Social Emotional Learning, Self-Regulation, and Daily Activities
Anyone who has ever faced a toddler throwing a full-blown tantrum because you are out of their favorite snack will appreciate the power of social emotional learning! Lucky for us, there are plenty of social emotional learning activities for kids that can help our children learn self-regulation as they grow. Self-regulation or self-management refers to the ability to monitor our own emotions, arousal state, thoughts, and related behaviors. Self-regulation is one skill set that is developed through social and emotional learning (SEL). While this is a big, confusing term that gets thrown around a lot- it refers to the process that children learn to develop the social and life skills we all need to be able to manage our day. While this article will focus on self-regulation, you can learn more about other social and emotional life skills by reading our article on The Basics of Social-Emotional Learning.
So what skills do children need to be able to self-regulate?
- Recognize and name their emotions- Children need to be able to identify the physical signs of emotions as well as appropriately label these. This emotional literacy (being able to identify emotions) is critical! Kids need to know that their clenched jaw and tense muscles mean they are feeling angry, not sad. It is also important to emphasize that all emotions are valid- we all feel angry or sad sometimes. Some kids will learn that some emotions are “good” and some are “bad” and may mislabel their emotions intentionally to get the “right” answer when asked.
- Manage emotions and behaviors- Kids need succeed in social emotional learning by selecting appropriate activities or behaviors in order to modify their emotions. For example- they should know to squeeze a stress ball in response to frustration instead of throwing their pencil. For younger kids, they may need to be offered appropriate management tools but as they get older we expect them to become more independent in this task.
- Self-monitor and manage arousal levels- Children need to be able to maintain the appropriate level of alertness to sustain attention and complete tasks. This arousal level will change depending on the task and environment (taking a test versus watching a movie).
- Metacognitive skills “Thinking about thinking”: Older children need to be able to effectively select and use strategies and problem-solving skills. While this will develop as children get older, we can still provide support and lay the foundation for younger children.
How important is self-regulation?
Self-regulation can have a big impact on a child’s (and your) day-to-day success, because every day is full of emotional activities. If that previously mentioned toddler happened to have that meltdown when you were trying to get them out the door- you’ve probably experienced this. Having a child who struggles to self-regulate can impact your own ability to get through your day calmly and efficiently. Dealing with a child who struggles to fall asleep because they are feeling too excited or at too high of an arousal level can mean that you are staying up later or not having time in the evening to yourself, which in turn can lead to you feeling tired or frustrated. On the other hand, helping your kid have the emotional literacy to understand how they feel, get to the appropriate arousal level, and transition to bed without struggle may give you time to have important parent-child bonding moments such as reading bedtime stories.
Children learn emotional regulation skills as they grow and our expectations for how independently they will regulate will change as they develop. So while tantrums from a toddler are inconvenient, they are expected. If we see the same reactions in an 8-year-old, those are more concerning and will likely have a bigger impact on the kid’s life. If you’ve ever witnessed an angry co-worker have a yelling fit while dealing with a minor inconvenience at work, that’s even more concerning and likely cost that co-worker their job. As we grow, our need for self-regulation grows too. Having emotional literacy and being able to monitor our emotions can greatly impact our success in many other areas of life.
Our days are filled with activities, from the mundane to the valued, that give our lives meaning and substance. Everything from brushing our teeth, to learning a new task at work, to cheering up a friend requires self-regulation to complete. While waking up, getting dressed, and getting to work might not seem like emotional activities- if you suddenly struggled to complete them, you’d likely see how important these activities are to you. It is the same for children. One study found that children as young as 6-7 are capable of noticing differences between themselves and other kids in regards to self-regulation.
As a child grows we expect them to increase how much they can care for themselves- whether it is getting dressed or brushing their teeth. Someday we want them to be independent. What we don’t always realize is that they need to develop emotional regulation in order for that to be possible. While we don’t think of these activities as being emotionally charged- for a kid they can be extremely emotional! Toothpaste that isn’t the normal taste, or a button that just doesn’t want to be buttoned- all of these can cause frustration for our kids. And that’s ok! We all have emotions- good and bad. But if kids can’t find a way to cope with their emotions and get back to the tasks, this can hinder their routine or even their ability to be independent with tasks. Not being able to complete the activities and routines they should or want to be doing negatively impacts their mental health. Research has even shown that it impacts the mental health of the entire family (and not just the child!). One literature review found that a child’s behavior and mental health can impact a parent’s stress and well-being. Finding ways to cultivate self-regulation is important for the entire family unit.
Impact of self-regulation on a child’s roles and activities
When we use the term “roles” we often think of the jobs an adult has- teacher, doctor, business owner, sales clerk…. But we all have a lot more roles that matter to us. We may also have the role of parent, caregiver, friend, runner, knitter, etc. Likewise, children have the important roles of learning, playing, making social connections with family and friends, and increasing how much they can take care of themselves. Self-regulation will greatly impact our ability to successfully complete the many activities that make up their day:
- Learning: Self-regulation can support a child in sitting and attending in the classroom, completing homework and assignments, keeping due dates and papers organized, controlling impulses, setting and working toward goals, and motivating oneself to participate.
- Daily Routines: Getting through the day requires us to be able to monitor our emotions and behaviors efficiently. Children need to be able to cope with unexpected changes or frustrations. They also need to be able to regulate their arousal level to match the demands of the activity and environment.
- Play: This is the primary way young children learn and develop, and is an important activity throughout childhood. Play also requires a lot of self-regulation and the ability to notice and attend to social cues, modulate behaviors, and manage frustrations. Having this key social emotional learning skill makes play a lot more fun!
- Social Relationships: Forming and maintaining friendships all require elements of emotional regulation. Self-regulation can greatly impact our success in communication and interpersonal skills. Children who can manage impulses, calm themselves, and focus have more success in making friends.
- Self Care: Children are learning how to be more independent as they grow- and learning can often cause frustration. Learning how to complete grooming, dressing, bathing, and toileting activities is important for our younger kids. As they age- this may include selecting clothing, making simple meals, cleaning, and keeping items organized.
- Parent-Child Activities: Being able to have successful and bond-forming experiences with their parents is important to a child’s development. Engaging in shared activities and having successful interactions are important for both children and parents!
Parents are essential in supporting children’s development of self-regulation.
And it is better for everyone! Early childhood experiences from 0 to 5 years old are critical for a child’s brain development and help them develop the foundation for social interactions, play, self-care, and self-regulation. Positive experiences can provide the foundation for positive mental health later in life. Research shows that parents are a critical component in this process and that parents who are educated on interaction strategies can actually improve a child’s development! Similar studies have found that effective parent-led strategies improve the well-being of the parent as well as the child. You can play an important role in helping your child better understand and cope with their emotions, as well as develop appropriate behaviors around these social emotional learning skills.
Improving self-regulation can make life better for everyone and there are plenty of social emotional learning activities for kids that we naturally find throughout the day. Increasing self-regulation can make all potentially emotional activities – from the morning rush to school to bonding moments with your child – go smoother. Most importantly, teaching kids to control their emotions equips them to better cope with challenges through adolescence and into adulthood. Emotional regulation techniques have been found to result in reduced stress in children and improvement in academic functioning in at-risk children. Learning requires us to frustrate ourselves. We need to be able to risk being wrong in order to find the right answers. Modern classrooms also offer a host of challenges – peers who may distract or antagonize, and teachers who have to share their attention with the class. By developing a child’s ability to self-regulate, we are helping them be equipped to approach these challenges more optimistically.
Kids learn from the adults around them, so part of teaching self-regulation means we have to be able to model it. This type of social emotional learning can be especially important to our neurodivergent or sensory processing kids who tend to be more responsive to changes or nonverbal cues of dysregulation in adults. One of the most important steps you can take to teach your child self-regulation is making sure you are modeling it. If a child sees us take a moment to calm ourselves and take a deep breath when angry, we are teaching them a good way to deal with their anger. For younger children, verbally validating and guiding them through this process can lay an important foundation for their self monitoring as they get older. This process, often called co-regulation, can be an effective strategy for adults.
Here are some simple strategies for improving self-regulation that you can try today:
- Routines: Following a set routine at home or school can be incredibly comforting for all kids. Routines are predictable and usually mean there will be no unexpected changes. Having written schedules can be helpful for some kids, however, others respond to verbal schedules the night before or during the morning. Changes do happen, and flexibility is important for kids to learn, but try to verbalize any changes as far ahead of time as possible so your child has a chance to process them.
- Play emotional regulation games: Simple games can help children learn self-control. Examples: “Red light, green light” (Children move when told green light and stop when told red light), “Move Your Body Fast and Slow” (Children should move fast and crazy when told to and slow when told to move slow). and “Simon says” (Call out Simon says and a body movement, if your child moves when you haven’t said, “Simon Says” they are out).
- Set Expectations (that are regularly enforced): Behavioral expectations should be stated simply and if consequences are given they need to be followed through on.
- Instead of “time out” try using a “calm break”: Time outs may sound like a punishment to kids and may reinforce the idea that having emotions is bad. Having emotions is not bad, but not being able to control them during emotional activities is the problem we want to target. Using the term “calm break” helps reinforce self-regulation. Designate a safe spot in your home for breaks (chairs, large floor pillows, or corners of the room) and use a consistent script. “Your body is out of control, we need to sit in our calm spot until you are ready to return to BLANK activity”. Wait until your child is calm before speaking again and once your child is calm, then you can try to process what happened if there were any negative behaviors displayed.
- Timer: Using a timer or stopwatch is great for building children’s tolerance to non-preferred activities. Young kids don’t have a fully formed concept of time which can make non-preferred activities seem never-ending. Give concrete examples: “I know this isn’t your favorite but we only have to do it ten times and then we can do (preferred activity)” or set a timer and leave it out so the child can see. Smartphone timers usually work well, but several apps have visual timers.
- Reflect on challenging tasks: Reflect with your child about what’s challenging and why it is important to keep trying (it is how we get better) is a great way to practice emotional learning. Give examples of a time you had to work hard to learn something and were eventually successful.
- Practice co-regulation: Cultivate calmness in yourself by lowering your voice, speaking slowly, and taking slow, deep breaths. Acknowledge the emotion your child is likely feeling. For example, “I know you were having so much fun at the playground, and now you are mad because we have to go home.” Provide a calming/regulating activity: “Do you want a big bear hug, or should we take big, deep breaths?”
- Explore calming activities when your child isn’t upset. This allows them to explore and evaluate how different activities impact how they are feeling. Some examples include: Practicing deep breathing games, exploring fidgets or stress balls, or body movements.
- Cultivate calm in yourself: Parenting is one of the most rewarding but also most frustrating jobs you can have. Find your own strategies to help you find your calm before you try to help your child self-regulate. Sometimes simply taking a deep breath and pausing before speaking can help you regulate and model regulation, making it easier for your kid to also regulate.
- Consider the environment: While our instinct usually is to try to talk our kids through emotional meltdowns, sometimes we need to get them to a point of calm before they will be ready to process. Dimming lights, playing soothing music, and minimizing verbal communication can all be ways to help your kid reduce the intensity of their emotion so they can be in a better position to process it with you.
Next Steps for Social Emotional Learning Skills
Understanding the impact self-regulation has on your child’s success is an important first step. Being a parent can be challenging but you can play a critical role in supporting your child to be happy and successful in life. The best part is that you are not alone!
Make sure you are seeking out the support you need to succeed! We have more psychologist-approved blogs that will help you in this area, so feel free to take advantage of it!
The new Zoy app can be an important social emotional learning resource to help you feel supported in your parenting journey. Download the Zoy app today to get started with all of the psychologist-approved social emotional learning stories for kids!
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Frolek, G., Clark, K. & Kingsley, L.(2020). Occupational therapy practice guidelines for early childhood: Birth–5 years. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(3), https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.743001
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