Oct 25, 2021

Self-Regulation Within the Early Years

Supporting children within the earliest years to self-regulate is a big deal. It has become a buzz word over the previous couple of years but it can very easily be misunderstood and be confused with behaviour management techniques. Self-regulation is a very important and sophisticated set of skills needed from birth, that are developed through rapidly evolving interactions which support every child to succeed as they grow into adulthood.

Being able to self-regulate permits us to manage our emotional responses, thoughts, body movements, and sequent behaviours that support us to acknowledge and handle huge emotions to positively reach a goal. It a nutshell – it’s how we manage stress.

In 2021, it’s tougher than ever to be a young child, in a world jam-packed with high expectations. There’s no manual, no checklist of right or wrongs, and positively no child is the same. Yet, as they grow, we discover ourselves dashing them through ‘childhood’ with the notion that their brains will maintain with the speedy pace we tend to move at. However, the raw truth is that they’re not in a position too. Not because they don’t want to or are being uncooperative or dismissive, it’s because they neurologically can’t.

In fact, the Pre-Frontal Cortex, which is responsible for personality development and specific functions; such as focusing attention, predicting consequences of one’s actions, impulsive control in managing emotional reactions and coordinating and adjusting one’s behaviours; are not fully matured until a person is around 25 years of age! Twenty-five! Let that just sink in.

These very little individuals of ours, are like scientists, innately capable of understanding the planet through experimentation. Think about the time you’ve walked with your toddler, and they stop, crouch down and become fascinated with a snail they’ve just seen on the path and have absolutely no regard to getting in the car quickly because you are running late! They become immersed in what is happening, and they live in the moment. Logic doesn’t exist for them yet, but you’ll notice as they begin to communicate with you that all important question “why?” begins to be at the end of every sentence. This will tell you that your child’s left part of the brain is beginning to work. It is at this moment that their brain is starting to develop and introduces logic with language through cause-and-effect experiences. This phase is extremely important.

Your brain is in two sections, the left and right hemisphere. Children under 3 are right hemisphere reliant, they live completely in the moment and have not yet mastered logic or words to express how they are feeling.

Your left and right hemispheres operate very differently. Your left hemisphere loves and needs order, it is:

  • Logical
  • Literal
  • Linguistic
  • Linear

Whereas the right hemisphere brain is holistic and non-verbal. It sends and receives signals that enable us to communicate. Rather than details and order, the right hemisphere cares about the meaning and the feel of an experience. It specialises in:

  • Images
  • Emotions
  • Personal memories

We get a ‘gut feeling’ from our right brain. It is:

  • Emotional
  • Non-verbal
  • Experiential
  • Autobiographical

The brain has 2 sides for a reason, and they are designed to become horizontally integrated. Each side has specialised functions, as mentioned above, which enables us to achieve more complex goals and carry out more sophisticated and intricate tasks.

At nursery, we are forever considering ways to better experiences for children in our care. We have a strong emphasis on ensuring that emotions are labelled in a way children can understand them, and use experiences the children are having as a way of modelling and coaching them to understand what these big emotions mean.  We support them through co-regulating. Providing a secure base for the children to know and feel their needs and preferences matter and that we listen, supporting them to manage stressors and return to calm.

So how do we do this?

There are 3 important things to consider when co-regulating emotional responses for children.

  1. Reduce stress levels

Talk to your child about what is happening, use language such as “I can see that you are feeling very angry that your sister took your toy. But hitting her isn’t the right thing to do.”

  1. Help the child return to a state of calm

Let them know it is normal to feel a range of emotions – use examples of your own to allow them to understand you feel them too! You can use language such as “Sometimes I feel angry and shout very loudly. It’s ok to feel the way you feel.”

  1. Model/provide self-regulation strategies for them to use in the future

Talk through and discuss ways of managing it better. If they are old enough, you may want to give them the opportunity to resolve it themselves; for example you may say “Next time, find someone who can help you” or if old enough you may say “What do you think you can do differently next time” or you may want to follow up and say “Don’t worry, try to remember next time”.

What happens if we don’t do this?

Significant problems arise when they are not integrated, we end up coming at our experiences primarily from just 1 side of the brain. Using just 1 side of the brain could be like trying to swim with 1 arm. We may be able to do it, but not successfully.

Then you have your upstairs and downstairs brains. We want to look at it from bottom to the top. Imagine it like a house. The downstairs houses the Limbic brain, which is responsible for basic functions like breathing, blinking, innate reactions and impulses as well as strong emotions.

Your upstairs brain is completely different and houses the cerebral cortex. Your upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective. It is highly sophisticated and more mental processes, like thinking, imagining, and planning take place.

So, what about the Amygdala?

The amygdala is the most primitive part of the brain. It is almond is shape and is tucked inside the downstairs part of the Limbic downstairs brain. It amplifies our emotions and hijacks our upstairs brain.

It is a big deal.

When we are operating from the amygdala, we react quickly (ever heard of the term fight, flight, or freeze?). A good example could be, holding your arm out to protect your passenger when you apply your brakes in the car. This is great when you want your body to act before you think. However, there are times that you need to think before you act. For example, when you may ‘shout at someone’ or ‘impulsively react to something’. We want our amygdala to react when we need it to; when we are in danger, for example. Unfortunately, in children, the amygdala fires up and blocks the upstairs and downstairs brains from connecting (think of it like a baby gate being attached, making it inaccessible). So even though the upstairs brain is still ‘under construction’ the part of it that can function actually becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotions or stress.

So, remember, the next time your little one throws themselves to the floor because you gave them the blue cup and not the orange one, respect and validate their feelings (it may be minor to us adults, but it is a really big deal to them) and talk to them about it. Know that they are not behaving poorly or badly, understand that their behaviour is a communication, and they need you to understand them and help them self-regulate to be able to cope in our world, just like we do.

For further reading and research underpinning this blog, please consider Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Mine Conkbayir’s work around Self-Regulation.

Jenna, Nursery Manager at The Old Station Nursery Uxbridge


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