Emotional Regulation: Are We Overlooking An Essential Key to School Success?

Practical ideas for helping children learn emotional regulation strategies.

Emotional regulation is an art. Let’s be honest, not all adults are capable of consistently demonstrating it. Road rage, harassment, work place conflict, adult bullying, domestic violence – are all the unfortunate and explosive consequences of adults who have never mastered the art of self-regulation.

Staying in control of our emotions and behaviour at all times isn’t easy – particularly when you are overwhelmed, anxious or stressed, which is why helping kids learn practical strategies for emotional regulation from an early age is so important.

Helping children learn emotional regulation skills

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation or self-regulation is the ability to monitor one’s emotions and behaviour, control impulses and behave within a socially accepted manner. For children, emotional regulation continues to develop until early adult hood.

The Importance of Emotional Regulation

Self-regulation is hard! As children grow, learn and change, they inevitably experience overwhelming emotions and frustrations bought about by biological, social, environmental or physical causes. As a parent or teacher, we must understand that a child’s ability to self-regulate is only in the early stages of development – whatever their stage of childhood – and they need our help to learn further skills and abilities, through the teaching of effective emotional regulation skills.

Twenty years ago, emotional regulation wasn’t something we discussed much in early childhood, or even primary/elementary, education circles. We’re now in a better position to understand the positive effects of effective self-regulation, and when we know better, we do better. Helping kids of all ages to learn to self-regulate helps them to better navigate around hormones, big emotions, anxiety and new or overwhelming life experiences (for example, starting or moving school). It’s a worthwhile investment of our time and resources.

Emotional Regulation Activities for Kids

So how do we help children develop strategies for emotional regulation? Here are four really effective strategies for getting started.

1. Develop Emotional Awareness: A key component of emotional development is understanding one’s own emotions, and reading the emotions of others. Books are a great tool for helping children develop a greater understanding of emotions and build an emotional vocabulary, here are some of our favourite books for developing emotional awareness.

2. Catch Big Emotions: Helping children develop the ability to identify and regulate big emotions as soon as they are felt is invaluable. A child can learn to self-regulate better when they catch overwhelming emotions or frustrations as they begin. Talk with your child about how their body feels when they are becoming angry, frustrated or upset, identifying the actual physical symptoms their body feels. Discuss simple techniques that may help your child regulate their reaction to these emotions in the early stages, like taking three deep, calming breaths or counting to 5. Our printable 5 Steps to Managing Big Emotions poster is a really helpful tool when doing this activity.

3. Identify Your Child’s Preferred Calm Down Strategies: Taking some time when your child is calm to create a short list of their preferred calm down strategies can be a real help in the moments of stress or overwhelm. Check out this list of 9 calm down ideas to get you started. Having a plan to call upon is invaluable in the moment when your child is dealing with big and overwhelming emotions.


4. Boost Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify a range of different emotions, to label them appropriately and to adjust one’s thoughts and behaviour in response to the emotions being experienced or observed in others. Playing games or doing simple activities together is one way to help to build your child’s emotional intelligence. Here are five emotional intelligence games that are fun to explore together;

emotional regulation activities

What Do I Do If My Child Is Struggling with Emotional Regulation?

Like any area of development, some children find the task of self-regulating much harder than others. Children with lower impulse control, lower executive functioning ability, ADHD, autism, anxiety, and even some overly active children may struggle. Those who struggle to self-regulate may need more time, focused attention and guidance from an adult to slow down and choose more effective, less impulsive ways to react or behave.

Psychologists and teachers often use a teaching method known as ‘scaffolding.’ When children struggle to self-regulate they may need to be assisted with greater attention and assistance, in a more consistent or concentrated approach. Support and guidance can be given, to teach them how to make better choices. With consistent coaching in calm down methods and thought processes, and plenty of genuine praise a child may slowly build a framework where they are better able think before acting, with less support, allowing the adult to step back, little by little over time. It’s all about practice.

Related: 101 Books That Help Build Friendship, Communication and Social Skills.

Self-Regulation and Starting School

As children start school they need to be prepared to regulate with a greater degree of independence. As primary school is a more structured setting, behavioural and emotional expectations are higher, and there is an increase in the pressure placed on children.
Just the ability to sit for lengthier periods, listen more attentively, follow directions and work independently requires much more self-monitoring, focus and composure. Being able to self-regulate is also linked to social success. If you have a child preparing for starting school, the following suggestions might help them develop greater levels of emotional regulation in the lead up to school;

  • Activities: Slowly introduce activities that require greater levels of attention span and concentration. Create regular opportunities requiring your child to regulate and control their body and behaviour while also developing their attention span, for example, time spent sitting and reading, or sitting pasting and cutting at a table.
  • Maintain consistent and clear rules: Children respond well to clear and consistent behavioural expectations and rules. Think about your own “house rules” and make a poster displaying them, like they might see at school. Talk about school rules too, for example, using inside voices, no running on the cement, raising your hand to speak, etc.
  • Encourage cognitive regulation: Cognitive regulation is the skill of planning and preparing cognitively when you first hear an instruction, monitoring tasks, staying on task and inhibiting inappropriate impulses. Try this at home by giving your child a task and a time limit. Encourage their thought process by being their internal voice, “How are you doing with ___? Remember the first thing is to finish the ___, what can you do next to get that done?”
  • Positive self-talk and affirmations: Teach your child to self-regulate internally by talking to themselves in their head. Positive self-talk and affirmations not only increases a child’s confidence, but can help them through tricky times and hard tasks. For instance, telling themselves “I can do this, I did something similar last time, I’ll stick with it” or “I really want to tell the teacher something, but she is speaking so I have to wait with my hand up.”
  • Adjust your daily routine: When kids start school, they can be physically and mentally exhausted and morning can be SLOW. Big changes to routine can also trigger emotional meltdowns and behavioural outbursts. Adjusting your daily routine to mimic that of your chosen school can help your child transition more smoothly and it is a great way to get your child ‘school ready.’ Prepare also by;
    • Adjusting your wake up time: Set a wake up time that allows plenty of time for you to prepare for the day.
    • Healthy breakfast: A healthy breakfast is essential to sustain little school starters. They need that energy and can cope better emotionally.
    • Eating routine: Copy the school recess/lunch times. Not being able to graze all day might be a big change and could cause a hangry child to be unable to self-regulate or concentrate.
    • A structured routine: Make time for physical activities and make time for sitting, listening and concentrating activities. Add some structure to your routine slowly so that the mental workload of school isn’t overwhelming when they start.
    • Appropriate school bedtime: Children need plenty of sleep when they start school because it is a big adaption for their little bodies and brains. It’s better to get into this routine sooner rather than later. A tired child cannot concentrate or learn to their full potential.

Emotional regulation is an essential life skill for children. Do you have any tricks or tips to help with teaching kids to regulate their emotions?