Defining and understanding self-regulation
Self-regulation is “a broad set of skills that allows kids to bounce back from strong emotions ... and manage difficulty in their day-to-day lives,” in Una Malcolm’s definition. Malcolm, a licensed teacher with the Ontario College of Teachers who runs Bright Light Learners, runs a private support firm in Toronto for students with learning exceptionalities.
“Oftentimes self-regulation and self-control are used interchangeably, but that might not be the most precise definition of self-regulation,” she says. “Think of self-regulation as a set of skills that allows a child to manage frustration, disappointment, adversity ... any sort of big, strong emotion. Self-regulation allows a child to return back to a normal set point.”
As Director of Bright Light Learners, she works with many students with complex needs, and understands first-hand the value and importance of developing self-regulation.
“Think of a set point on a thermostat,” she says. “A thermostat is constantly monitoring the temperature … and once it reaches a certain point, then [it] either heats or cools the house.” Kids with strong regulation skills “are monitoring how they’re feeling. If there’s a differential or a gap there, they’ll use strategies to come back to normal.”
Self-regulation is a very important part of everyday life. As she says, “no matter what kids are doing, they need to have self-regulation skills.”
How to develop self-regulation
Children aren’t born with these skills but they are born with the ability to develop them. Malcolm uses the metaphor of “an upstairs/downstairs brain” to explain a child’s process of developing self-regulation.
“The downstairs brain is related to a lot of core, base functions like heart rate, stress response and fight or flight,” she says. The downstairs brain (a suitable metaphor for the limbic system) kicks into gear in response to danger; it triggers strong emotions. Malcolm explains it's typical for children to often respond with strong emotion because the upstairs brain takes longer to develop. “The upstairs brain (analagous to the cerebral cortex) allows kids to plan, to empathize, to take on another perspective, to problem solve.” The upstairs brain regulates behaviour but it develops faster with help from external environments and other people.
Social environments like camp can be critical for supporting the development of self-regulation in children. It “puts kids in [situations] where they need to navigate these issues”, she says. “They're having to manage conflict with peers, adapt to change [and] exhibit cognitive flexibility when they change their schedule.” In a structured environment like camp, “with gentle coaching with peers, teachers, counsellors … kids [learn] to respond in an appropriate way and [this paves] the way for future success.”
How does camp accelerate the development of self-regulation?
Camp creates a responsive, welcoming atmosphere and teaches self-regulation guidelines to children. This might include learning to let someone speak first, recalling attention to a task when distractions are present, and learning to control one’s emotions in an overwhelming situation. Malcolm emphasizes that “the very nature of a social environment like camp [presents] opportunities for kids to develop and practice self-regulation skills.”
In these environments, children learn on their own how to cope with upsetting changes to their routine (i.e., a conflict with a peer or getting a question wrong on a test). When exposed to these challenges, they begin to learn strategies for self-regulation that help them manage emotions and remain focused on their duties.
The child internalizes these regulating strategies until they become habit. At that point, they might even begin to instruct their peers in self-regulation. However, it’s important to keep in mind that children can’t develop self-regulation habits overnight. It’s a slow and long process. but with exposure and support, these habits will develop over time.
Kids who can cope with changes to their environment and can manage cognitive flexibility and self-regulate are overwhelmingly kids who are more able to do well in school, at home, with friends, parents or families.
What are the benefits of self-regulation?
Malcolm highlights many short-term and long-term benefits of self-regulation skills.
Current research indicates that “kids who can cope with changes to their environment and can manage cognitive flexibility and self-regulate are overwhelmingly kids who are more able to do well in school, at home, with friends, parents or families,” Malcolm says. This research suggests that “self-regulation skills are hugely predictive of mental health, achievement and success.”
Self-regulation in action: meet Erick
Erick, a camper from COOKSMART camp, understands self-regulation as “not making a big deal out of everything, keeping my stress in and not letting my stress out by controlling myself.”
He believes that self-regulation will benefit him the rest of his life because it will, “balance [his] emotions towards [his] future jobs, friends and family.”
He believes that COOKSMART camp has helped him develop self-regulation skills.
“At the COOKSMART camp,” he says, “every time I made a [cooking mistake], I would ask the teacher to redo that step so I could actually understand.”
Furthermore, he's learning self-regulation while being homeschooled by his mom, Emilia. “In homeschooling, every time I didn’t get an answer, [my mom] would say for me to find the answer, fix what I did and look over the mistake that I did, so I don’t get mad at myself.” He understands that self-regulation involves managing strong emotions and staying focused on the task at hand.
How will self-regulation help my child in the future?
Self-regulation is commonly developed during the toddler years, though the habits of self-regulation continue to develop past adulthood.
When kids are developing self-regulation skills, Malcolm says, “any instances where they have to negotiate or bounce back from big emotions...creates neural pathways that allows them to use those skills in the future. That sets them on a path to success as adults.”
Research has proven that individuals with strong self-regulation handle their emotions and stress levels better, expand their intellectual capabilities and engage in less problematic behaviors, as opposed to those who don't develop self-regulation. This critical tool can help children with academic success, emotion control, decision-making skills, leadership habits, overall mental health, and relationships with others for years to come.
Overall, children with self-regulated behavioral habits are more likely to:
- Follow directions and exercise discipline
- Keep focus on tasks at hand
- Control emotions in exciting or stressful settings
- Develop organizational skills
- Make adjustments to be in line with a goal
- Constructively self-criticize performance
- Reflect on the outcome of a task
- Teach self-regulation habits to other children
“[Self-regulation skills] allow us to maintain healthy relationships and as human beings, healthy relationships are a huge part of living”, Malcolm explains. “Self-regulation is essential to being human. It’s not just that it supports in one key zone - it's broadly predictive of success and health.”
Want Your Child to Enhance Their Self-Regulation Skills?
Camps are advantageous to developing and enhancing self-regulation skills. The experience encourages children to work with others and follow rules mindfully, while it exposes them to new challenges and environments. At camp, children learn personal strategies for managing behaviour and emotions in a way that works for them, while they are guided and supported by their camp leaders.