10 Myths about Self-Regulation

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At the moment, we seem to be plagued by tales of conspiracies and cover-ups. So I decided now is a good time to address some myths about self-regulation.

Myth #1: Self-regulation is just about managing stress and anxiety. Becoming calm, reducing stress and anxiety, is a first step to self-regulation … but that’s it. Calmness opens doors to developing and practicing all forms of self-regulation. Children with self-regulation problems have difficulty figuring out what to do once they’re calm. They need help learning to engage their executive functions. Then they can plan and organize their behavior, thinking, and emotions. They can control them and monitor how they’re doing. They can remember more and be more flexible in their thinking. Self-regulation involves controlling and modulating what you do with your body, your brain, and your emotions.

Myth #2: Self-regulation is just another word for ‘self-control.’ As you know, self-regulation involves all the executive functions – planning and organization, working memory, self-monitoring, cognitive flexibility as well as inhibitory control. Being able to stop yourself (inhibitory control) is just one part of what’s needed. It’s an important part … but only part. Self-regulation involves learning to control, plan, monitor, etc. behavior, thinking, and emotions. Importantly, it also involves learning when to let loose and just be yourself.

Myth #3: Self-regulation is just for managing emotions. To deal effectively with emotions, children need to learn how to regulate their behavior and thinking. They must calm and center their bodies and brains. Then, they need to figure out what’s going on and what’s most important and relevant. We’ve all seen children wrongly blame someone or something for an event they don’t like or want. This means they weren’t able to stop themselves and figure out what really went on. Those are important contributions from behavioral and cognitive self-regulation. Learning them needs to come first.

Myth #4: Self-regulation can’t be learned by some children. All children can learn self-regulation. That means young children, children with learning c

hallenges, gifted children … everyone can improve their self-regulation. Some children will need more support and practice but every child can benefit from learning and refining their self-regulation skills.  

Myth #5: Self-regulation has to be taught early or not at all. Self-regulation takes more than two decades to develop. Children are still learning and refining their self-regulation into their mid-twenties. This means we have a wide window of time for teaching self-regulation. The old notion of ‘critical period’ doesn’t apply here. But, if we start later in development, children will need to unlearn some old habits while developing new skills.

Myth #6: Self-regulation turns children into ‘tiny tyrants’. Children learn how to regulate their bodies, thinking, and emotions in ways appropriate to each family and culture. We make sure children learn when they can let loose and just do what they want – like do handsprings in the park. They also learn when that’s not okay and how to channel that desire. The goal is for children to understand their own behavior, thinking, and emotions and modify their responses in different settings. It doesn’t mean that they can do anything they want. Children will still need adult guidance but with less close supervision.

Myth #7: Self-regulation is just a form of behavior management. Behavior management is directed by an adult who rewards desired behaviors. Its goal is to decrease problem behaviors. Children may or may not be involved in the decision-making but the major source of control is the adult. Self-regulation involves teaching children they can control and direct their own bodies, thinking, and emotions. It also includes helping children understand when and where they need to self-regulate. They learn how to deal with distractions and stresses – that is, to become more resilient and advocate for themselves. In self-regulation training, children aren’t taught to modify specific problem behaviors. Instead, they learn to consciously exercise their executive functions so their thoughts and ideas are translated into actions. This is self-directed with adult guidance when needed … but not adult control or reward systems.   

Myth #8: Self-regulation lets parents and teachers be permissive. So Jonny is climbing the curtains and the parent says, “He’s just trying to self-regulate.” No, I don’t think so. That’s not the idea with self-regulation. We want children to learn they can control their bodies and that there are appropriate times and places to do different things – climbing is appropriate for playground equipment but not curtains. Adults in each child’s life act like coaches, encouraging and prompting them. It’s not a matter of letting children do whatever they want whenever they want.  

Myth #9: Not being able to self-regulate is a ‘moral failure’. If a child forgets to regulate their behavior, thinking, or emotions it’s not because they’re bad, being manipulative, or some other ‘moral failure’. The majority of children I’ve known acted in inappropriate ways not because they were trying to be bad. Their behavior was more often than not a result of curiosity (how does this toy come apart?), finding something funny or strange (for example, making fart sounds), by accident, or induced by stress. These are not because they’re mean or trying to irritate someone. 

Myth #10: Only children need to learn self-regulation. We all need to work on our self-regulation skills. Executive functions change throughout our lives so we need to adjust to them. This conjures up the image of my mother and how, as she aged, she became more likely to say whatever was on her mind – terribly embarrassing at times! Also, when we’re teaching children to self-regulate, we need to act as positive models for them. We have to plan and organize, control our impulses, remember important information, monitor our behavior, and be flexible in our thinking. These are huge asks but they’re critically important for us and our children.  

Photo by Justin Young on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “10 Myths about Self-Regulation

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