Please welcome guest blogger Kim Syers — an early intervention occupational therapist, blogger, and mama! She is here to share tips for how to improve self-regulation skills in toddlers and young children.
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WHAT IS SELF-REGULATION?
Self-regulation is the ability to adjust one’s own emotions, attention and behavior depending on the situation at hand. It is the ability to regulate and control impulses throughout a multitude of life experiences.
This is a difficult task for many adults, so it is no wonder why toddlers and children have a tough time with this skill. However, there is good reason as to why self-regulation is so challenging for our little ones.
For one, they have an under-developed pre-frontal cortex — this is the part of the brain that allows us to think before we act, or react for that matter. In addition, toddlers and young children have under-developed sensory systems and can have more intense reactions to sensory input (think the toddler overstimulated and shouting at the circus). Nevertheless, as adults there are ways we can help children improve their self-regulation skills and learn to calm themselves effectively throughout everyday life.
HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO IMPROVE SELF-REGULATION SKILLS IN TODDLERS AND YOUNG CHILDREN
1. Model Good Self-Regulation Skills
Modeling good self-regulation skills is essential in helping children learn how to manage difficult emotions. As the age old saying goes, children learn from what they see not from what they are told. This is the precise reason why children are frequently imitating adult behavior (whether that behavior is good or “bad”). This “observational learning” is a form of social learning that takes place when a child observes and then imitates the behavior of adults. Adults can model good self-regulation skills by refraining from yelling or reacting with anger in response to their own frustration. If a child sees that Mom takes a few deep breaths when upset, he is likely to do the same when those feelings arise.
2. Breathing Exercises
It is never too early to teach children how to use deep breathing exercises in times of stress. Taking a deep breath in through the nose for 4 counts, and then exhaling all the air from the mouth for 4 counts can help calm the body and mind in a matter of seconds. Show the child how to place her hand on her belly and follow the rise and fall of her abdomen. Breathing from the diaphragm rather than the chest helps us to breathe deeper (as opposed to shallow breathing from the chest). Focusing on our breathing helps to slow our thoughts and helps bring us back to the present moment. These slow deep breaths also trigger the release of calming endorphins. Breathing exercises help regulate the nervous system by slowing our respiratory rate, decreasing our heart rate, and delivering oxygen to the heart and lungs.
3. Massage/Hugs for Tactile and Proprioceptive Input
Gentle but firm massage and firm hugs (or bear hugs) provide a child with comforting tactile and proprioceptive input. This deep pressure sensory input helps to calm and regulate the nervous system. Proprioceptive input is grounding as it gives us information about where our body is in space. The combination of tactile and proprioceptive input (deep pressure input) triggers the release of calming serotonin and helps to decrease over-responsiveness to other types of sensory input. Toddlers and young children often seek out this type of input when upset or overstimulated — crashing into furniture or jumping on the couch are examples of this type of sensory seeking.
4. Playdough or Squeeze Ball
Play dough activities or squeezing a stress ball are other ways to help teach children how to calm in times of stress. Play dough and squeeze balls provide proprioceptive sensory input due to their resistive quality. Rolling out play dough or using cookie cutters provide this resistive input and help shift the child’s focus onto something new and enjoyable. Additionally, we can teach children to squeeze the ball or the play dough while counting their breaths to help them slow their emotional response. Thera-putty is another great alternative for children who require a little more resistive input to relax.
Coloring is a creative play activity which is also calming for both children and adults. Coloring has a relaxing effect because it helps to shift a child’s focus; they are no longer focused on what upset them but instead are focused on coloring. Coloring helps children and adults to calm by slowing the emotional response and centering the mind. Additionally, coloring activates the logical and creative parts of the brain and gives the amygdala a much needed break (the amygdala is the part of the brain that activates our emotional response). Adults can join in on the fun with their children and use this activity as a way for the whole family to de-stress and recharge.
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Kimberly Z. Syers is a pediatric occupational therapist, working exclusively in early intervention with infants, toddlers and children ages 0-3, specializing in sensory integration and sensory processing. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Kean University with her BA in Psychology and her MS in Occupational Therapy. Kimberly is the founder of an up and coming website, BabyOT, which provides information about pediatric occupational therapy to parents, therapists and other caregivers. Kimberly is a devoted mother and the “cool” aunt, always incorporating movement, sensory and learning into play. If you would like to learn more about Occupational Therapy and childhood development check out www.babyot.com, or Like us on Facebook www.facebook.com/babyotsensory and Twitter www.twitter.com/babyot_sensory.
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