It has not been a great month around here. I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s just one of those periods of life that is very trying. I even called a friend the other day to debrief about a meeting we’d had. I told her, “I don’t know if it’s just because I’m short on patience these days….”

See, in the meeting, another participant was really bugging me. So, I turned off my camera and microphone and busied myself with other things while listening. As the meeting went on and on, I found myself really pushing myself to not speak up.

Admit it! You've felt this way during a meeting. How did your self regulation skills work?

What I wanted to do was scream, “PLEASE STOP TALKING. You’re saying the same thing that’s already been said.”

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What does Self Regulation mean?

But, thankfully my self-regulation skills were still intact, so I didn’t. I weighed my options. I could turn off my microphone. I could turn off my camera so no one would see my facial expressions. I could leave the meeting altogether.

I also recognized my need to be validated, so I called a friend the next day. But who knows? I mean, if that meeting had continued for another 30 or 90 minutes, what would I have done?

Self regulation means that I can regulate my emotions–both good and bad. We tend to think of self regulation as only regulating negative emotions–sadness, anger, anxiety.

But we have to be able to manage good emotions too. It is possible to exhibit happy and celebratory emotions that are socially ostracizing.

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.

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Emotional self-regulation skills, and what is appropriate, varies by age.

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.

Self-Regulation in Children

Children do not possess self-regulation skills at birth. And I’m not sure why adults expect them to. Add in a learning disability, trauma, food insecurity, and who knows what else…why do we act surprised and disappointed when a child cannot self-regulate?

As children grow and learn about the world around them, they begin to develop these skills. Still, many need direct instruction in self-regulation skills. Some children will not develop this skill set through inherent learning.

And, I find that self-regulation skills are most often the lacking skill set that results in disciplinary action and social ostracization.

Verbal outbursts, hitting, throwing things, and crying (at certain ages) are just some of the examples that result in a child being removed from the classroom or being ostracized or bullied by peers.

Reacting to the Environment Around You

Self-regulation is the ability to react appropriately to the environment around you. It would not have been appropriate for me to yell “SHUT UP!” to the woman talking forever at my meeting.

I know this and can prevent myself from doing this. But, not every child can.

Examples of Self Regulation:

  • regulate reactions to strong emotions like frustration, excitement, disappointment
  • calm down after something exciting or upsetting happens; after a big win or a huge disappointment (is your child a good winner and a good loser?)
  • focus on a task despite anticipating or dreading something (like a fun school assembly, outing, or class party)
  • manage own behaviors when faced with strong emotions (not being chosen for line leader or a team)
  • behave in ways that help you get along with other people (like me not screaming during my meeting, though internally I wanted to)

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.

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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 to 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 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 think “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.

My son started having anxiety attacks in kindergarten. Once we realized what it was, we could begin working on it. This included strategies like:

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  • 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, and stuff like that.
  • Once he recovered from an acute attack, we talked about it. We were never able to define any specific triggers, but he at least has self-awareness of his anxiety and the tools to address it.

Inherent Learning and Self Regulation

As children grow and develop, they learn by watching the people and world around them. They observe behaviors and social cues all the time, even when we aren’t actively teaching them.

I often think of my Catholic church upbringing. Even though I attended CCD, no one ever direct-taught us when to stand at church, when to sit and when to kneel. We learned by observing the adults around us and the social cues. To this day, I can recite most of the prayers and responses even though I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for over 40 years.

Developing self-regulation skills is often the same. And just like the child who struggles to pick up on and imitate social cues, he/she may need direct instruction in self-regulation skills.

In addition to the physiological components, this is why negative adult behaviors like addiction and domestic violence repeat in younger generations. Just by observing as children, they have learned that alcohol or violence is how we deal with certain stressors in life.

I had this uncle (now deceased) who would absolutely freak out when his sports team lost. I often wonder if his (now) adult sons react the same way.

Self-Regulation is WORK

It should be pointed out that many of our kids need more energy and resources to get through the day. If you struggle throughout other aspects of the school day–things like sensory processing, information processing, and struggling readers–then it takes more fuel for you to do a normal school day.

As adults, we demonstrate this all the time. Yet, we expect differently from children and disabled children. If a parent is struggling with divorce, job loss, or other life stressors, they have less patience to parent.

Yet, a child who has been overloaded with sensory information all day long, and is struggling to make sense of letters and words…if they run out of fuel at 2 PM and hit another student who teased them, we act surprised.

Why are we surprised? That child had nothing left in their tank to deal appropriately with that situation.

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How to Develop Self-Regulation Skills

Many kids need direct instruction with this. It might be a teacher, an OT, or even a guidance counselor or social worker who can regularly meet with the child to go over this.

You can and also should always engage parents in part of this. I have found that narrating my day and explaining things to my disabled son as I go about my day has just become part of our routine. It doesn’t feel like extra work. I just do it as we go about what we’d normally do.

  • Talk about emotions. Instead of the usual “how was school” question, ask things like “what part of the day made you happiest?” or “did anything make you mad today? why?”
  • Talk about emotions and TV. As age-appropriate, consider watching soap operas or novellas, but with the sound off. Those actors really overdo it when it comes to facial expressions and emotions. You can also talk about reactions. “She threw a drink at him. Why do you think she did that? What could she have done instead?”
  • Have a list of calming techniques for your child. Ask them what makes them feel calm and remind them to use those skills.
  • Prepare for challenging situations where it might be hard for some children to manage their emotions. This might be a birthday party or other special event.
  • Encourage self-advocacy skills from a very young age. Have them be a part of the solutions.
  • Praise your child when they show self-regulation skills in a difficult situation. Such as a disappointing sports loss, or not being chosen for a team or activity at a birthday party. “I know you really wanted to sit next to Sam at the birthday party. I’m so proud of you for having a good time anyway, and I’m sure you can visit with Sam soon.”
  • Model self-regulation and talk about it when you do. After my meeting (I was at home on zoom) I could have said, “Wow, that was a really long meeting and {name} made it take even longer. I think for next time, I’m going to suggest that we stick to the agenda.
  • In the throes of the moment, don’t try to teach. If a child is already dysregulated, they cannot learn.

Emotional Self-Regulation Examples

Toddlers are a prime example of a person learning self-regulation skills. Or, exhibiting a lack of self-regulation skills. You know, when they freak 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, hitting might be totally developmentally appropriate. What matters is that as our kids develop and grow these skills, they’re not hitting someone at age 16 because of this.

A young child might "lose it" because their sibling pushed the elevator buttons. What matters is that your teenager knows not to do this.

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, 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.

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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 outdoor 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.

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

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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.

A teen who is stressed out but can also self-identify their needs, is much less likely to be punished for their behaviors.

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.

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You can put any skill or task into the IEP goal formula to make it measurable.

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

Self-Regulation IEP Goals

  1. The student will demonstrate appropriate skills in identifying emotions, behaviors, and triggers.
  2. Demonstrate appropriate skills in responding to various emotions and situations.
  3. The 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 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.
  11. In the classroom environment, ______ will utilize positive self-talk and coping strategies to handle stressful situations or work demands in which he/she manifests anxious or withdrawn behavior (i.e. putting head down, saying he/she can’t do something), demonstrating by engaging in the 30-minute activity or situation in a calm and positive manner with one prompt on 2/3 occasions.
  12. In counseling sessions, _______ will accurately identify feelings and appropriate coping strategies when presented with real or imagined situations with 80% accuracy on 4 out of 5 trials.
  13. When _____ becomes upset, frustrated, or angry, he will use a self-regulation/coping strategy (movement break, deep breathing, quiet space break, deep pressure/heavy work activity, etc.) to avoid engaging in unexpected behavior, with one reminder, on 4 out of 5 opportunities, as measured by observations and documentation.
  14. __________ will improve his self-regulation skills as demonstrated through utilizing a tool (e.g. inner coach, sensory support, calming break) to aid in regulating to an expected emotional state (e.g. green zone – which is when we feel calm, happy, content, and focused) with one adult reminder on 8 out of 10 instances in a small group setting, as measured over two week period
  15. ______ will improve insight on regulation as demonstrated by identifying the instances where he/she could have benefited from utilizing a tool to aid in regulation and determine what tool would have been beneficial for each instance with 80% accuracy.
  16. When presented with a problem (non-preferred task, frustrating situation, criticism/correction), ______ will accurately determine the size of the problem (big problem, little problem) and determine the appropriate emotional response (take a break, talk with the teacher, take a deep breath, replace frustration with good thoughts, etc.) and return to the task at hand in 4 out of 5 trials as measured by teacher charted data.
  17. When given a frustrating situation (i.e. undesired task, demand, and/or undesired peer behavior), with one prompt ________ will utilize coping strategies (i.e. take a break, deep breaths, etc.) and return to and remain on task for a minimum of 10 (use baseline number + improvement) minutes with an average of 95% over 8 consecutive school weeks, across all classroom environments.
  18. When presented with a situation known by ______ to be anxiety or frustration-producing for him (i.e. non-preferred task, an unexpected obstacle such as ______, tasks perceived as too difficult, unfamiliar adult, and non-preferred adult), he will independently demonstrate an appropriate emotional response through finding a solution to his problem or using a strategy to regulate back to an expected emotional state (take a break, talk with the teacher, etc.) and return to the task at hand within 2 minutes, for an average of 80% of instances both throughout all environments and within each environment.

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

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 when she was small, 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.

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

More Social Skills

Social Emotional IEP Goals

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