Emotional Self Regulation | IEP Goals | Development

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What is Self Regulation?

Emotional self regulation and the ability to self regulate is an invisible skill and is considered one of the executive functions. It is a huge problem area for IEP students, in my experience. Because, when a child lacks self regulation skills, negative behaviors often result.

And, too often, the adults in the situation think “won’t” instead of “can’t” when it comes to self regulation. Because the truth is, if a child is delayed from their age peers in academic skills, it certainly makes sense that they are delayed in emotional self regulation skills too.

a young student who lacks emotional self regulation skills

Some students need direct instruction in everything. What other non-disabled students may learn from social cues or inherent learning, the learning disabled child has to have direct instruction and repetition to learn.

One of my sons had his first anxiety attack when he was in kindergarten. And, he had a series of them in a few short weeks. Because he was so young, he did not know the words anxiety or anxious. Over those few weeks, he kept telling me that “his stomach hurt” or “my belly feels weird” and “I think I’m going to throw up.”

If you’ve ever had an anxiety attack, you know that those words are accurate. However, the first few times that it happened, we assumed that some type of physical illness was going on. It wasn’t until the anxiety attacks occurred a few times and I was able to piece it all together.

I then was able to name it for him. This was in part due to my own experience with anxiety attacks. Had I not been familiar with them, this issue likely would have taken longer to pinpoint. In fact, I had severe panic attacks as a child and the adults around me treated me poorly and incredibly non-supportive, mostly because they did not know what was happening.

Now that my son and I are both familiar with anxiety attacks, what they feel like, and how we can recover from them, we navigate them successfully most of the time.

But, the same situations often occur when a child does not know how to self regulate their emotions. If they feel an emotion that they cannot name, nor do they know how to work through that emotion and regulate it, negative behaviors can result.

Then, the child ends up being punished for lacking a skill set.

Emotional Self Regulation Definition

Emotional self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage your energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

But, it’s not just about monitoring and managing your emotions–it’s about doing so in a socially acceptable way.

Think of the toddler who throws herself on the floor because she did not get something she wanted. As a toddler, until they learn to evaluate what is a true disappointment, and how to manage disappointment, throwing a tantrum on the floor is age-acceptable.

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your reactions and responses to feelings and things happening around you.

This includes emotions like:

  • failure and frustration (like the ability to lose a game gracefully)
  • excitement and anticipation
  • ability to deal with disappointment
  • anger, irritation and annoyance
  • embarrassment or making mistakes
  • ability calm down after something exciting or upsetting
  • focus on a task with average distractions

Several years ago, I posted a story about my son running in races and how he always came in last place. He does not mind that at all. But, another young boy at the races did not do well at all with coming in last. He had not yet learned the self-regulation skill of dealing with disappointment.

Developing self regulation requires:

Uh oh! Some of you might thinking “Oh no, my child isn’t effective at any of those skills!”

Not all is lost. When you name a problem, you can begin to work on it. Again, many of our kids need to be direct taught everything.

Going back to my son in kindergarten, in an age-appropriate way, I direct taught him about his anxiety attacks. Once we realized what it was, we could begin working on it. This included strategies like:

  • Naming it for him; when it happened, we directly said, “I know it feels like your tummy hurts, but that’s because you’re having an anxiety attack.” In age appropriate terms, we explained the concept of anxiety to him.
  • We worked through solutions to curb them once they started. Sometimes we’d get one of our dogs and pet her and visit with her. Other times it was deep breathing, looking out the car window and naming things, stuff like that.
  • Once he was recovered from an acute attack, we talked about it. We were never able to define any specific triggers, but he at least has a self awareness of his anxiety and tools to address it.

Emotional and Behavioral Self Regulation

If you look back on your child’s growth and development, you can probably list some pivotal moments when you recognized him/her developing self regulation skills.

Emotional Self-Regulation Examples

You know, when they stop freaking out because you served their juice in the green sippy cup instead of the blue one.

Or, when they hit a sibling because the sibling got to push the elevator button before they did. That’s a socially inappropriate way to deal with disappointment–hitting someone.

But, depending on the child’s age, may be totally developmentally appropriate. What matters is if our kids develop and grow these skills, and that they’re not hitting someone at age 16 because of this.

elevator button

When you lack emotional self regulation skills, you might be a poor loser. Or, even a poor winner.

And, emotional self regulation skills are not all or nothing. They can improve and fade, and disappear and reappear over various scenarios and situations.

Emotional Self-Regulation Child Development

Some children develop emotional self regulation inherently from being around self-regulating adults or peers.

Other kids, however, either may not be able to process the information appropriately, and act more impulsively. If your child does not pick up on social cues, they likely are not inherently or socially learning emotional regulation skills. They may need to be direct taught this.

You can do ‘in the moment’ live teaching when you encounter situations out in public. Direct teaching doesn’t always have to be formal, sit down, seat work activities.

Improving Emotional Self Regulation in Children

Part of it, for parents, is just patience. Your child may require direct teaching for this, but they also may not be able to grasp and process that direct instruction or concept.

For example, we know that sleep or lack thereof, affects emotional self regulation. Still, very few children and teenagers understand the value of sleep. You can talk all day long about “you’ll be less cranky if you go to bed on time” but few teens and tweens appreciate this advice.

With a toddler, you pick them up and say “You really need a nap” and you put them to bed. Not so much when they’re older.

Other influencing factors on emotional self regulation are:

  • good nutrition
  • not enough physical activity
  • not enough outdoors time for fresh air and sunshine
  • being even slightly dehydrated
  • and of course, sleep

Please note that these are contributing factors to successful self regulation. They certainly are not the end all, be all. Especially for the disabled child who still will require intense interventions.

But, we do know this to be true. As adults, we often find ourselves with less patience when we’re not sleeping well.

Or, there’s a reason the term “hangry” was invented. Or, why we often tell toddlers and preschoolers “You really need a nap.”

The concepts of needing proper nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep do not disappear with age. They are essential to successful emotional self-regulation

The Importance of Self Regulation

Self-regulation involves pausing between a feeling and an action. Emotional self regulation is taking the time to think things through, make a plan, and then follow through.

If a child is impulsive, as many ADHD and autistic students are, this is exacerbated when they also lack emotional self regulation.

A lack of self-regulation will cause problems in life. A child who yells or hits other children out of frustration will be socially ostracized and possibly suspended or expelled.

Self-regulation is also important in that it allows you to carry out long term goals and desires and resist impulsive actions.

Self-regulation allows us to be more resilient and bounce back from failure. It gives us the ability to remain calm under pressure. If you can deal with disappointment effectively, you are able to correct your mistakes and learn from them.

stressed out teen

It’s about being able to anticipate something in an appropriate manner. And responding to annoyances in an appropriate manner.

My autistic son goes to a fantastic barber. Years ago, there sometimes was this other intellectually disabled man who would be there. He did not like the sounds that my son makes when getting his hair cut. It’s upsetting to him, and he would try to hit my son.

We solved it by never scheduling them on the same day. It’s not my place to tell the other Mom that she could use this as a teaching opportunity with her son, and how to deal with annoyances. For us, this problem is solved.

IEP Goals for Self Regulation

As with any IEP goal, it should be drawn up using baselines in the IEP present levels. Once you have the desired skill that you wish for the child to achieve, you plug it into the IEP goal formula shown below.

IEP goal formula for special education

There is a lot of overlap between self regulation and self advocacy IEP goals.

Self Regulation IEP Goals

  1. Student will demonstrate appropriate skills in identifying emotions, behaviors and triggers.
  2. Demonstrate appropriate skills in responding to various emotions and situations.
  3. Student demonstrates skills that they know when or how to ask for help in regulating their emotions.
  4. Describe personal student strengths accurately and how to effectively use those to self regulate
  5. Explain the kind of strategies needed for a situation. (set the stage for weekly situations)
  6. Communicate/Identify strategies or compensation skills that work best for him/her in self regulatory situations
  7. Explain and communicate one or two environmental needs that may trigger inappropriate regulation responses
  8. Identify specific environmental modifications and to tell why they are needed to help with self regulation
  9. Can demonstrate skills that they can communicate how and when to ask for help to prevent an unfortunate situation
  10. List possible antecedents to their own behaviors (“I get upset when…..”) and list possible acceptable alternatives to their negative behavior.

Who teaches self regulation to IEP students?

I have seen emotional self regulation addressed by various IEP team members.

  • Special Education Teacher, preferably one for Emotional Support
  • OT
  • SLP
  • Guidance Counselor
  • other trusted adult or favorite knowledgeable in this area
  • school psychologist

Strategies for Developing Self Regulation

There are a lot of great books and even apps for emotional regulation.

Many students will require direct instruction and lots of repetition.

Over the years, I have seen a ton of great stuff done for this. Some suggestions are:

  • Watch soap operas or novellas with the sound turned off; talk about emotions, expressions and labeling it
  • Feedback discussions after a situation, recall on what prompted the feelings, what all the possible outcomes were, and how to choose a response
  • Emotion face cards, PECS cards, stuff like that
  • Books on Emotional Regulation, lots of great stuff for different ages
  • small group discussions about emotions, feelings

Self Regulation in Children

I want to close this post with some final thoughts. I hope that most readers get down this far, and thank you to those of you who did.

Because as an adult who was teased and punished for her lack of emotional regulation skills, I can’t stress this enough.

If you’re the adult in the room–you have to assume can’t instead of won’t.

I was not carrying on and making a scene because I wanted to. It was because I had no tools in my toolbox to effectively deal with the emotions I was feeling.

Kids do not hit, cry, scream, and all that other stuff because they want attention or just don’t want to handle the situation another way. It’s because they lack the skill set to manage these feelings. For many learning disabled kids, you may have a teen or even older, who is exhibiting the self regulation skills of a toddler.

They do not want this to occur any more than you do.

Help them. Teach them. Don’t ostracize and punish them. It will not be successful.

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