Self-Regulation in the Early Years

Posted: March 8, 2022

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is a very important part of children’s development and sets the foundation for their success later in life. Self-regulatory skills are evident when a person can regulate and control their emotions, minds, bodies, and attention to remain calm, focused and alert within their environment (Ottawa Public Health, 2019). There are so many things within our environment that are competing for our attention, not to mention the different thoughts that are going through our minds. It can be very hard for children to control their thoughts and emotions, so as adults, we need to equip them with the tools that will ensure their success in life.

Smiling infant sitting on a rocking horse.

Importance of self-regulation

With the help of supportive adults around them who also model good self-regulation, children begin to develop and show self-regulatory skills from an early age and continue to learn and develop these skills as they get older. When we build a warm, nurturing, and responsive relationship with children from an early age, they begin to learn how to regulate themselves because according to Dr. Shanker, the stimulation that a baby receives when we hold or touch them, sing to them, rock them, smile at them and make soothing calming sounds when they get fussy is the foundation to developing good self-regulatory skills (Ontario Ministry of Education, p.22). Research has also shown that children who have good self-regulatory skills showed emotional intelligence, increased academic performance and good social skills (Bullard, 2017).

Infant calmly looking up at caregiver who is holding child in their arms

Strategies for Parents

Provide predictability

Children thrive in predictable environments; they feel more in control when they are aware of what to expect. Try to maintain a daily routine for children to follow so they feel like they have a bit of control (Bullard, p. 29). For example, maintain a schedule for the children so they know what will happen next and what is expected from them.

Establish a caring environment

When adults in the child’s environment provide and maintain a responsive caring relationship, then infants and toddlers learn to trust and develop self-regulatory skills. This can be done by responding to the children’s needs, listening to them when they are seeking your attention, playing with them, and acknowledging and validating their feelings to show that you care (The Kindergarten Program, p. 57). Have age-appropriate expectations for children as well, so that they are doing things when they are developmentally ready. For example, waiting for signs of readiness to potty train children.

Encourage attention regulation

“Self-regulation helps children to control certain impulses; they learn problem solving skills, attention regulation and how to channel their energy. Self-regulation also helps with social skills as children get older” (Elliot & Gonzalez-Mena, p. 29). Provide opportunities for children to focus and pay attention. For example, explaining to them what you are doing when they are around you. Tell them each step and give them a chance to react or acknowledge that they hear you. This helps to build relationship and regulate emotions as well (Elliot & Gonzalez-Mena, p. 30).


Bullard, J. (2014). Creating environments for learning: Birth to age eight (2nd ed.). Toronto, Canada: Pearson.

Elliot, E., & Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2011). Babies’ self-regulation: Taking a broad perspective. YC Young Children, 66(1), 28-32.

Government of Ontario (2016). Full-day Kindergarten. Retrieved from:       https://files.ontario.ca/books/edu_the_kindergarten_program_english_aoda_web_oct7.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education (2014c). Think, feel, act: Lessons from research about young children. Toronto, Canada: Queen’s Printer for Canada.

Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/researchbriefs.pdf

Ottawa Public Health (2019) Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. Self-Regulation. Retrieved from http://www.ottawapublichealth.ca/en/professionals-and-partners/resources/Documents/iecmh/iecmh-self-regulation-en.pdf