Tips to Help Preschoolers Develop Self-Regulation Skills

As an early childhood professional, you have probably worked with preschoolers who have tantrums, hit out of frustration, can’t calm down from excitement, or ignore the feelings of others. It is useful to take a closer look to see if those children are missing one or more key skills of self-regulation. Children who can self-regulate are able to

  • Identify feelings in themselves and others
  • Understand that feelings change over time and are not permanent
  • Separate their feelings from their actions

Self-regulation is important for all children and a skill they’ll use throughout their lives. As children gain a deeper understanding of their feelings, they can begin to learn how to manage their emotions. Additionally, they will learn how to express their feelings to others and use assertive language instead of impulsively striking out when they are upset. Research shows that the ability to self-regulate is one of the most important predictors of later academic success.

If you are working with a child who has trouble managing his or her feelings or is quickly overwhelmed and out of control, try using some of these tips from Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need, Second Edition.

Use supportive interactions to help children understand their emotions

The ways we respond to children’s emotions and the conversations we have with children about emotions helps them form the foundation for emotional intelligence.

  • Use a rich emotional vocabulary to help children discriminate between and label the wide range of emotions they experience. Help children build a broad emotional vocabulary with words such as annoyed, confused, generous, joyful, worried, bored, embarrassed, ignored, safe, calm, excited, impatient, and unafraid.
  • Point out to children what triggered their joy or notice aloud that they no longer seem sad to help them learn that emotions come and go.
  • Interact in calm and controlled ways with children who experience strong emotions to send the message that emotions are nothing to be feared.

Respond to children’s emotions

Listening with compassion and understanding to a child’s emotions supports the adult-child relationship. It also increases emotional literacy and boosts the child’s sensitivity to the feelings of others.

  • Listen carefully to children’s words to hear whether they are asking for information or emotional support. When a child uses the words who, what, when, where, why, and how, he or she is usually looking for information, not empathetic responses.
  • When you hear a sentence that expresses a feeling, reflect the feeling back. Name the feeling in your answer to help children begin an emotional vocabulary.
  • Let the child know you are really listening, you care, and you will help her express her strong feelings. As you empathize with children and model respect for the feelings of others, you are also planting the seed for the child’s development of his own empathy for others.

Name and validate feelings

Strive to name and validate all the feelings — the “good” and the “bad” — that children express in your classroom. A good way to validate feelings is to reflect back to children your best guess about what they are feeling while withholding any judgment. For example, instead of saying, “Pouting isn’t going to get you anywhere,” try, “It looks like you want to use the soccer ball first.” Instead of saying, “There’s nothing to be upset about,” try, “I can see you’re upset, and I understand.”

Help children understand that feelings are responses

As children become aware of cause and effect, you can begin to help them understand that their emotions stem from an outside cause. Not only do events and other people affect them, but they themselves have an influence on the feelings of others as well. Try weaving the following sentence templates into your daily language with children to guide them to make the connections:

  • When outside events have an impact on their feelings, say, “You feel (emotion) because (event).” (“You feel excited because Josie is coming for supper.”)
  • When other people’s actions have an impact on their feelings, say, “When (person) (action), you felt (emotion).” (“When David shared his blocks, you felt happy.”)
  • When their actions have an impact on other people’s feelings, say, “When you (action), (other person) felt (emotion).” (“When you pushed Denise, she felt hurt.”)

Of course, there is much more to discuss as you help children learn to manage their emotions. For more information on self-regulation and five other skills (attachment, belonging, collaboration, contribution, and adaptability) — as well as classroom ideas, activities, and interactions — check out Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need, Second Edition, by Jenna Bilmes.

Tell us: What tips do you have to help children learn empathy for others?

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