The ABCs of Self-Regulation in Students

Nov 29, 2018

In an earlier blog about how schools can tackle stress and anxiety in students, we had discussed about the need for maintaining physical and mental well-being of students as one of the critical ways to provide a stress free and productive environment for better learning outcomes.

While a school can include well-being programs like meditation, mindfulness training and non-competitive sports to maintain physical and emotional health, there are ways where educators and parents can make students independent by teaching self-regulation coping strategies.

What is self-regulation?

Dr Stuart Shanker (Founder, Self-Regulation institute) defined self-regulation as – “the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviors and attention, in ways that are socially acceptable and help achieve positive goals, such as maintaining good relationships, learning and maintaining well-being.”

Effective self-regulation especially in the early years is a key indicator of better health and significantly decreases the possibility of both learning and developmental difficulties later in their lives. A child does not learn to self regulate from birth, they learn it by being regulated by adults and learning from the social environment in their formative years.

The way each child reacts to stimuli is affected by nature as well as nurture. As a result, the way each child responds or copes with different situations and stimuli varies. To deal with these situations they develop coping strategies and these may present to parents and educators as challenging social behaviors. They might develop unhealthy coping skills like yelling, hitting or hurting themselves. Children need the guidance and support of safe and trusted adults who help them develop alternative healthy coping habits like "taking deep breaths", "going for a walk" or "listening to music" when they feel stressed out. Without the ability to regulate their emotional response, children may become stressed or anxious and this impacts their learning and development.

The ability to self regulate emotions and deep learning are found to be connected. A child that can self regulate ends up being curious and enthusiastic and will explore different social play and experiences that will support deep-level-learning. This social play will further provide opportunity for the child's mind and body to work together and continue to develop the ability to self-regulate.

How can educators help develop self-regulation in children?

The ABCs of developing Self-Regulation in children are:

Assess: Understanding and being alert to what are the stress triggers for the child and how she responds to it.

Build awareness: Once you have assessed a child's emotional and physical response to the environment, respond in a sensitive way and help children develop awareness of their own feelings and states of arousal. Make them aware if they are feeling angry or upset or sad. Help the children identify the difference between unhealthy coping skills like yelling, biting etc. and healthy coping skills like taking a walk.

Coping Strategies: Guide the children to identify which coping strategy works in different situations. For example, when the child is upset , he can choose to either "listen to music" or " talk to a trusted adult". When the child is angry, he can decide to " take a walk" to calm down. We have developed a checklist of some effective coping strategies that you can use in your classroom. Based on your experiences , you can add more to this list before you share with the children.


Apart from the educator's interactions with the children, it is equally important to build a physical environment and space that keep the children calm and focused. Some techniques that have proven to be effective are:

  • greet and bid farewell to children warmly each day
  • uncluttered and familiar classroom spaces
  • leave enough space for children to move about freely
  • provide a safe place for the children to go and relax
  • play relaxation activities and soft music at the beginning of the day
  • use natural light as much as possible

What not to do?

  • expect each child to already have self-control
  • expect compliance to all instructions
  • blame or punish the children for their behavior

The end goal is to make the children independent in managing their emotions and become calm, alert and focused to enhance their learning outcomes. Guiding children in the path of self-regulation will help them develop a strong identity and sense of well-being to enable them to become positive, confident learners and in the future, well-adjusted adults.

-Madhavi Agnihotri

Madhavi Agnihotri

A technologist passionate about how an effective education system can build a future ready generation.