Self-Regulation takes time to develop

Executive functions and self-regulation typically develop and mature over a fairly long period of time.

Developing and refining self-regulation takes place over at least the first two decades of life. Each of the five key executive functions develops at different paces; some maturing earlier, some later.

Check out the diagram below. It shows that self-regulation starts developing from birth and doesn’t reach a mature level until at least the mid-twenties. That’s a long time but there are a lot of things going on.

We see the infant sucking his fingers and thumb to regulate and soothe himself and that’s just the beginning.

Preschoolers show an enormous surge in their abilities to control their bodies. Regulating their emotions also matures quite a bit. Attention skills become less scattered and children can pay attention to things for longer periods of time.

In the later preschool years, cognitive self-regulation improves. Children are better able to plan and organize themselves and things they want to do. Their working memory improves and they’re checking how they do. Their improved cognitive flexibility means that they can change plans and approaches to things more easier.

One really important change in the later preschool years is the emergence of meta-cognitive awareness. That is, children become aware of their thinking, things that help them remember, and things that make it harder to learn.

All three areas of self-regulation (behavioral, cognitive and emotional) continuing improving during the school years. There’s a small dip during the teen years – ask any parent of a teenager what that’s about –  but it’s followed by continuing refinement.

After the mid-30s, self-regulation starts a decline. Those readers who are seniors will appreciate the changes in working memory and attention – “I’m in the kitchen, what was it I was going to do?”

Self-regulation develops over at least the first two decades of life. This long period of development means two main things:

  1. we have a wide window of time to help our children develop and improve their self-regulation, and
  2. we shouldn’t expect self-regulation to appear overnight.

Our brains are plastic in the sense that they can change and mold to new experiences. New nerve pathways are developed when we learn and practice new things. Keep in mind that learning to self-regulate takes time and daily practice. This is especially true for children who need to un-learn old ways of doing things and develop new approaches.

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:

What’s Simon Says got to do with self-regulation?

I recommend using action songs of all sorts to teach self-regulation.

Learning to stop, start and change movements to music and songs is a lot of fun. Not only that, it’s a great way for them to learn how to manage their behavior, thinking and emotions. Bonus! That also leads to greater success in school.

All of this from playing Simon Says? Well, not completely but action songs are a fun way to start. When you play Simon Says (here are step-by-step instructions), children have to pay attention, listen carefully for the words “Simon says” before doing the action. Add in distractions and excitement and you have a great way to firm up your self-regulation skills.

Change how slowly or how quickly you sing each song or play each game. Change your voice to loud or soft or your ‘everyday voice’. Clap, stomp, jump or move quickly, softly, hard … any variation that helps children control their bodies. I’ve had a lot of fun when I asked the children to decide how they want to vary each song or chorus. Give them a chance to be leader and see if your self-regulation skills are up to snuff.

Any songs and games where you have to start and stop (that is regulate your attention and body) are excellent ways to work on self-regulation. Just make sure to stop while it’s still fun.

Here are some resources to help you get started:

For preschoolers and early elementary-age (Primary through Year 2) 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

Action songs

Action songs

Action songs:

Action songs

Clapping games, songs, and rhymes

Songs and rhymes for older children

Scout Songs

Action Camp Songs

Dragon’s Campfire Songbook

Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Lyrics

lntimate Campfire Resource:

Why does spark* focus on awareness of ability?

In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, we start everything by making sure each child is aware s/he has the ability to do what we’re asking. We want them to show themselves (and us) that they can do it.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the years: NEVER ASSUME. Never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out. I remember talking to a young child about using ‘gentle’ hands. He sat there and watched me demonstrate it with my hands and then with his. Then I asked him to show his hand how to do it – he looked surprised that he could do it on his own. He looked like he was saying, “Wow, you mean my hands can actually do that when I want them to?”

There was an interesting study (1) reported recently that looked at motor learning in children with autism. Children were taught to throw beanbags toward a target. Some children were taught to focus on the target (external focus) and some were taught to focus on how their arm and hand moved (internal focus). The children who were taught using internal focus remembered the skills longer and generalized them to other situations.

This study suggested that, if we just focused on prompting children to use ‘gentle hands’ or pointing at objects of interest without working on how it feels, our children will likely be less able to remember to use these skills. By first focusing on awareness of ability (“I can do it”), our children can learn the motor patterns more easily and can take pride in their abilities.

(1) Tse, A. (2017). Effects of attentional focus on motor learning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. Dec 1: 1362361317738393.

How is spark* different from Social Thinking®?

When therapists are asked how they address self-regulation and executive functions in their intervention, the answer is often that they’re using the Social Thinking® (ST) Program, in particular Zones of Regulation®.

Although these are good resources, there are crucial differences between the ST programs and spark*.

Most importantly, spark* focuses on building children’s foundation skills – body, cognitive and emotional self-regulation.

Many teachers and therapists want to leap in to deal immediately with the most obvious social and emotional issues in their students. That’s understandable. But the children don’t have the body and cognitive self-regulation skills to be fully successful.

Children need to have control of their bodies, learn to self-calm, take in information systematically, decide what’s most important, construct and express meaning, etc. before heading into complex social problem-solving. For example, if children don’t know what’s most important to look at or how to put pieces of information together, they’re less likely to benefit from instruction in social or emotional self-regulation.

Work on body self-regulation first, then cognitive self-regulation and finally emotional self-regulation before social skills training.

ST has some great handouts or materials but they assume that children have already mastered body and cognitive self-regulation as well as strong language and thinking skills.

It’s little wonder that outcomes of social skills training programs have been less than we’d hope. Children who’ve had social skills training typically use them only sporadically in everyday life++ It’s like there’s a disconnect between the social rules and behaviors and their application in daily life.


++ Bellini, S., Peters, J. K., Benner, L., & Hopf, a. (2007). A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Social Skills Interventions for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 153–162.

++ Rao, P. A., Beidel, D. C., & Murray, M. J. (2008). Social skills interventions for children with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism: A review and recommendations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(2), 353–361.

++ White, S. W., Koenig, K., & Scahill, L. (2010). Group Social Skills Instruction for Adolescents With High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(4), 209–219.