Toddlers are experimenting with clay and water. Katie is building complicated waterways using plastic blocks. Her younger friend Anna looks at it in silence.
‘What are you doing, Katie?’ – the teacher asks.
‘The water is flowing fast!’
Placing her hand in the water, the teacher smiles and comments: ‘Yes! That’s right, the water is flowing fast!’
The teacher says to Anna: ‘Anna, do you want to play?’
Anna is still silent and doesn’t look at her teacher. However, after a while she nods slightly. The teacher gently smooths Anna’s back and whispers into her ear: I bet that Katie will gladly show you how to make blocks so that the water flows faster.
Anna looks at Katie insecurely: ‘Will you show me…?’

The Self-Reg approach is becoming more and more popular among educators of young children, so we’ve decided to introduce this idea to the readers of our blog.

What is self-regulation?

Ways of responding to stress factors are being developed since the first years of human life. Self-regulation is about how the brain reacts to stressors, activating metabolic processes that consume energy, and then another set of oppositely acting metabolic processes that promote relaxation. These mutually balanced mechanisms are constantly used to achieve a stable internal environment [1]. Even infants show the ability to self-regulate. Observing them, we can see that they try to manage their energy expenditure in response to various stimuli and then return to balance after this effort.

Five self-regulation areas

There are five areas of self-regulation: biological, emotional, cognitive, social and pro-social.

The biological area is related to the level of energy in the nervous system. The brain uses a hierarchy of responses to threats. If one reaction is not enough to cope with stress at a given moment, the brain switches to another. If the stress control system is overloaded, it loses its resilience, which results in a chronic state of insufficient or excessive stimulation of the child [2]. Distracted, hyperactive and aggressive children do not behave so intentionally. Such behaviour means that the excessive stress they experience prevents their social engagement.

The emotional area includes modulation of strong emotions, emotional immunity and self-esteem. Young children experience intense emotional reactions that can be sudden and seem catastrophic – on an all-or-nothing basis. Educators may then feel overwhelmed. Many toddlers find it difficult to observe, judge and modify their own emotions when they are under the influence of emotions. Therefore, the first step should always be emotional calm.

The cognitive area involves the ability to focus, direct one’s own attention, draw conclusions, and plan and execute complex activities. Concentration, being focused involves both body and mind. The roots of the child’s ability to focus attention can be strengthened. Distinctness, impulsiveness, inability to listen, low tolerance of frustration and other difficult behaviours are usually the consequence of excessive excitement. The more stressed the child is, the more difficult it is for the child to participate in what it observes or feels and to predict what will happen, which increases stress and makes the child even more inattentive.

The social area is connected with understanding both one’s own and others’ feelings and intentions. Problems in the social area result from the stimulation caused by the system, which is the first line of defence for the child and serves to cope with stress. It is a system of social involvement. If the child’s response to social situations by fighting or fleeing is established, the child will avoid what it needs most when it is frightened or concerned: the calming presence of a guardian or other children. A child overwhelmed by situations that go beyond their social skills is likely to react aggressively or withdraw from such situations.

The pro-social area is combined with the ability to help others cope with emotions. Excessive stress excludes social involvement and then activates the primary mechanisms which, in the face of threats cause aggression, escape or death.

How can I help children in developing self-regulation?

Studies on the development of self-regulation in infants show that young children need “regulated” educators who can provide them with external regulation in crisis situations [3]. Recognition and minimization of stressors is the first step towards the alleviation of stress levels in children and bringing them back to a state of calm and concentration, and ultimately improving their ability to self-regulate. Note that stressors can vary significantly. What is stressful for one child may not be stressful for another. Even for the same child, what is stressful at one time may not be stressful at another, depending on the physical or emotional state of the child. Some of the typical stressors for young children are:

  • deficiency/poor quality of sleep,
  • inadequate diet,
  • lack of physical activity,
  • stressors in the environment – for example, excessive noise, light, a crowd of people, or stimuli, for example, as a result of over-vision or using the computer.

The teacher can learn to recognize the states of excessive stress in children and support them in everyday situations, increasing or decreasing excitement so as to maintain optimal regulation. It is important that carers are able to provide a sense of security and help children to become aware of and express their emotions. It is also important to encourage children from an early age to look for different ways to modulate their emotional states and regain peace.

In the example at the beginning of the article, the teacher used touch to minimize tension in the girl. She also did not solve the situation for her. She waited for her initiative – a slight nod – and suggested an opportunity that the child could use. The self-reg approach recommends that the moments when children experience tension should be used as an opportunity to teach them how to find what has a calming effect and how to use it [4, 5].

This blog post was contributed by Marta Kotarba (Maria Grzegorzewska University).


[1] Shanker S., Barker T. (2016) Self-Reg. Jak pomóc dziecku (i sobie) nie dać się stresowi i żyć pełnią możliwości, Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Mamania.

[2] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

[3] Bronson, M.B. (2000) Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture. New York: Guilford.

[4] Florez I. R. (2011) Developing Young Children’s Self-Regulation through Everyday Experiences, Young Children, 06, 46-51.

[5] Fundacja Self-Reg Poland

This blog post was contributed by Marta Kotarba (Maria Grzegorzewska University).

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