Good news: there is no magic required when it comes to helping kids learn to self-regulate…
That said, we know it may feel like you need to be a sorcerer as you think about helping children control their impulses, follow directions, and “appropriately” get their wants and needs met.
However, just like teaching a child to walk, to count, or to put a puzzle together, all that is needed is a bit of intentional teaching…no magic necessary.
Further, we certainly don’t need to use public displays of children’s behavioral performance in order to teach something like self-regulation.
So, what in the world do we mean by intentional instruction? And are we sure a wand isn’t required?
To us…it comes down to being able to define what we are teaching, knowing who needs to learn what, knowing strategies that are effective and efficient, and knowing if our efforts are having a desired effect.
Just deliver intentional instruction and children will learn to self-regulate…No problem right? Ok…so maybe a little magic would be helpful!
But in lieu of having a magic wand to share, what we can offer is an instructional sequence that helps guide intentional teaching efforts. The sequence consists of five steps, and prompts teachers and teams to become more intentional.
The steps include knowing what to teach, when to teach, where to teach, what to teach with, and how to teach.
Step 1: Know what “it” is you are teaching.
We start by defining what “it” is we are teaching. In this case, we need to define what we mean by self-regulation; however, no single definition exists. We tend to use McClelland & Tominey’s definition, where self-regulation is defined as the “conscious control of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.”
It is also helpful to provide examples of what self-regulation “looks like” across a developmental continuum to account for differences in rates of growth and learning. For example, crying when younger, and then using words (including labels for emotions), when older, in order to get wants and needs met.
Lastly, knowing what “it” is has to do with identifying skills that may be developing concurrently, and which are necessary in order to see progress in a child’s ability to self-regulate. For example, ability to delay gratification, control impulses, think about consequences, remember steps/rules/options, being able to pay and shift attention, and the ability to reason.
Step 2: Know when to create or capitalize upon a learning opportunity.
Next, we need to consider the time of day when we are going to deliver intentional instruction, and if we are going to teach during a routine activity, during a transition, at the start or at the end of an activity, during a single activity, and/or across a variety of activities.
How often we provide instruction depends upon several variables, including the child’s need for more frequent instruction and support, our ability to deliver instruction (known as logistics particularly in a group setting), and the child’s level of engagement and “readiness.”
Step 3: Know where to deliver instruction.
Step three involves considering where it makes sense to deliver instruction, again based upon what we are teaching, the readiness of ourselves and children, and their level of engagement/interest.
We can’t always predict or plan the “where,” particularly when we are following a child’s lead and/or capitalizing upon teachable moments. That said, check out “Stop, Think, Act: Integrating Self-Regulation in the Early Childhood Classroom” by McClelland & Tominey for ideas for teaching self-regulation across a variety of daily activities.
Step 4: Know what materials, toys, or objects you’ll need to support learning.
What materials should be used to teach with? This seems like a simple question…it’s the usual materials right…the ones many kids have access to all the time like blocks, books, playdough, dolls, trucks, puzzles, and even those ipads and smartphones?
Yes, however, what we teach will, will vary depending upon the developmental abilities of the child, the interests of the child and the degree to which the materials supports what we are trying to teach (i.e., self-regulation).
Regardless of the type of materials, however, we need to analyze them to ensure all children can use and receive the support they need from the materials. When analyzing materials, consider the expected outcomes of each child you serve, and then ask, “Can all children participate with the materials? Are there a variety of responses naturally included? What aspects of self-regulation do the materials foster/support?”
Step 5: Know how to teach.
As with other areas of development and learning (e.g., motor, cognition, language), how to teach self-regulation is enhanced, when we understand the predictable, yet, individualized and variable sequence that it follows. Examples of sequences include: developing from the center of the body-outward, from the head-downward, from the simple to the complex, and from the general to the specific.
As it relates to self-regulation, the primary sequence is moving from external control (where others help the child regulate) to internal control (where the child is able to regulate themselves).
Guiding children through this developmental sequence, doesn’t take a magical set of strategies, which are unique to teaching self-regulation; rather, what we know to be effective for teaching letter identification, cooperative play, and counting, work equally well for teaching self-regulation. For example:
- Model self-regulation skills
- Be intentional (revisit the steps above)
- Create multiple and varied learning opportunities
- Provide scaffolding as needed
- Give feedback (targeted, specific, and timely)