Last reviewed 24 June 2021

Rachel Dearnley looks at the subject of self-regulation of emotions through co-regulation practices and the profound effect this can have on shaping healthy brains and helping children to thrive.

“The greatest gift we can give our children” (Mine Conkbayir)

Self-regulation is the new “buzzword” in the early years sector, which finds a focus in the Early Years Foundation Stage 2021, under PSED. (Early Years Foundation Stage 2021 page 12).

The term has been floating gently around the early years scene for a while, but with mixed messages and no clear definition to clarify the role for practitioners in supporting and nurturing this critical biological process. The Early Learning Goal at the end of reception year for self-regulation states: “Understand own feelings and those of others and be able to regulate accordingly”. But there has been little opportunity, until now, for practitioners to access training on this vital aspect of children’s emotional development. Recent research helps us to make more sense of how we can support our youngest children through co-regulation practices that enable children to recognise the strong emotions they are feeling, and provide strategies to cope with and process them.

What is self-regulation?

Suzanne Zeedyk, a research scientist based at Dundee University whose work focusses on babies, explains it as “an ability to cope with your emotions”. All practitioners cope with children’s behaviours every day, doing our utmost to support them to understand our expectations and boundaries. However, we may not be concerned with the emotions that cause the behaviours in the first place. Children experience very strong emotions; for example, fear, frustration, anger, excitement, desire, disappointment. It can be over the simplest things, the wrong juice in the cup, wet sleeves, or he pushed me. Alternatively, it could be over much more complex issues; for example, frustrations, fear, uncertainty at home, lack of attention, or poor attachments to parents/carers. When children experience big emotions, it can result in stress leading to temper tantrums or meltdowns and what we might consider dysfunctional behaviours. A young child’s biological system isn’t developed fully to be able to understand or cope with these overwhelming feelings, so, they need help from and adult. This is known as “co-regulation”.

Dr Stuart Shanker, a research professor emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University, agrees with Suzanne Zeedyk and explains it as “the ability to manage stress and the neural processes that control the energy expended to deal with a stressor and then recover. When an individual’s stress levels are too high various systems for thinking and metabolic recovery are compromised. The signs of dysregulation show up in the behaviour, or mood, or attention, and physical well-being.” (2019)

He warns us “not to confuse self-regulation with compliance” and explains how we often strive to get children to behave in a way we prescribe by using the power of punishment (for example getting cross, giving time out, or shouting, etc) and rewards (for example stickers for good behaviour). When we try to gain control in this way, we instil fear in children at the prospect of punishment, or reliance on the expectation of a reward for any requests we make of the child. What makes expected behaviour more intrinsic is helping a child to want to behave in an acceptable manner because it’s the right thing to do. The benefits on brain development of this attitude are more profound for healthy long-term development.

Sue Asquith, early years consultant specialising in self-regulation, distinguishes between self-regulation and self-control. Self-regulation is about understanding emotions to be able to behave in a socially and culturally expected way. Self-control is gained when self-regulation is mastered.

Dr Mine Conkbayir, a lecturer, award-winning author and trainer says: “Children who experience nurturing and stable care-giving, go on to develop greater resilience and the ability to self-regulate uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions”.

It is “the individual’s ability to manage big emotions and their resulting behaviours, and to return to a state of calm”. This is a complex series of skills which enable us to manage our emotional responses and the behaviours that arise from them. Through consistent relationships and warm supportive interactions children become more knowledgeable about overcoming the big emotions to be able to get on with playing, making friends and learning.

Like Stuart Shanker, she makes it eminently clear that self-regulation is not a behaviour management system and that it is secure attachments and good nurturing practices from adults and parents that facilitate the emotional development of young children, especially those who have experienced maltreatment and insecure attachments.

Mine Conkbayir’s research highlights the many skills involved in developing self-regulation, which develop slowly over time with the nurturing and attuned relationship with adults who co-regulate. Self-regulation avoids the damaging effects of toxic stress on the brain enabling children to thrive. This leads to better long-term outcomes for children, and success at school is more likely.

What is co-regulation?

Suzanne Zeedyk explains that co-regulation is the term given to the support care givers provide to help children learn how to bounce back from their strongest emotions and thrive in the long term. Co-regulation is a relationship which starts from birth of a baby.

The care giver who responds readily to the cries of a baby provides love, safety and security as the baby learns that they are heard and supported. The baby literally relaxes, and calming hormones (Oxytocin) are produced when they feel safe, connected, heard, and feel that they belong. These experiences really matter to babies and young children.

Some children grow up in families or schools where they are not heard or feelings are not shared or valued. This breeds mistrust and isolation, which ultimately adversely affects the brain unless strategies can be found externally to mitigate the stress and anxiety.

How to help support self-regulation through co-regulation?

Stuart Shanker advocates providing calm and warm responses and being tuned into babies and children’s needs and interests. Rocking and stroking, gentle voices, smiling faces and happy eyes release hormones that help babies and children relax and reduce their stress. This lays the foundations for good self-regulation.

Sue Asquith, advises against using the words “you’re ok” when supporting a child in distress. It doesn’t work and can make things worse. She advocates for getting to know your children well and finding out what works for them. Whilst one responds well to a cuddle, another may just need time and space in a quiet place. Instead of saying “it’s ok” she suggests:

  • I can see that you’re upset.

  • I’m here for you — I’ve got your back.

  • It’s okay to be feeling this way.

Mine Conkbayir points out that “a child who has become distressed or dysregulated needs adult support to help regulate stress-behaviours as she/he could easily enter fight-or-flight when ordered to ‘behave’ or to ‘’stop being naughty’’ or to ‘’say sorry’’.

Suzanne Zeedyk provides us with a useful approach to co-regulation.

  • Spot emotions first and breathe to calm down.

  • Name the feelings first and talk about them.

  • Allow time to find calm and then talk about strategies to resolve the situation.

  • Teach children how to breath in deeply and breath out slowly.

  • Be aware of your own emotional state. You are the most important player in the emotional environment so may need to regulate your own feelings.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added another level of stress to all our lives which bubbles along as we continually try to regulate our own strong feelings such as uncertainty, disappointment, fear, and grief. For families in which adults are really struggling, it will have a knock-on effect on their children. Early years settings are the place that children should rely on for support. If practitioners understand the emotions of children and the behaviours that result from their emotions, and if they can see that the relationships they make with children really do matter, this can make an immense difference to the way children develop. Practitioners have it in their power to change the architecture of a child’s brain through their consistent support of children’s emotions.

Summary

  • Self-regulation is the process by which babies, and children learn to cope with big feelings that cause stress and anxiety.

  • Co-regulation is the adult relationship with a child that is warm, responsive and nurturing, and helps children understand how to cope with their emotions.

  • Self-regulation should not be confused with learning to behave well. It is not a behaviour management system.

  • Children who can intentionally regulate their emotions are predicted to do better at school. (Zimmerman 1994)

Further information