The 5 R’s for Teaching Self Regulation in Young Children

As an adult, we can all use a gentle nudge to remind us to practice our self regulation techniques…breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, closing our eyes and counting to 10 or, stepping away from a stressful situation. But, how can we help young children learn these techniques that we’ve been practicing for decades? We connected with Jill Franks, PhD and Health and Wellness Specialist about how educators and parents can teach and practice self-regulation with young kids through 5 easy steps!

The 5 R’s in Self Regulation

  1. Reframe the behavior. Understand the behaviour from the child is not malicious
  2. Recognizing the stressors. This may be a scent, an event, an emotion, a sound or light etc. that causes physiological stress in the child.
  3. Reduce the stress. Consider where else we can reduce the stressors.
  4. Reflecting and enhancing the stress awareness. See what works and what doesn’t work each time and ensure it’s consistent.
  5. Respond to personalized ways to support the resilience in the child. This can be done through praise with the child. Praise them when they successfully regulate their emotions.

Tools to Provide for Kids in Self Regulation

Jill suggests to break down the stressors into different domains. We’ve included a few examples below to take into consideration.

Biological Domain

Declutter areas. This can be the classroom, the bedroom, the living area etc. Create an inviting space that isn’t too over stimulating that may trigger stress in the children.

Cognitive Domain

Stick to a routine. Routine is so vital in young children..and humans! Have the routine and process clearly laid out for children and get them involved in the process. Take the bedtime routine for example. Let children know ahead of time what is expected of them for this routine (brush teeth, get pyjamas on, find a book to read) and let them make choices along the way to have some control. For example, have 2 sets of pyjamas out and let them choose which ones they want to wear. Jill explains that by having a routine and setting out expectations that the child will feel a lot more confident in the steps they need to take in the transition and will feel like they have a say in their day and schedule.

Consider This Breathing Technique for Kids

The Five Finger Breathing is a great way to get kids to calm down in the heat of the moment- great for the adults too! We are teaching the kids these techniques but it’s important we remember as an adult to regulate our emotions too. Start with the co-regulation with children and doing these calming practices with them and as they master these techniques you’ll be able to just point or have a signal and the child will be able to self-regulate on their own.

Self regulation is really about understanding the stressors and what to do with them. Rather than self control is monitoring and managing emotions. Self regulation is trying to get the full understanding in order to reduce those stress induced impulses.

Jill Franks PhD


Start With Co-Regulation

Young children may not have certain parts of their brain developed yet when they begin to feel frustrated. As a caregiver, it’s our job to help them understand these feelings and to take control of those big feelings through calming techniques and co-regulation. That way, when situations arise where you as a caregiver are not around to prompt children with their calming techniques, children can do them on their own because they’ve flexed this muscle so often- it becomes second nature to them.

Adults can still adopt new techniques to help regulate yourself. Practice as a parent first before introducing it to your child!

Looking for activities for children to help them self regulate? Check out these activities in our database:

Calm Down Sensory Bottle
Shaving Cream Rain Clouds

Want to connect with Jill? Email her at jillfrankshealth@gmail.com and follow her Facebook Page.

Download the PDF from The MEHRIT Centre for the top self-regulation takeaways

Episode 240 Transcripts

Jill FRANKS:

The tantrum may be coming from something obvious. But the state of the tantrum – how overwhelmed the child gets if they aren’t able to regulate themselves just from that one stressor – chances are there’s a lot more things going on, too.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Jill, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

FRANKS:

Thank you!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted to have on the show today Jill Franks. She’s a health and wellness specialist and also a certified personal health trainer and certified personal health coach. She works a lot with parents, both on mental and physical health and well-being and works with them and their children. And we’re here to talk to her today about self-regulation. Jill, let’s start off learning a little bit about you. Tell us a bit about yourself and what’s keeping you busy these days.

FRANKS:

Yeah, great, thank you. Well, thank you again for having me today. So, as you mentioned, I am a health and wellness specialist, so I do have a Ph.D. in kinesiology. So, I did a lot of time focusing on the research of physical fitness and well-being. And then now I am working to apply everything that I learned in our day-to-day parenting.

So, for the last six years, I’ve been working with mostly moms. And it happened sort of as I became a mom myself. So, now I have two young girls, five-and-a-half and three-and-a-half [years old]. So, they certainly keep me busy today. But I also just love hosting workshops and still connecting with other moms in their day-to-day parenting and sharing any sort of knowledge that I can with them.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. You know what I find is interesting is, usually what we see is there’s folks who have their PhDs and do a lot of cool research and academic studies. And then separately, we have people that are in practice in the field. And so the unique thing is that you don’t have that disconnect. You’re the same person who’s doing both. Can you speak to that experience? How do you think that helps you in what you’re doing?

FRANKS:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think for me, personally, the shift happened just when my life shifted, also. So, when I was doing my research, I loved… so, we did do human research. So, I still got that interaction with individuals and running them through a bunch of different experimental conditions and then looking at the results. And that really did sort of excite me at that time.

And then we would write our papers and think about ways that we can apply all this knowledge that we gained.

And then everything kind of shifted when I got married, I had children. And really my passion changed along with that. And that was when I really found working more in a practical field and applying my knowledge and really so I could see the changes happening in front of me. And just having your kids does sort of change everything anyways. So, it really did change my mental focus and my career path differently, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I’m curious, when you started doing more of the practical work, did you have any sort of like, “A-ha!” moments or things that were surprising that, back when you were more on the academic side, you maybe would have missed out on without the nuances of the practical side?

FRANKS:

Yeah, so, I mean, my research didn’t directly translate over to what I was doing in the practical side. So, I was studying the effects of exercise or passively being exposed to heat and how that affects you as you age. So, that wasn’t directly translating into what I’m doing now.

But I think just having that research behind me and really knowing… so, anything that I am now learning and studying – because I’m always studying something – it really allows me to kind of be able to clearly see the background that would have went into it and why implementing these things are so important because there really is like a physiological meaning behind it. It’s not just somebody suggesting, “Oh, maybe we should go outside more and that will help our mental health.” I actually can understand sort of the science behind it.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, understanding the Why and the science is so important. And I also feel like it’s different when you just sort of read something or somebody tells you something, versus when you’re more deeply involved to the point of doing a PhD or something like that. You really get that deeper understanding of the Why, which is great.

FRANKS:

Absolutely, yeah. And there’s so much on the internet these days, too. So, I think it’s easier for me to be able to read through the information and sort of assimilate it and take what would be factual and know what to read and what sources to read to actually get to the facts.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Good point, and that’s obviously an increasing challenge in today’s world and a hot topic, especially in the political world in the US, in terms of what information is real or not real on the internet, is definitely a serious problem and something that not just us as adults need to learn, but probably need to start teaching our children, as well, because that’s going to be only getting worse, presumably, unless other actions are taking. So, that’s a good point, too.

FRANKS:

Yeah, absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re here to talk to you today about self-regulation. Maybe let’s start with the basics. How would you define self-regulation? What is it?

FRANKS:

Yeah, absolutely. So, self-regulation… so, it’s really a psycho-physiological response to stress. So, it’s how our bodies respond to the incoming stress and then what happens after. Are we able to bring us back down to sort of that baseline level or that homeostasis point?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And one of the famous studies was this “marshmallow test” thing with children that I think was done in Stanford. I thought it was kind of interesting because I saw a relatively recent article that kind of challenged some of the assumptions in there, I don’t know if you heard about it.

So, the marshmallow test, for the listeners who don’t know, it was done at Stanford, I think it was back in the [1960s] or 70s. And they put a marshmallow in front of a child and then they said, “You can have a second one if you can go 15 minutes without eating the first one.” And then they would leave and see what happened. And then the results, when they followed these children through their life, the conclusion was, those children with more willpower to not eat the first marshmallow and wait ended up being a signal for future success.

But the interesting thing was, this article – which was in the Atlantic – there was another study that happened more recently and they used a more diverse group of children: race, ethnicity, parents, education, etc. And what it found was, that new study found limited support for the idea behind the delayed gratification leading to better outcomes, but instead suggested that that capacity to hold out for the second marshmallow was shaped a lot by the child’s social and economic background.

So, in turn, it was the background, not the ability to delay the gratification, that was behind the kids’ long-term success. But anyways, I found that to be interesting. And I guess it’s a little bit more about the science of methodology on studies and that kind of thing.

FRANKS:

Mm-hmm, yeah, that’s very interesting.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so when we talk about self-regulation for parents and other caregivers, what’s the importance of that? What’s the importance of developing that self-regulation, from your perspective and experience?

FRANKS:

Mm-hmm, absolutely. So, I mean, as parents, we are the ones, or caregivers. We are the ones who will foster that into our children. But it’s really important that it is self-regulation. We need to learn how to regulate ourselves during stressful times – as we know that there are many during parenting – in order to transfer that into our children.

So, when our children are still very young – under the age of three or four – then it’s really all about co-regulation. So, the child doesn’t have that logical part of their brain form. So, everything is still kind of being reacted in the limbic system or the fight-or-flight [response].

So, if we are able to respond to our children in a calm state and teach them different tools and strategies to manage stress, then they will then begin to foster adaptive self-regulation tools and techniques that they will be able to take with them later in life.

If they don’t have that, then they’ll start to, when they’re forming those connections between the limbic system, that emotional part and the neocortex, that logical part of their brain if they aren’t getting the growth and adaptive techniques, then they could be learning maladaptive techniques.

So, that’s when they may just always go to tantrums or throw things or hit things in order to get attention because they don’t know how else to deal with that. And those are the behaviors that are going to go with them later in life, also.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And as we often come up with themes here in the Preschool Podcast, that you’re hitting on one now, which is how we behave as adults and what we do as adults ends up being very, very critical to the children around us. One of the things that I’m seeing here in our notes about self-regulation is the [Dr. Stuart] Shanker method. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how that can be used?

FRANKS:

Absolutely. So, Dr. Stuart Shanker, he developed his “Self-Reg” [self-regulation] techniques. And he has studied this for many, many years. And he has the MEHRIT Centre. And so he does a lot of teachings of self-regulation, both in educators and in parents. But they all sort of go follow these five steps to self-regulation.

So, the first one is really about reframing the behavior. So, this is when we would be dealing with either ourselves – or let’s use our children for an example. So, oftentimes when we see our children throwing a fit or throwing themselves on the floor, as a parent or as an educator we’ll see that as the children child trying to get attention or trying to hurt us.

But we need to reframe that behavior and really look at what is going on in that child’s environment right now to cause that reaction. So, by knowing that it wasn’t a malicious behavior, it’s really caused by stress behavior. So, reframe our thoughts of why that child is behaving. And that is really the first important step.

And then if you can do that, then you are able to go to step number two, which is recognizing the stressors that are causing that response. And this is where we say that you really need to become a “stress detective” because there are five domains in which stress can be generated from.

So, there is cognitive, emotional, social, pro-social and biological. And within each of those domains, there are so many different things that could be stressing out the child that we may not even recognize. So, just for an example, let’s say in the biological domain, some children may be triggered by a certain sense. That’s something that people may not have even heard of or may not consider. But maybe there’s a certain scent of a marker or the chalk or something, either in the classroom or at home that is actually causing a physiological stress response in the child.

So, you need to recognize all the different stressors that might be going on. Maybe the child doesn’t like the feel of buttons; maybe they’re light sensitive or sound sensitive; maybe they didn’t have enough sleep; maybe there was too much sugar. The list is just endless.

So, it’s really important to sort of write out the five different domains and then list under each one what could be a possible stressor for that child. And then when a tantrum or something is happening, kind of go to that list and say, “Okay, what is going on here? What else could be triggering this big response?”

Because the tantrum may be coming from something obvious: maybe they don’t get to watch their TV show or maybe they don’t get to have a snack. But the state of the tantrum – how overwhelmed the child gets if they aren’t able to regulate themselves just from that one stressor – chances are there’s a lot more things going on, too.

So then step number three would really be to reduce the stress. So, I’m not going to say, “Always give into your child and let them watch their show so that they don’t have that a stress response.” No, of course not. But what else is going on? Where else can we help reduce the stressors so that when the child is going through a transition or something stressful is going on [and] that does need to happen, they will be better able to deal with it because they won’t be all these other little stressors kind of adding up and bringing them to that breaking point.

And then number four is really reflecting and enhancing the stress awareness. So, it’s really all about trial and error. And if you find maybe every single time the child comes home and is really irritated at that time and you think, “Okay, they must just be tired or maybe a little bit hungry,” and you feed them but they still come home and are irritated. And then maybe you realize, “Oh, there was something else – they’re really hot from their clothing or something.” So, then you would be able to eliminate that stressor.

But that may not happen the next time, too. So, it’s not always going to be an easy fix. But that’s where you do need to kind of go through a lot of reflecting and see what worked, mark down what worked, take notes on it. And do things consistently work or did the only work sometimes?

And then step number five is really to respond with personalized ways to support the resilience in the child. So, when they are able to calm themselves down in a situation, you really need to encourage that positive behavior and reinforce it so that next time, if they have multiple stressors, they sort of remember the tools that that they needed to do in order to calm down from that response.

And the thing with these five steps is that I listed them out – step one, step two, step three –but it kind of goes in a circle. You don’t always need to start with reframing the behavior. The first thing may be to reduce the stress. So, it’s not always just in step fashion. It’s sort of in a circular fashion, too.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And is it safe to say that this is something kind of like exercising, where you get better at it over time and you have to build that muscle?

FRANKS:

Absolutely, definitely. So, even in parents… and the number one question that I get all the time is, “Okay, Jill, but what about in the heat of the moment?” And I’ve been practicing self-regulation for a while now and I’m able to teach it to my children and have many different techniques for them to use to start to self-regulate. But I still get mad, right? I still lose my temper, I still freak out. But it’s a lot less now.

And I know what I need to do. So, instead of yelling, I know I need to go and give myself a time out, right? I need to remove myself from the situation. And I can calm down much quicker, now that I have been practicing it for a while. And the same with my children, right? They will still have their have their tantrums. But the few things that we’ve practiced, they know now and we both kind of know the techniques.

And they’re both different; they’re both very different. So, they both have their own techniques that sort of work for them. But like everything else, I’m sure in a year or two it’s going to completely change as they change through different phases in their life, also.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And you talk about practicing with your children. What tools can we provide for children themselves to have them practice effective self-regulation?

FRANKS:

Absolutely. So, again, there are many. And it also goes back to the five domains of stress because there’s different tools for each domain. And these apply to in the classroom, also. So, just I’ll give a couple quick examples. So, let’s say in the biological domain: one really simple tip is to declutter the area. So, whether that’s the classroom or the learning environment or if your child has a really hard time falling asleep at night, then just make the bedroom like a nice, calm, calm environment that invites them to relax.

Or in the classroom, you can have like a little reading nook or a little calming space, nothing with too many colors and visuals and lights that could trigger anything. And again, in the cognitive domain, having predictable routines, especially in our children. We always hear this, but it is so true: routine is so important and to have it laid out.

And involve your child in it. So, if you have a child who is really hard with transitions, then write that chart out with them so that they always know what to expect. And if you involve your child in it, then it’s an art activity, it’s a bonding activity, whether it’s with a parent or with an early-childhood educator. And then the child will feel a lot more confident about sort of the steps that they need to take through the different transitions, that they feel like they had an opinion and a voice in creating it, also.

A thing that I love – more for my younger daughter – is breathing, some breathing exercises. So, there’s three really simple ones that I do and they’re great for children. We do the finger breathing: so, I have them put up one hand and spread all of their fingers out. And then with their other finger, they’ll just go and they’ll trace their hand. And every time they go up one finger, they breathe in; every time they go down, they breathe out. So, breathing in as they’re tracing up, breathing out as they’re tracing down.

Or flower breathing: so, you picture that you’re holding a flower. And you breathe in through your nose as if you’re smelling the flower and then breathe out as if you’re blowing all the petals away. And it really allows them to kind of really taken that deep breath and then blow it out. That deep breathing will really just help naturally relax them, too. And it also gets their mind off what might have been causing the anxiety or their stress, also.

For my older daughter, one technique that has worked great is we have a “calming map” on her bedroom wall. So, she was having a lot of problems falling asleep at night. So, we just have a big piece of paper and drew a little windy road on it. And at one side it has the little smiley or angry face. And on the other side it has a happy face.

And then she chose ten things or ten memories that make her happy. So, either her favorite food, her favorite vacation, what she likes to do in the summertime. And then as she goes through each one, she takes some time to think about it. And then by the time she goes through the ten things, she is at the smiley face. And she’s always in a much calmer, calmer way.

And the one thing that I do want to mention about these calming strategies, it’s self-regulation. So, we are teaching the children these techniques but it’s really things that they need to take on for themselves in order to help calm themselves down. So, now I’m just at the point where, like, I won’t say anything and I’ll just point to the map on my daughter’s wall so that she’ll know to the map. Or I’ll cue my younger daughter to do her flower breathing and then she’ll do it.

So, it’s definitely okay to do it with them at the beginning – part of the co-regulation phase – but you really want them to adopt these behaviors in order to be able to self-regulate and calm themselves down.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wow, that’s awesome. Those are amazing practical tips. And so you mentioned the term “co-regulation”. So, this is the idea that you kind of help them through it in the beginning to understand how to do it. And then the idea is hopefully, over time, then they can do it on their own?

Absolutely. And I mean, as children, as young children, they really don’t have the brainpower to self-regulate. They really don’t have that logical part of their brain developed yet, under the age of three. After the age of three, it starts to get developed and those connections start to be formed between that emotional brain and that fight-or-flight response and then the logical brain so that when stressors come in, they’ll know how to deal with it.

But that’s where it’s really important to teach these adaptive and positive techniques. So, those are the connections that are being built, rather than not addressing it at all. And then that’s when the maladaptive coping mechanisms are going to be the ones that take hold.

Now, I do want to mention, though, because as a parent myself and every time I talk to parents, I think a lot – especially with moms – a lot of things that go through their head is, “Oh no, I ruined my child!” And they have so much “mom guilt”. The great thing about the brain, too, is that you did not ruin your child. You can start practicing these techniques yourself.

And you’re not ruined, either. If your parents never knew about self-regulation and didn’t necessarily teach you these techniques, you can still learn them at a later age. It might take you a little bit longer as an adult to really adopt these common techniques and not just always get angry and not know what to do about it. But in children, they learn it really quickly. And that’s the great thing, also. So, there’s no mom guilt whatsoever. Just start now and practice it. But you really do need to practice it yourself as a parent before you can introduce it to your child.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and certainly as the host of the Preschool Podcast, I hear all kinds of great advice, including this advice about self-regulation. But I also find myself not exactly putting it into practice every day. So, I can relate to that for sure – it’s not easy.

And I think that’s kind of what differentiates self-regulation under this stress scenario, where the emotions are high, versus sort of this marshmallow test that I talked about, which is under more normal conditions of delaying gratification. As we all know, emotions run high, especially with little ones and tantrums. And so it’s hard to build that muscle over time, I imagine, hence why this sounds like it takes a lot of work and time to figure out.

FRANKS:

Yeah, absolutely. And Dr. Shanker always says, “This is not a program, it’s a progress,” right? It really is, it’s a journey; it’s a lifestyle. And there is the difference between self-regulation and self-control. So, self-regulation is really about understanding the stressors and what to do with it, rather than self-control [which] is just like monitoring and managing. Self-regulation is trying to get the full understanding in order to reduce those stress-induced impulses.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, what really struck me about those five steps was that one of them is reducing the stress. All the other ones are about how you’re thinking about things and reflecting and the other important pieces to the puzzle that we wouldn’t naturally do without being aware of this concept.

FRANKS:

Yeah, for sure. And it’s reducing the stress, right? It’s not eliminating the stress because we can never eliminate the stress. And if something is stressful for you now – like, it might be an overly stressful time in your life – it doesn’t mean that you can never eat chocolate again because the sugar is too much of a stress. It’s just maybe reduce it now, let everything else sort of balance itself out and then you can reintroduce things that might be stressors now. It’s not like they will always be stressors in your life.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. Well, Jill, can you tell us how our listeners can get in touch with you if they’re interested to learn more about some of your work and methodologies?

FRANKS:

If you want to reach out, the best is really just through email. So, JillFranksHealth@gmail.com. And again, I love connecting with parents and really anybody, these days. So, I would love to hear from anybody.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Jill, before we wrap up, 2020 was a tough year for a lot of folks. But 2021 is a new year. What’s exciting for you? What are you looking forward to this year?

FRANKS:

Yeah, I am looking forward to getting outside and for the weather to be warming up. And honestly, just like spending happy times with my children because we’ve had a lot of cooped-up moments and where those tensions and stressors have been high. So, I really am just excited to spend a lot of time outside.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, awesome. Yeah, there’s been a lot of application of the self-regulation at home for parents over the last few months. Wonderful. Well, Jill, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today, lovely having you as a guest!

FRANKS:

Yeah, thank you so much for having me!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Community Ambassador at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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