What Parents Need To Know About Supporting Self-Regulation
To support the development of self-regulation at home, parents first have to make sure that they model their own behaviors in intentional ways. For example, demonstrating how you make a shopping list before going to the supermarket, or how you use a calendar to keep track of doctor’s appointments or soccer practice, will help your children understand what an intentional, deliberate behavior looks like. Older children will benefit from actually participating in such planning, by adding items to a shopping list, for example, or by marking their personal events on a calendar.
Having an environment that is free of distractions is another way or supporting self-regulation at home. It’s hard for children to get in the habit of concentrating on an activity for a long time when multiple distractions are present. Among these “repeat offenders” are TV sets that are always on, as well computer games and gaming devices that are used as babysitters. Until children are well into moving from other-regulation to self-regulation, they risk developing unregulated behaviors, such as mindlessly pushing buttons when interacting with technology.
The best way for preschool and kindergarten children to practice self-regulatory behaviors is to engage in mature make-believe play. Whether or not your child is fortunate enough to have playmates of different ages, your role in supporting this type of play remains critical. Many parents believe that it is not their job to teach children how to make-believe play and that children will develop these play skills on their own. But, in fact, today’s culture of childhood is far less “play-friendly” than in the past, when children had multiple opportunities to acquire mature make-believe play skills. This change calls for increased attention to supporting make-believe play, both in school and at home. Parents, therefore, need to act as “play mentors,” modeling various components of make-believe play for their children. This might involve showing children how to use an everyday household object in a pretend way or how to change your voice when speaking for a pretend character. As children’s make-believe play skills grow, parents can play more supporting roles, such as playing “customer” while their child plays “hairdresser” or “patient” while their child plays “doctor.
In addition to engaging children in mature make-believe play, there are other ways parents can help their children develop self-regulation. Here are some suggestions:
- It is easier to control the behavior of toddlers and young preschoolers when they know what to expect in a new situation. This helps children learn to anticipate and plan ahead. A typical situation in which parents can do this is when they go to the grocery store. They can tell their child in advance, “We’re going shopping, but today we are not going to buy candy. We are going to buy fruit, which is also sweet and yummy, but not candy.” Once in the store, parents can make sure that their child remembers the rule by asking him, “Do you remember what Mommy (or Daddy) said about candy?” If the child repeats what his parents told him earlier, he can use the rule to guide his own behavior internally. If necessary, parents can keep reminding the child and asking him to remember the rule about candy.
- Parents can encourage children to practice self-regulation at home by establishing routines. For example, they can help their child to set an alarm clock that will ring when it is time to go to bed, so the child can “regulate” his or her own bedtime. Now it’s the child, not the parent, saying, “It’s time.” Self-regulation routines work when it comes to television viewing, too. While most families already have television viewing rules, realistically, there are times when children watch television on their own. So, rather than letting a child click the remote control with no apparent viewing goal (which actually promotes unregulated behavior), parents can help their child plan viewing times. Together they can set a reminder about the time a particular show is on, by saying things like, “When the small hand on the clock is all the way down and the long hand is touching the sticker, you will watch your show.”
- A good way to have children practice physical self-regulation is to involve them in “stop and go” or “freeze” games, in which children stop and start different actions, as directed by the leader. Parents can play these games with their children on the playground or while they are in the supermarket. This practice is a fun way to develop better emotional control as well.
- Another kind of game that allows children to practice self-regulation is a game in which children need to pay attention to a specific attribute of an object while ignoring other attributes. For example, when riding in a car, parents can ask children to clap when they see a red car. The game can be made more challenging if there is more than one rule (i.e., clap when you see a red car and snap when you see a blue car).