top of page

Self-Regulation...What Is It? How Does It Develop?

Self-regulation is the ability to control your impulses and emotions, direct your focus and attention, and maintain a calm and organized state of arousal. Mastery of this skill has been shown to predict success in adulthood and is critically important for successful childhood experiences at home, on the playground, and in the classroom.

When does self-regulation start to develop?

In infancy! Self-regulation begins as "co" regulation. At this point in development infants rely on the earliest form of communication, crying, to alert their caregiver of their need for soothing, changing, or feeding. This relationship and daily exchange between you and your child is the beginning of your child's ability to learn regulation.

Over time, as your child's language, cognitive, sensory, and motor capabilities develop, the amount of support they require from you decreases and SELF regulation begins to develop. Many things influence your child's ability to learn and apply self-regulation skills, but today we will focus on social emotional development and executive functioning.

Social-Emotional Development

Social-emotional development refers to your child's ability to understand emotions, demonstrate appropriate emotional responses, and "read" emotional responses in others.

Here is a quick checklist of social-emotional milestones young children need to master in order to develop self-regulation.


  • Engages in simple routines

  • Begins to increase their assertiveness (the "terrible twos")

  • Exhibits the ability to inhibit (or stop) their actions when told

  • Demonstrates spontaneous behaviors of comforting or helping others


  • Becomes more interested in peers

  • Exhibits a desire for peers to respond positively to them

  • Begins to talk about their own and other's emotional states

  • Demonstrates purposeful behaviors of comforting and helping others

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning refers to the brain's ability to maintain attention, manipulate recent experiences, stop impulses, and plan then carry out problem solving strategies.

Here is a quick checklist of executive functioning milestones young children need to master in order to develop self-regulation.


  • Learns to focus their attention (on new toys, people, or objects)

  • Begins to understand the effects of their own actions

  • Begins to demonstrate the ability to resist distractions

  • Demonstrates the ability to work towards a goal

  • Can make a choice when presented with options


  • Demonstrates ability to resist distractions and control attention

  • Can carry out multi step activities

  • Can choose age appropriate activities for themselves

It is important to point out that self-regulation, and the underlying factors of social-emotional development and executive functioning, are NOT fully developed by 6 years of age. These areas continue to grow and develop throughout young adulthood! I chose to focus on milestones between the ages of 0-6 because it is often around this age, as a child enters elementary school, that difficulties with self-regulation become noticeable and problematic. If your child is struggling with self-regulation at home or school, look back to these milestones and ask yourself… “Does my child have the underlying skills necessary for the expectation placed on him?” If the answer is “No”, then your child may benefit from skilled intervention to improve the underlying factors of social-emotional development and executive functioning.

There are many methods and protocols, such as the Zones of Regulation and Superflex curriculums, that aim to improve self-regulation in children. It is important that whichever method you choose the following components are included:

  • Identified incentives (pre-determined rewards or social praise given to your child after participation in a “manageable challenge”)

  • Presentation (planed experience) of a manageable challenge

  • Adult coaching and support to successfully manage the presented challenge

  • Earning of identified incentive

  • Direct teaching of social emotional skills and executive functioning skills through:

  1. peer and adult demonstration (modeling)

  2. social stories

  3. review and exploration of strategies that either were, or were not, successful

  4. repeated practice of successful strategies across different environments

There is one last thought to share…

When working to improve your child’s self-regulation skills, remember that progress can be fast or slow, big or small, consistent or “spotty”. Try to keep in mind that the long-term goal is to provide you and your child with a toolbox. A toolbox that is filled with different strategies. Strategies that can be used across many different environments, to help your child maintain a calm and focused state of mind. This toolbox will not make your child perfectly behaved, but simply more prepared to handle the world around him.

Let us help your child learn the skills necessary for self-regulation! Give us a call at 225.292.4138 for an evaluation today!

bottom of page