Are your children aware of their feelings, needs, and impulses? Can they calm themselves, control their behavior, and focus on tasks? Preschoolers who can do these things find it easier to take turns, make friends, and adapt to school routines. This ability is called “self-regulation.” Parents often wonder how to help their children self-regulate. The answer may be, “Let them play!” Create many play oportunities with other children.
How can parents help support a toddler or preschooler’s self-regulatory skills?
- Provide a structured and predictable daily routine and schedule
- Change the environment by eliminating distractions: turn off the tv, dim lights, or provide a soothing object (like a teddy bear or photo of Mom) when you sense a child is becoming upset
- Role play with the child how to act or what to say in certain situations
- Teach and talk about feelings and review home rules regularly
- Allow children to let off steam by creating a quiet corner with a small tent or pile of pillows
- Encourage pretend play scenarios among preschoolers
- Stay calm and firm in your voice and actions even when a child is “out of control”
- Anticipate transitions and provide ample warning to the child or use picture schedules or a timer to warn of transitions
- Re-direct inappropriate words or actions when needed
- At play groups pair children with limited self-regulatory skills with those who have good self-regulatory skills as a peer model
- Take a break yourself when needed, as children with limited self-regulatory skills can try an adult’s patience
Provide open-ended play time.
- Let children have long periods of time daily to plan and take part in play activities.
- Offer open-ended materials so children can plan creatively: blocks, sand, water, colorful scarves, streamers, etc. They may turn blocks into a city, a hill, or a bed. The scarves may become clouds, a waterfall, or blankets.
- Help children put disappointments into words so they can calm themselves and focus on putting things back together. “Your block tower fell and you feel frustrated. You could build another one. Or do you want to put away the blocks and play with something else?”
Encourage make-believe play.
- Provide props so children can take different roles: parent, baby, rescue worker, pet, dancer, magician. A child who pretends with others learns to follow the “rules” of the role he plays. “I’m the waiter. I give you a menu, and you tell me what you want to eat.”
- Observe to find out if children internally patrol their own behavior as they play their make-believe roles. “I can’t play with Celia now. I’m being the waiter for Kaya and Will.”
- Give children a chance to set limits when a playmate doesn’t follow the rules. They will often remind each other to control impulses during make-believe play: “Don’t growl at me, Waiter. Waiters don’t scare people.”
Help children negotiate with each other during pretend play.
- When children disagree, encourage them to talk to each other about what they want.
- If plans have to be changed, remind the children that they have options. “You want the magic wand. But it’s still Emma’s turn. You can sit and wait. Or you could play that this cape is magic and wear it till Emma’s done.
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