completely lose their cool when they can’t find something, such as their shoes or backpack, before school? Does your child habitually fight with their siblings or other children when they don’t get something they want, such as a toy?
If you answered yes to any of the above or feel that your child may be lacking in self-regulations skills, then keep reading. This article will provide you with tips on how to help your child with the development of self-regulation skills. It is imperative that children get help with these skills sooner than later, as research has shown that lack of self regulation early in life can lead to greater problems in the future, such as difficulties in school.
Tips to Help Your Child Develop Self-Regulation Skills
1. Discuss Self-Regulation in Their Terms
“He made me do it!” my kids have said of one another many a times. They are usually defending their own bad behavior. An older sister may hit a younger brother because he spit on her, and her defense is that he made her hit him because he spit on her first.
This is the way a child’s mind works. It is up to parents to explain to their children that each person has control over their own actions and reactions. Children need to understand that self-regulation and control over their emotions and behaviors takes time and practice.
This conversation about self-regulation and self-control is not a one time occurrence. It is something parents should be discussing with their children regularly.
Talk to your child using terms that they understand. If you are working with your toddler on self-regulation, then you will need to convey things very simply. You can talk about how if they throw a tantrum in the grocery store, it means that they don’t get to go to the playground that afternoon. Remind the child of the consequence before you even enter the store. Talk about what good behavior looks like and that their reward will be playing in the park after shopping.
Teaching self-regulation skills should start early in life. Toddlers can begin to learn basic self-regulation through consequences. These consequences and the expectations for their behavior should be explained in basic terms that are age appropriate.
For example: “If you hit your baby brother today, you will get no TV tonight.” Follow through with consequences, but also set reasonable expectations.
Toddlers also need reminders often and to be talked to eye-to-eye on their level. Self-regulation skills are very difficult for toddlers, but it is teachable time.
2. Help Your Child Set Goals
Goals help to direct behavior. If your child sets a goal of getting an A in math, then their behavior can be directed toward that goal. Rather than playing video games after school, they may be more likely to get their math homework done if they have a genuine goal set for getting an A in math.
Behavior is regulated by goals, according to research,. If an individual doesn’t have any set goals, then the behavior will likely have less regulation or direction towards a positive purpose.
Helping your child set reasonable goals that they can be passionate about can help their self-regulation. For example, if your child has a difficult time waking up each morning, then talk about setting a goal of them getting to bed by a specific time each night so they don’t have groggy mornings.
You can help them make a chart of this goal, so they can track their progress. After a few weeks of successfully achieving the goal, you can then discuss with them how their life has improved with more sleep and a set time of going to bed.
Only you know where your child needs improvements in self-regulation. Once you target the areas that need improvement, then help them to set goals that work toward better self-regulation skills.
Self-regulation is integral to life success through goal setting. In a research article that supports goal-setting and self-regulation, the following was stated:
Self-regulation also involves setting and reaching goals. To succeed in life, people must manage themselves effectively, which involves setting appropriate goals and then making themselves carry out the steps to achieve them. Often this involves persisting in the face of failures or setbacks. Self-regulation is crucial for enabling people to do this.
3. Give Them Choices
A child who has good self-regulation will be able to see potential options in a situation, weigh each option, and make a determination of the best choice. Children who are always told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it may end up with poor self-regulation because they aren’t allowed the opportunity to practice making decisions.
Children should be allowed to make simple choices throughout the day from a young age. For example, ask a toddler if they want milk or juice at snack time. It really doesn’t matter to the parent which choice is made, since they are both healthy options for the child.
The point is to create opportunities that allow choices in various situations, so that the child can learn to make their own choices and understand how decisions lead to consequences.
The choices and options should increase with their age. For example, asking a five year old which shoes they want to wear to school. They can make the choice. If they end up selecting rain boots and they discover at school that they are difficult to run in at recess time, then they will have learned a lesson through their own decision making. The lesson should help them make a better choice the next time.
This kind of choice-making opportunity helps a child to learn about planning and thinking ahead. Planning is an integral part of self-regulation.
4. Give Them Planning Opportunities
Planning helps a child to self regulate their behavior. “It [self regulation] is related to emotional control and planning as well as the control of one’s own behavior.”
Planning how to react in a tough situation can help a child with self-regulation. If your child has a tendency toward lack of self-regulation in specific situations, then help them to plan ahead.
For example, if your child throws a tantrum when their little league baseball team loses a game, then help them plan ahead. Discuss how they will act if they win and how they will react if they lose. You can talk to them about how they have a choice to make about their behavior in that moment.
Help them to plan ahead for the decisions that they must make in tough situations. When they make bad choices or plan poorly, it is also an opportunity for you to discuss how they could do things differently next time.
Play helps children to develop self-regulation skills. One such way, as proven in research, is “children learn to inhibit their impulsive behavior and follow rules which transform their behavior from impulsive and spontaneous to mediated and voluntary.”.
For example, when children are playing a game with their peers, they learn to follow the rules. They will find out quickly that if they don’t follow the rules or if they cheat, their peers will react. They may be kicked out of the game or they may be scolded by their peers. Play gives them the opportunity to practice self-regulation in real life scenarios that children can understand.
6. Model Good Self-Regulation Skills
A child watches their parents and caregivers. They will watch to see what kind of behavior is modeled. That is part of human development. Children watch, learn, and imitate those around them.
Therefore, parents and caregivers must be aware of their own self0regulation skills.
How do you react when things don’t go your way in life? Do you raise your voice and curse? Are you impulsive, or do you take a moment to pause and make the best decision possible in every situation? Do you plan ahead and make good choices?
Children learn from us. We must make an effort to practice good self-regulation skills, so that our children can learn positive self regulation from us.
Circling back to the story at the start of this article, I want to address the situation with the girl who had no self-regulation skills apparent that particular day. Perhaps if her parents had helped her to set a goal of learning to ski that day and discussed how she should behave in class so she could maximize the learning opportunity, she may have acted better.
However, in her case, her behaviors were so far from normal self-regulation that she probably would have required professional intervention (counseling or behavior modification therapy) to behave in a normal manner in a group ski lesson.
If you have ever seen a ten-year-old child who acts like a two year old, then you too have seen how important the development of self-regulation skills are in life. The older the child gets, the more difficult it is to change set behaviors.
Help your child learn good self regulation starting as a toddler, and continue teaching them as they learn and grow.
More on Positive Behaviors in Children
Featured photo credit: MI PHAM via unsplash.com