Self-regulation is for parents & caregivers too

I’m often asked to teach children self-regulation – “Just come and teach him how to do it.” Well, it’s not that simple.

As you’ve probably noticed in previous editions of spark* News, self-regulation is a family or whole class/group thing. “Fixing” one person isn’t going to happen unless the whole family/group takes part.

Everyone needs to be conscious of their own self-regulation. Everyone needs to remember to exercise their own executive functions. At this time of the year, that becomes even more challenging – schedules change, everyone is end-of-term tired, diets tend to change, sleep patterns change, etc.

Here are some ways to help everyone stay more self-regulated:

  • Practice self-calming – do some mindful (Turtle) breathing every day with your children. Take the time to calm and center yourself. It doesn’t take long and can make the rest of the day run a lot smoother. If you find you or your children are getting stressed, take a few minutes to do some Turtle Breathing and just ‘be in the moment’. This is one of your best safeguards against some of the stress that tends to happen in daily life.
  • Plan and organize activities and events carefully –
    • Make sure you have enough time to do the activity or enjoy the event. Try not to run out of time and leave things unfinished.
    • Make sure you and your child aren’t tired or hungry and are feeling well.
    • Include things the children like and enjoy – don’t just do activities that are “good for them”.
  • Inhibitory control
    • Don’t just dive into an activity or event – explain why you’re doing it and why it’s important. We all commit a little more to things when we know they have a real purpose.
    • Let children try things on their own, even if they make mistakes or something isn’t exactly how you like it. Remember, it’s their effort that’s most important.
  • Working memory
    • Use some of the strategies mentioned in the article of working memory and play some of the games for improving it.
    • Always remember, if you or the children are stressed, tired or hungry, your working memory is probably at its lowest capacity. Ease up at those times.
  • Self-monitoring
    • Monitor the hunger, tiredness, and stress levels of everyone around you so know if they’re able to self-regulate or not.
    • Think out loud to model your own self-regulation for your child.
  • Cognitive flexibility
    • Be able to flow with things even though they may not turn out the way you expected or your child didn’t say or do what you intended. Just do some Turtle Breathing and quite while you’re ahead.
    • Use the 180 degree rule, turning negative feelings and thoughts around to positive ones. You turn “Stop that” into “You can do this”. For example, you want your child to stop running around. Instead of saying, “Stop running!”, you calm yourself and say, “We walk in the house”. Instead of saying, “Don’t grab your sister’s toy.”, say “We use gentle hands with our toys.” Often children know what not to do but don’t know what they should do instead. Using the “180 degree rule” helps your child learn positive alternatives while you stay calm and positive and focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

Some games and activities for promoting Inhibitory Control

There are lots of different games that are good for exercising inhibitory control. Just think about starting and stopping actions and words while being fun.

Here are some ideas to get you started.
BINGO the dog – this is a nice simple song that requires you to clap instead of saying all the letters of BINGO. It is great practice for inhibitory control because you have to stop yourself from saying one more letter on each round of the song. On each successive round of the song, you have to keep yourself from saying a letter/word and doing an action only – (clap)INGO, (clap)(clap)NGO and so on.This helps build attention as well as control of hands and voice. Try varying your speed and loudness of singing to add a bit more inhibitory control.
Simon Says – this is good for following directions as well as for inhibitory control. You have to listen for “Simon says” before doing the action, controlling your urge to follow other directions.
What time is it Mr. Wolf? – This is another game where you have to listen to the leader (Mr. Wolf) and do what he says but ever so carefully. You don’t want to be caught.
Turn-taking games – take-taking requires inhibitory control – I have to wait for you to finish your turn before I can take mine. Here is a list of 35 possibilities.
Freeze tag – The person who is ‘It’ chases the others trying to tag them. When ‘It’ successfully tags a player, that player has to freeze and stay frozen until another player, who hasn’t been tagged, tags and unfreezes them. The game continues until all players are frozen, and then a new person becomes ‘It’.
Dancing – dance to different music with different tempos. Try songs by Lady Gaga that have a good strong repetitive pattern. Try classical music like Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy that has wonderful lightness and tempo changes. I loved dancing to Swedish Rhapsody as a child.
Drumming – beating and tapping on drums, quickly, softly, slowly, are good ways to practice inhibitory control. You can make drums and other instruments or download free drumming apps

Thinking starters or thinking stoppers?

Our goal in working on self-regulation is to help children think on their own. But how we talk to children either increases their thinking or stops it. It’s really pretty straightforward – tell them what to do and you’re the one doing the thinking. Your child is just following orders. Ask them to think for themselves and you’re on the road to helping them become better decision-makers.

Let’s see how this works. Here are some examples:

Situation: a child is fussing because their shirt got wet
Thinking Stopper:  “Go and put on a clean shirt.”
Thinking Starter: “That wet shirt probably feels uncomfortable. What can you do to help yourself?”
Comments: in the thinking stopper, the adult did the problem-solving and the child just followed orders. In the thinking starter, you identified why the child is upset but then you prompted them to figure out what to do. This will help the child to become a better problem-solver and maybe become less upset about a wet shirt in the future.

Situation: it’s time to leave for school
Thinking Stopper: “Put on your shoes and coat, get your lunch and homework and put them in your backpack.”
Thinking Starter: “It’s time to leave for school. What do you need to do to get ready?”
Comments: Remember, our children have difficulty with planning and organization so pictures (like those below) can be a great help to your child. They’re reminders but your child still has to think for themself.

Situation: one child (Tim) is bugging/annoying another child (John)
Thinking Stopper: “Stop bothering John.”
Thinking Starter: “John, what can you do when someone is bugging you?”
                            “Tim, John doesn’t like that. What can you do to help him?”
Comments: in this example, we’re prompting both children to think. John can do some problem-solving and decide to move away or ask Tim to stop. Tim can stop bugging John or decide to go and do something else.

Situation: A child is making a lot of noise and is bothering other people
Thinking Stopper: “Stop making that noise.”
Thinking Starter: “John, that noise makes it hard for other people to work. What could you do to help?”
Comments: in the thinking starter, you explain what the problem is and then get the child to think of a way to help.

Situation: A child is scribbling in a story book.
Thinking Stopper: “Stop! Don’t write on the book.”
Thinking Starter: “Where do we write things? Books are for reading. Pieces of paper are for writing. What can you do?”
Comments: in the thinking starter, you explained what books are for and where writing/scribbling should be done. Then you encourage the child to think about what to do.

Situation: A child is walking toward a busy street
Thinking Stopper: “Stop!”
Thinking Starter: “Stop!”
Comments: This is a safety situation and not time to work on thinking. Do that before a situation like this.

Using Thinking Starters takes time and thinking on your part. Look at your efforts as investing in your child’s future. When you use Thinking Starters and guide your child to making reasonable decisions, you’re helping them develop greater independence and better problem-solving skills.

Executive functions in everyday life -Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control involves managing your actions and thoughts. That means you can stop, start, slow down, speed up, ignore, etc. as you need to.

Inhibitory control is more difficult for some children than others. But all children can benefit from practice.

Here are some things you can do with your child to work on Inhibitory Control:
– Walk at different speeds and in different ways. This will help children learn they can control their bodies. When you’re walking to the car or to school, ask your child how they want to walk – fast, slow, or in-between? I use pictures like those below to help children make choices on their own. Try moving like different animals – like a big bear, a dinosaur, a butterfly, a snail, etc.

– Play a familiar card or board game at different speeds. This will children control their bodies and thinking and learn it’s okay to take your time. Count out squares on a game board slowly, fast or in-between. Take your time discarding cards in a card game.
– Sing action songs – Songs that replace words with actions or silence are great for inhibitory control – you have to stop doing what you did before. Songs like BINGO the dog and Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes are great for practicing inhibitory control.
– Read and act out familiar stories.  Reading a story together means taking turns and waiting for other readers – that’s inhibitory control. Act out familiar stories using different mannerisms and voices to go with each character. Switching back and forth takes control and is a fun way to practice.
– Take up drumming. Drumming to different rhythms and at different speeds is excellent practice. Drums are very tempting – you just want to beat away. But bringing your hands and attention under control to make different rhythm patterns is excellent practice for inhibitory control.
– Work on ignoring. Part of inhibitory control is to keep yourself from being distracted by things that aren’t important. Let you child know what you do to ignore unimportant things – “I’m just going to ignore that phone right now.”. Prompt your child to do the same – “You can just ignore that and not let it bug you. That’s okay.”
– Model your own inhibitory control. Talk out loud when you come find yourself having problems staying on track – “Don’t think about supper. I’m reading right now. I’ll think about supper later.” or “Oh, I’d love some chocolate cake. Don’t think about it. I can have some later.”

The more you practice inhibitory control in playful ways with your child, the stronger it’ll get. The more you model and talk about the choices you make, the more your child will understand how to control themselves.

Resources to help children become calm

Here are some resources for helping children become calm and centered.


Resource books on yoga

Wiertsema, H. (2001). 101 Movement Games for Children: Fun and Learning with Playful Moving. Alameda, CA: Hunter House

Chryssica, M. (2006). I love Yoga. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Garabedian, H. (2008). Itsy Bitsy Yoga for Toddlers and Preschoolers: 8-Minute Routines to Help Your Child Grow Smarter, Be Happier, and Behave Better. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

Mainland, Pauline (1998). A yoga parade of animals. Boston: Element Children’s Books

Purperhart, H. (2007). The Yoga Adventure for Children: Playing, Dancing, Moving, Breathing, Relaxing Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Purperhart, H. (2008). The Yoga Zoo Adventure: Animal Poses and Games for Little Kids. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Bersma, D. & Visscherm M. (2003). Yoga Games for Children: Fun and Fitness with Postures, Movements and Breath. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

Q: What things can I do during holidays to help my child practice self-regulation?

A: Emily Jupiter wrote an excellent article in the ASHA Leader magazine (1) on this topic. Here are some of her suggestions along with a few of my own:

For preschoolers: 

Play games like Red Light/Green Light, Freeze Dance, and Simon Says. These help inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility. 

Practice yoga and Turtle Breathing. These help children learn how it feels to be calm. 

Planning adventures and excursions. Planning helps children learn about planning and setting priorities. It also helps them with inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring and cognitive flexibility.

For school-aged children:

Plan a party or get-together. Brainstorming helps with cognitive flexibility. Then the planning help with organization, working memory, and inhibitory control. Self-monitoring will be important as you review the plan as the even gets closer – how are we doing?

Play games like Rush Hour, Uno, Rat-a-tat-Cat. Mazes and “Rush Hour”. These help with planning, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-monitoring. 

Make sure whatever you do it’s fun.  

Jupiter, E. (2017). Put the Fun Into Executive-Function Skills Practice This Summer. ASHA Leader. 

Resources on the internet

There are lots of amazing resources available on the internet. Here are a few sites for games and activities that can be used to teach self-regulation.


Here’s a list of 30 classic children’s games from WIRED magazine. And here are more from Wikipedia.

Crafts and activities

Crafts involving cartoon and animé characters:

Recipes with step-by-step pictures:

Lego with step-by-step pictures (have to enter keyword describing the object or the number of the set):

Fun paper airplanes:

Words … more powerful than you think

The words we use around children shape their views of themselves now and in the future. Even if you’re not sure your child understands your exact words, don’t be fooled. Children who are preverbal or who speak very little understand way more than you might think.

We need to support our children to become more independent, confident and willing to try new things. They hear us say, “John doesn’t eat meat.” and that pretty well seals it – John’s less likely to try meat. 

Talk about children in terms of what they can do. If they have setbacks or run into difficulty, there are still options available. If you tell your child they’re a good athlete and they lose a race, how does their self-evaluation change? If you tell your child they’re a really good reader but they misread something, how do they evaluate themselves now? If we put children into categories, like being a good reader, helper, athlete, artist, etc., once they run into difficulties, there goes their image of themselves. But, if you tell them they’re good at reading, helping, running, drawing, etc. they have room for setbacks and for successes without damaging their own image. 

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

Subtle but surprisingly powerful. A recent study looked at these subtleties. Children were told either they were good helpers or good at helping. That didn’t affect anything until the children ran into setbacks (spilling milk, dropping crayons/colors). The ‘helper’ children gave up – they seemed to think, “Ya, what a great helper I am!” They were also less willing to help other people. The children were left “feeling like they were ‘bad’ members of the helper category” (p. 12). It’s better to focus children on their intentions (to help, read, draw, etc.), especially when things don’t pan out well. This’ll help them understand that difficulties and mistakes are chances for learning and not the end of the world.

The effect of labels doesn’t go away. Children who were praised for trying or working hard as preschoolers were more likely to treat mistakes as chances for learning five years later. But, children who were praised for being a ‘good girl’, ‘big boy’, or ‘being smart’, were more likely to be frustrated by difficulties and give up.    

Here are my rules for talking to children:

  1. Always speak in front of your child as if they understand everything. They’ll understand your tone of voice and whether it’s positive or negative even if they don’t understand every word. Talk about what they do well and how hard they work. 
  2. NEVER talk about your child’s problems and difficulties in front of them. For years, I’ve heard people say, “Well, she didn’t breathe when she was first born so …” and “He has autism so …” That’s just damaging! Of course, we want children to be realistic about their talents and areas of need more help but don’t put limits on them. All children can learn and want to learn. You can talk about challenges but make sure you highlight their strengths.
  3. Talk about children in terms of what they do, not who they are. Use action words to describe them – “You are doing such a good job helping/cooking/reading/jumping.” Find positives to encourage your child so they’re motivated to keep trying.

Resources on the internet

There are lots of amazing resources available on the internet. Here are a few sites for rhymes and songs that can be used to teach self-regulation.

Rhymes and songs for preschoolers and early elementary-age children

Nicky’s Nursery Rhymes:

Early Years Experiences Songs and Rhymes – Action Songs

Mama Lisa’s World International Music and Culture Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

Kiddles Kids’ Songs Complete List

Elementary School Music Early Childhood Songs and Rhymes

Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Lyrics

Rhymes and songs for older children

Scout Songs

Action Camp Songs

Dragon’s Campfire Songbook

Ultimate Campfire Resource:

Q: I can’t even get my son up in the morning!! How can I possibly work on self-regulation?

A: Hmm, let’s think about why he might not want to get up in the morning.
Doesn’t he like going to his preschool. No, he loves it.

Does he prefer if you to dress him? No, he can dress himself and he’s quite proud of his ability to do it.

Okay, let’s back up then. Is he just tired? What time does he go to bed – 8 o’clock for a preschooler is pretty good. He has to get up at 7 am so he’d get 11 hours of sleep – that’s pretty good. Oh, so he reads in bed and doesn’t get to sleep until about 11?? He’s definitely not getting enough sleep. No wonder he’s tired in the morning and unwilling to get up and dress himself.

So the issue may be that he isn’t getting enough sleep. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How can we help him wind down at bedtime and get to sleep earlier? Routine and rhythm make a difference. Start at the same time every night. Allow 10 to 20 minutes before he has to get into bed. The sequence of events could be: wash face, brush teeth, put on pajamas, line up favorite bed toys so they can get some sleep too, get a favorite bedtime book, read the book for 10 minutes, say “goodnight” to the toys and tuck them in, lie down and close my eyes.   

That’s all good but how do you help him shut down his brain and body? How about using the Stop, Think and Breathe Kids – an app I reviewed and recommended in last month’s spark* News.

How did it go? His mom said that he dropped off quickly into a deep sleep. It looks like he’s been having problems self-regulating at bedtime in order to shut his brain and body down. 

The world is going to be a easier place for him now. Always keep in mind my acronym: children must be Calm, Alert, and Nourished. This little fellow need help with the Calming part.