Self-Regulation in the Classroom

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Teachers (and therapists) sometimes feel like they can’t work on self-regulation with a group of children. There are challenges to doing it in groups, but it is possible. It can also be a lot of fun.

Let’s get a few things clear first. Always start with body (behavioral) self-regulation. Everybody seems to  want to start with emotional self-regulation. That’s down the road. Help children become masters of their bodies first. If they can organize their movements and bring them under their control, you’re a long way to helping them regulate other areas.

Self-regulation activities focus on conscious, deliberate control of executive functions. Think of activities that will help children use their:

  • planning and organization skills
  • inhibitory control
  • working memory
  • self-monitoring
  • cognitive flexibility

Talk about the executive functions with students. Help them understand each of the five key executive functions and how they can learn to control them.

  • Planning and organization – Explain that we develop an agenda, like at school, in our brains that helps us plan and organize things we do.
  • Inhibitory control – We also have brakes that help us stop, start, and stick with things.
  • Working memory – Our memory helps us keep ideas in our brains, like the memory in a computer, so we can think about and organize them.
  • Self-monitoring – We also have a supervisor in our brains who watches what we do and helps us fix things up if they’re not the way we want them.
  • Cognitive flexibility – Our brains can be like supercars that don’t get stuck – if it runs into a wall, it just turns around, and finds a new way to go. 

Explain specific activities in terms of the executive functions, like the descriptions above – “This one helps put on our brakes when we need to.” Make sure they understand that the goal is to help them become masters of their own behavior, thinking, and emotions.

1. Body self-regulation. These activities can be done any time during the day.
Focus on planning and organization as well as working memory by using activities that involve a sequence of actions, like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. With older children, you can do the same actions to more age-appropriate music, like Lady Gaga. By slowing the speed and whispering/muting the song (doing the action without words), you’ll challenge inhibitory control. Change the words or actions to something new (head and shoulders, hips and knees) and challenge their cognitive flexibility. 

Try walking between places within the classroom or within the school in different ways. Walk very slowly, hop, move quickly without running, etc. Have the children do other activities at different rates. Make up a deck of cards with different speeds (fast, slow, in-between), intensities (soft, hard/loud, in-between), and manners (like a rock star, butterfly, ghost) so students can draw a card and move in that way. 

Do Turtle breathing (mindful breathing) to calm and centre their brains and bodies before and after an activity.

2. Cognitive self-regulation.
Prompt all students to stop, think, make a plan before starting activities (that focuses them on inhibitory control plus planning and organization). Model this in your own activities so the children can see everyone uses this approach and it’s helpful. Ask them, “What should we do first, next, next …?” Encourage them to help you plan and organize activities.

Talk about noises or other distractions that are making it hard for you to think. Ask the students, “That noise is really bugging me, what can I do to help myself?” If you see a student having difficulty controlling their impulses, quietly chat with them about telling their brakes to start working. Again, ask them what they can do to help themselves.

Prompt students to talk to themselves (“say things in your brain”) to help working memory. Other strategies for improving working memory are visualizing (“make a picture in your brain”), and writing/drawing information they read or hear. It’s important to point out these are not cheating. Strategies are smart ways to make your brain remember important things.

Self-monitoring can be worked on by developing checklists for things that need to be done. Also, include criteria so the student can know they did a good job. This checklist can include things like, “I put my name and date at the top”, “I read the directions before I started and checked to make sure I know what to do”, “I finished all activities.”

Cognitive flexibility can be a fun area to work on but a little frustrating for some students. Ask questions like, “What’s another way we can do this?”, “How else could we look at this?”, “Why don’t we ….?” These questions are meant to shake up the usual order a little bit, just enough to open students’ minds to other possibilities. 

3. Emotional self-regulation. 
An important first step is helping students identify moods/emotions in others and understanding why. It’s easier and calmer to look at someone else’s emotions first.

While reading a story, ask students how the characters feel and why. Prompt discussion of as many emotions and reasons as possible so you build in flexibility and understanding. Then work on planning and organization – What can the character do to help themselves? What steps can they take?  Inhibitory control can be introduced by asking what the characters should do to help themselves so they don’t deviate from their plan. Working memory can be worked on by having students develop a mantra for the character to remind them about how to proceed. Self-monitoring can incorporate “how will I know if my plan is working/worked?” Cognitive flexibility will be challenged on many fronts as you help the character navigate the emotional path and then compare this to how the author unfolded the story.   


ALWAYS make sure children get recess and other breaks. They need a chance to move and interact with other students. NEVER use loss of recess/break as a punishment – it’s counterproductive.  


Photo by Ty Lagalo on Unsplash

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