The Importance of Self-Regulation and How to Teach It to Your Kids

The Importance of Self-Regulation and How to Teach It to Your Kids

4 February 2022 • Words by Sharon Brandwein 6 mins

My daughter had a stuffed orange tabby kitten that she dragged around for years. It’s torn and tattered and well-loved, and it came into our lives by accident. Many moons ago, as a new mom, I made the rookie mistake of grabbing a random toy in the store to keep her quiet as I searched for what we really needed, diapers and wipes. My clever plan worked until we reached the checkout counter. I foolishly thought I could just put the toy back. No sooner did the kitten leave her hand when the wailing began. My sweet little girl pitched an unholy fit, and I had no choice but to give it back to her (my second rookie mistake for the day), pay for “kitty,” and make my escape. 


This story is by no means unique. While this is my version of this type of story, the characters and small details are likely interchangeable with almost any parent and any child. This type of situation is a prime example of poor self-regulation, and every parent has seen it with their child at one time or another, rookie or not. And while this type of behavior is almost expected in toddlers, self-regulation becomes increasingly important as your child ventures off into life and out into the world. 


Ahead we take a look at self-regulation and examine why it’s such an important life skill. Plus, we share a few tips and ideas on how to teach your kids self-regulation.

What is self-regulation?

Self-control and self-regulation are often used interchangeably but the terms are actually quite different. Self-control is considered a social skill focused on inhibiting behaviors. Self-regulation, on the other hand, is about managing behaviors, body movements, and emotions while staying focused on the task at hand. With a developed sense of self-regulation, children are able to properly process the things that are going on around them and react calmly when things don’t go their way.

Why is self-regulation important?

Self-regulation is a crucial life skill. For the little ones, self-regulation skills are the key to understanding how to calm themselves when they’re angry or frustrated. These skills help them reign in their emotions and manage their behaviors, ideally with little intervention from you. A developed sense of self-regulation ensures that your child can easily adjust to new situations and take things in stride.


For preschool-aged children, self-regulation helps them effectively manage new social and academic challenges. In settings where they must do things like waiting for their turn, learning to read, and engaging with other children, self-regulation is crucial. Without it, your child will not have the ability to sit, listen, and learn in the classroom. It goes without saying that poor self-regulation skills can also affect their academic performance. 


In fact, multiple studies have shown that children with developed self-regulation skills perform better academically, and as they mature into adulthood, they have higher self-esteem, earn higher incomes, and are apt to be in better physical health than those who have not fully grasped the concept. 


What’s more, by controlling impulses and understanding why it’s important to take turns, share toys, and express their emotions appropriately, self-regulation allows kids to behave in socially acceptable ways and make friends. As they mature and age, self-regulation skills can determine how well your child bounces back and continues to thrive in the face of adversity – or not.

How do kids learn self-regulation? 

As a parent, it should come as no surprise to you that children develop self-regulation skills by watching and observing those around them. Interestingly, the process begins when they are babies (think: thumbsucking), it rapidly develops in the toddler years, typically between the ages of 3 and 7, and it continues to develop into adulthood.

Why do some kids struggle with self-regulation?

While most kids will develop their self-regulation skills by watching their parents and playing with their siblings, some children may struggle with self-regulation. Michele Borba, Ed.D., and the author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine,” shared some insight into why some kids have difficulty with self-regulation.

We’re pushing our kids too hard, too fast

In the last few decades parents have been led to believe that an early learning push will invariably lead to academic success. More and more, parents are rushing to get their kids enrolled in school as early as possible, but research has actually shown that pushing preschool kids too hard before they’re ready can actually be counterproductive. Specifically, Dr. Borba points to a Stanford study published in 2015, which showed that a one-year delay in the start of school led to dramatically higher levels of self-control among kindergarteners. With a one-year delay, inattention and hyperactivity were reduced by a jaw-dropping 73%.

Kids aren’t getting enough sleep

According to the CDC, middle school and high school students are simply not getting enough sleep at night. Not only can sleep deprivation negatively affect academic performance in terms of grades and test scores but it has also been shown to lower inhibitions among both teens and adults. Moreover, studies have shown that sleep (or a lack thereof) plays a key role in emotion regulation. It also affects emotional responses to normal life events.

Today’s kids are play deprived

Dr. Borba also shares that play is one of the best ways for kids to learn self-regulation. But as a result of over-scheduling, kids just aren’t getting the time that they need to learn skills like self-regulation. Free play, with siblings and kids in the neighborhood, for example, requires them to follow directions, focus, negotiate rules, manage their emotions, and make decisions, all of which are crucial life skills. Unfortunately, while it’s fallen by the wayside for newer generations, it serves a very real purpose.

How to teach your kids self-regulation

Before we proceed, it may be important to note that when teaching your children the concept of self-regulation, avoidance is not the way to do so. For example, if chocolate is too tempting, most people will opt not to buy it in the first place so they can resist the temptation, but that’s just simple avoidance. Self-regulation, however, is having the chocolate in your possession and controlling your impulses when it’s right in front of you.  


The same goes for teaching your children self-regulation. It’s not about avoiding situations that are difficult for them. It’s more about coaching them through difficult situations and offering support until they’re able to handle these challenges on their own. Parents should also keep in mind that the key to teaching self-regulation successfully is practice. 

Here are some tips and ideas for teaching your kids self-regulation:

Gameplay 

Whether it’s indoor or outdoor, games are a great way for kids to learn self-regulation. Games require kids to take turns, follow directions, follow through, and complete a task. Dr. Borba notes that these games help kids to “develop the muscles that manage their impulses and regulate their behavior”. For outdoor games, Dr. Borba suggests Simon Says, Red Light, Green Light, or Mother, May I


Board games are also great tools for teaching self-regulation as they too require kids to take turns, listen, and respond to prompts (i.e.rolling dice, moving across the board, etc.). Most board games teach self-regulation, but Jenga, Operation, and Twister are good ones to try.


Model the behavior 

“Parents play an enormous role in teaching children self-regulation,” says Dr. Borba. “Our role is to help our kids learn to handle life someday without us; self-regulation is crucial to their success, resilience, and mental health.” 


“The first step is to realize that self-regulation is important and intentionally add it to your parenting agenda,” says Borba. “Second, we are living textbooks for our kids. We need to make sure that we are good examples of self-regulation – our kids model what they see.”


For that reason, Dr. Borba suggests that parents reflect on their own behavior. Ask yourself the following questions: 


When it comes to things like empathy, kindness, and even healthy eating habits, it’s no secret that parents are the first role models for their children. Self-regulation is no different. If you want your child to understand self-regulation, it’s important that you model the behavior yourself.


Keep the lines of communication open

One of the most important keys to teaching your children self-regulation is open communication and feedback.  Your five-year-old probably doesn’t understand why it’s not okay for him to roll the dice when it’s not his turn or why it’s not okay to do what he wants without following directions. Undoubtedly, the little ones need explanations about these things. It’s important for parents to keep a watchful eye and do their best to help their kids develop these self-regulatory behaviors.


Practice mindfulness and meditation

Life moves at warp speed these days, and very often, kids have no idea how to just “be”. Most kids need or want a constant source of stimulation. Teaching kids to be more mindful, however, helps them be present in the moment, feel calmer, and better manage their emotions. 


Dr. Borba points out, “scientific evidence shows that practicing mindfulness (intentionally paying attention to the present without judgment) enhances focus, stretches attention, improves memory, reduces stress, and improves learning abilities”. She goes on to advise parents to stop every so often and bring their kids into the moment. To help their kids practice a little mindfulness, parents should take a pause from time to time and encourage their kids to “notice their thoughts, what their body feels like, what they hear, and be aware of what is happening right now.”


Meditation can be incredibly helpful too. On a basic level, meditation works to create a gap between a stimulus and response. This is exactly what we’re looking for when teaching self-regulation. If you’re not sure how to incorporate meditation into your child’s daily routine, Moshi has a wonderful library of guided meditations that were specifically created to help your child learn the basics of mindfulness.

  • Sharon Brandwein

    Sharon Brandwein is a writer specializing in all things parenting. Her work has also appeared on ABCNews, Motherly, and, Scary Mommy, and Parents. When she’s not busy curating a wardrobe for her puppy, you can find her writing about motherhood, among other things, on SharonBrandwein.com, and of course right here on Moshi.