Over the last few weeks we have been exploring the topic of self-regulation–the ability to control both our actions and our emotions. Learning self-regulation is like learning to read a book or ride a bike. It’s a skill that needs to be taught and practiced over time in order to build fluency.
Children who have experienced adverse childhood events or traumas often lag behind their peers in self-regulation. Children who have experienced trauma develop a set of skills that are adaptive for that adverse environment, but which may get in the way of their success in other situations. It is important to take this into consideration and to build on the skills they have when teaching them ways to be successful at home, in the community, and at a school. We are going to talk about some tools that teachers and parents can use to help children get ready to use their self-regulation skills and ways to help them practice in the moment.
Setting the stage for success
Children who have experienced trauma often come from situations and environments that were unpredictable or constantly changing. Setting up regular and predictable routines and schedules at home and in the classroom can help the child feel safe and in control of his environment. When an environment is safe and predictable, the child may feel more secure about learning and trying new things. Using visual schedules, pre-teaching, and reviewing routines are great ways for the child to map on to this consistency.
Preteaching is the act of letting the child know in advance what is going to happen and what is expected. In addition to consistent routines, pre-teaching sets kids up to be successful in building strong self-regulation skills. Letting children know what to expect next allows them to be prepared for possible changes in the schedule. It is also a good way to let them know the steps needed to be successful in a certain situation (like using walking feet at the store or quiet voices in the library).
Let’s look at an example of how we can use pre-teaching to tell a child what is going to happen. Imagine that Eli is a child in your class who greatly benefits from your consistent classroom routine. You have noticed that when things change unexpectedly he has a hard time regulating his emotions, often yelling and becoming defiant to any requests. You know that today there is going to be a change in schedule, instead of small reading groups there will be a school assembly. This is a great time to use pre-teaching! By using pre-teaching to let Eli know about the change in schedule before it happens, you can help him know what to expect. (You also have a natural moment to problem solve what self-regulation skills he can use when the time comes). Here’s one way that could sound: “Hi Eli, nice job working on that puzzle! Today we get to go to an assembly. (If you have a visual schedule that reflects that change you can use that to show him.) Usually, we do small reading groups after snack, but today we are going to walk to the auditorium instead and watch some performances. I’m going to remind you when it is almost time to walk to the auditorium. What can we do if we are feeling worried about doing something new? That’s right, we can take a deep breath, and say, ‘I can do this!’ I’m going to be watching when it’s time to go so I can catch you taking deep breaths.” Without this pre-teaching moment, Eli may have had difficulty regulating his emotions about the sudden change. By taking this moment to pre-teach the change and what to do, we give kids a chance to be successful and try out their budding skills.
Creating an environment that invites kids to build on their skills is a great way to set kids up for success and lays the foundation for more advanced skills to be explored.
Building fluency in the moment
Let’s switch gears and talk about some strategies we can use to help children practice their self-regulation skills in the moment even when things are difficult. Have you ever been in a long meeting and for the first hour and a half you were focused and engaged, but then found yourself drifting off and thinking, “I just can’t focus on this any longer”? Everyone has a certain amount of time that they can pay attention. For children that is usually a much shorter period of time than for adults. As teachers, parents and caregivers, it is our job to teach and encourage children to build the stamina to self-regulate for longer periods of time. This is hard work!
One way to help children to build up a skill is scaffolding. This means figuring out what a child’s current skill level is and then giving her supports and guidance to gradually increase that skill level. So, some kids may start out only being able to focus for 20 or 30 seconds at a time, especially if this is a lagging skill. Catching kids before they fall off the tracks at the 10 or 15 second mark is critical to keeping them motivated. Letting them know they are doing the right thing and acknowledging their hard work gives them the steam to keep trying.
Here’s how that may look. Let’s say Jacob, a student in your class, has a difficult time raising his hand and can usually wait about 10 seconds to be called on before talking out. Your goal is to expand this time to 30 seconds, then a minute and then up to two minutes. How can you scaffold to increase his capacity?
You can provide support for the skill level that he already has by catching him before he starts talking out. So, at the 5-7 second mark you might say, “Nice job Jacob, you’re still doing it, keeping your hand up and mouth quiet”. After another 7 seconds pass, you can reinforce his ability by giving him a thumbs up to let him know you see his hard work and say, “Nice job! You’re still doing it”. THEN you can call on him. This way you have added just a few seconds to the time that he can wait. You have also given him lots of positive feedback and let him know that he can be successful at this. (Don’t be afraid to illicit the help of your assistant teacher or classroom volunteer to help in giving this high rate of reinforcement.) As Jacob practices waiting to be called on with supports and encouragement, he will gradually be able to go for longer periods of time before he starts talking or calls out. And you will not have to provide feedback as frequently. The great thing about scaffolding is that we provide lots of support at the beginning and then gradually take it away as children become more competent in their skills.
The thing to remember when working with children who have lagging self-regulation skills (or who are just learning) is not to get discouraged. Just like reading or riding a bike, self-regulation takes time and practice. And remember, the parts of the brain that control self-regulation are not fully mature until adulthood. It helps to keep in mind that children who have a tough time with regulation don’t mean to act out. Their self-control muscles just are not developed enough. But with exercise, they will get stronger!
Practicing self-regulation skills can be fun and interactive too! Here are some games and activities you can try with your child/students to build and expand on their self-regulation skills.
- Red light, green light. Want to mix it up? Have the kids be a silly animal on green. Need a challenge? Reverse the order! Green means stop and Red means go!
- Dance, Dance/Freeze: Throw a dance party! Have kids dance while the music is playing but be ready to freeze like statues when it stops!
- Listen to a book that has a repetitive work and have kids move their fingers when they hear the “magic word”
- Play Head Shoulders Knees and Toes. Change the speed so kids have to watch you and follow what you are doing
Image: © Mangsaab | Dreamstime.com