Self-regulation is about making conscious decisions in relation to your executive functions – planning and organizing, controlling your impulses, engaging your memory, self-monitoring, and thinking and acting flexibly.
Here are five things you can do to encourage self-regulation in everyday life.
- Prompt children to plan and organize activities. Start with one or two steps in a familiar activity and then gradually move to more complicated, less familiar things. Start an activity and ask the child, “What do you think we should do next?” No matter what the child says or does, give it a try. If it doesn’t work, that’s a learning opportunity – you can gently guide him into rethinking the approach. When it works, ask him to choose “the next step” and the one after that. This helps children to start thinking ahead and develop more independence.
- Teach children they are the masters of their own brains and bodies. I found that when I used ‘self-distancing’, children were more likely to start self-regulating. Self-distancing is a simple but powerful tool – children are prompted to step back from their brains and bodies and tell their brain or body part what to do. I (Heather) teach children to talk to their brains, hands, feet, voices, etc. so “you can help them learn”. By using this simple distancing process, emotions are removed and children become their own teachers. Try it! Telling your brain or body what to do is remarkably powerful.
- Model ways to help yourself remember. When you’re trying to remember something, talk out loud about what you’re doing: “Okay, now what was I going to do? That’s right, I’m going to the kitchen to see if we need more milk from the store.” That shows your child a way to ‘remind’ your brain about plans. Another strategy is to visualize: “Let me make a picture in my head. I want to go to the bedroom, get my shoes and then get my jacket …. It’s like making a movie in my head!”
- Make checking progress part of every activity. After you start an activity with your child, stop and say, “Let’s see how we’re doing. Are we following the plan? Does it look like the picture in our heads?” Model how you can stop and change things if the activity isn’t proceeding as you expected. Have your child evaluate the progress too so he can learn to self-monitor on his own.
- Change your mind. This is part of learning cognitive flexibility, a sometimes challenging thing. Once you have a plan in place, announce “I’ve changed my mind”, and change one small part. You might change the order of doing things – “I’ve changed my mind, let’s read a book first and then watch the video” or “Let’s put on your shirt and then your socks”. Progress to larger changes – “I’ve changed my mind. How about we go to Safeway/Tesco/Hyper U instead of our usual store today?” Make small changes part of everyday and be sure to reassure your child, “We can change our minds. That’s okay sometimes.” Be sure to let your child make changes too. It’s important to help him take a more flexible approach to life.