Strategies for Building Self-Regulation

Last updates 9/14/2020

The ability to control our impulses is rooted in our earliest connections with responsive adults. In order for children to develop self-regulation skills, caregivers need to support them by first providing external regulation through safe, stable, nurturing, and responsive relationships. As you continue to build a child’s trust through strengthening your relationship, you can support their self-regulation skills when you focus on the following key components:

  • Identifying emotions and physical sensations
  • Regulating feelings and impulses
  • Identifying and understanding other’s feelings
  • Developing empathy

Identifying Emotions and Physical Sensations

Before we can expect children to express their feelings appropriately, we need to first recognize that children and adults alike experience emotion physically. The sensations we feel in our bodies when we are afraid, happy, angry, or excited impact our behavior. When we provide children with the language of sensation and emotion, we equip them with self-awareness and the ability to communicate. Caregivers can develop sensorial and emotional language through intentional modeling and providing a variety of materials that reflect sensations and their related emotions.

  • Talk about sensations & feelings: Tell children how you feel and name basic sensations and feelings you see them expressing.
  • Images of sensations & emotion: Provide images of sensations (ice, volcano, cactus, etc) and emotions (e.g. emotion wheel or emotion chart) displayed at the child’s eye-level. Include a mirror next to your chart for children to view, compare, and identify their own expressions.
  • Literature: Read books to children that focus on basic emotions and how to express them. Allow children to independently access developmentally appropriate books that show a variety of emotions.
  • Pretend play: Engaging in pretend-play with children can offer ample opportunities to model sensorial and emotional language.

Regulating Feelings and Impulses

Since children do not innately regulate feelings and impulses, caregivers need to provide them with specific and accessible strategies for regulation. The following strategies should be directly taught and modeled for children before they can be expected to independently engage in them.

  1. Create a safe space: Even as adults, we seek physical ways to get away and manage stress. Provide children with a place within the environment where they can have space and time they need to process their feelings and calm down. This can be as simple as a corner on the couch with a cozy blanket or as elaborate as a designated quiet corner with visual cues for pre-taught self-calming practices.
  2. Practice emotion check-ins: Checking in with children as a whole group at regular intervals throughout the day and individually as needed throughout the day promotes self-awareness and awareness of others’ emotional states. In addition, this can help children understand that our emotional states can change (we don’t feel angry, scared, or sad forever).
  3. Provide choices: Even if they are limited, providing children with choices gives them a sense of control. You can provide something as simple as two choices or present children with three or more choices. Keep the child’s emotional state and developmental level in mind and provide fewer choices to younger or more emotionally affected children.
  4. Exploring sensory materials and activities: For many of us, tactile sensations impact our ability to self-regulate. We seek and utilize our senses to self-regulate even when we are unaware that we are doing so. Sensory activities are often favored by children and can function to reduce stress responses. Sensory play can include…
    1. Water/ice
    2. Sand/sensory sand
    3. Clay
    4. Slimy textures (paint, shaving cream, play slime, yogurt)
    5. Crunchy snacks
    6. Teething toys
    7. Physical activity: Physical activities such as pushing and pulling, running, climbing, jumping, dancing, swinging, and spinning can also function to reduce stress responses.
    8. Music can promote calmness and regulate emotions.
  5. Practicing mindfulness: When you engage children in routine mindful moments throughout the day you can promote self-awareness and regulation. Body check-ins, breathing, and stretching activities can promote a child’s ability to independently engage in those practices.

Identifying and Understanding Other’s Feelings

Engaging children in a feelings check daily and even throughout the day can encourage them to acknowledge each other’s feelings. In the same way, when you acknowledge the emotions children express, especially as they interact with one another, you are raising their awareness of others. Include your-self in those check-ins and express how you feel when you interact to help guide and develop this skill.


As children learn to identify theirs and other’s feelings they can be encouraged to help each other. You can teach this skill through modeling, “When you ____, I feel ____” statements and guiding children to use that model when solving conflicts with each other. It is important to help children understand that they cannot control the behavior and feelings of others but they can learn to control their own.

Bilmes, J. (2012). Beyond behavior management: the six life skills children need. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Kuypers, L. (0AD). Learn More about the Zones. Retrieved from

Perry, Bruce. Six Core Strengths for Healthy Child Development. 2002,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed