What is self-regulation?

Emotional Intelligence

By Nicole Tutaj MA, OTR/L

Self-regulation is one’s ability to manage their behaviors, emotions, attention and adjust depending on the circumstances in the environment. It is the ability to calm down when upset, handle frustration without aggressive behaviors or outbursts, and to be flexible to change. 

Self-regulation is a foundational skill, once a child learns to self-regulate other skills such as sharing, turn taking, attention and concentration begin to develop. Initially, children need our help with self-regulation as they have not developed the necessary skills to appropriately process all that they are feeling. With our help, the use of appropriate strategies, and tons of opportunities to practice, they can develop the necessary skills to help them in any situation.

Self-regulation can be broken down into 3 areas: 

  1. Sensory regulation: Allows children to maintain an appropriate level of alertness to respond appropriately across environments to the sensory stimuli present
  2. Emotional regulation: Allows children to respond to social rules with a range of emotions through initiating, inhibiting, or modulating their behavior in each situation to ensure social acceptance.
  3. Cognitive regulation: Allows children to use cognitive (mental) processes necessary for problem solving and related abilities to demonstrate attention and persistence to tasks.

Signs your child may be having difficulties with self-regulation: 

  • Has tantrums that last longer than typical and occur often 
  • May be easily distracted 
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships 
  • Becomes easily frustrated 
  • Has difficulty with changes in routine 
  • Has difficulty with transitions 
  • Appears to be “in their own world”, lethargic, disinterested
  • Constantly on the move, seeks out movement throughout the day 

Activities to help promote self-regulation throughout the day: 

  1. Outside and sensory play
  2. Mindfulness activities: yoga, deep breathing
  3. Heavy work and movement: animal walks, jumping on the trampoline, climbing, pushing/pulling a heavy basket, wearing a heavy backpack, rough and tumble play, chewy toys or foods
  4. Talk and think about feelings: this can be done through social stories, songs, or games
  5. Blow bubbles: this helps a child learn to breathe but also provides a calming sensory experience 
  6. Use a timer to help with transitions 
  7. Create a calming corner: provide favorite toys, books, and a comfortable space for your child to retreat to in the home if they need some space 
  8. Use a visual schedule: to help a child anticipate what is next in their routine and give them something to look forward to
  9. Sensory diet: an occupational therapist can help recommend appropriate activities to complete throughout the day that can be calming or alerting depending on what the child needs at different times of the day 

If you think your child is having difficulties with self-regulation, an occupational therapist can provide activities and strategies to help develop their skills. Contact Uplift Therapy Center for a free phone consultation to determine your child’s specific needs.  


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