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Exploring Self Regulation With 3 To 5 Year Olds

Exploring Self Regulation With 3 To 5 Year Olds
Tere Bowen-Irish, OTR/L
July 31, 2023

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Editor's note: This text-based course is a transcript of the webinar, Exploring Self Regulation With 3 To 5 Year Olds, presented by Tere Bowen-Irish, OTR/L.

Learning Outcomes

  • After this course, participants will be able to:
    • analyze the 5 levels of self-regulation (cognitive, emotional, motivational, biological, and behavioral).
    • evaluate the impact of modeling and teaching these skills early on and how that affects self-regulation in the later years of development.
    • analyze how to promote self-regulation based on teaching and modeling.


Self-regulation skills in early childhood are critical for later development. As occupational therapists, we must understand and teach these skills to support healthy growth. In this article, we will analyze the five levels of self-regulation, evaluate the impact of modeling and teaching these skills early on, and promote self-regulation strategies based on evidence-based practices.

What is Self-Regulation? 

  • The ability to manage reactions, and behaviors, and to have good relationships with others
  • Believe it or not, this skill shows early, rapid growth in the toddler and pre-school years and can affect regulation later in life
  • Other aspects include focusing on a task, impulse control, and recovery after excitement or frustration

Self-regulation is the ability to manage reactions, behaviors, and relationships from an early age through adulthood. It involves focusing, demonstrating impulse control, and recovering after a reprimand. How quickly can they put their feet on the brakes, take it off the gas, and then recover and be in a self-regulatory state? 

What Promotes Self-Regulation in the Early Years?

  • In the first years of life, self-regulation is developed through kind, supportive, nurturing relationships.
  • Babies may seek oral motor input to soothe themselves or cuddle with a stuffie/blanket.
  • In the toddler years, we may notice stronger emotions. The “terrible twos” suggest feelings of being overwhelmed, often resulting in tantrums. The more intense feelings can directly affect the ability to self-regulate.
  • Our job is to connect with each child based on their needs.

Self-regulation develops through nurturing relationships and supportive environments. For example, in toddler and preschool years, intense feelings can lead to tantrums because emotion regulation is difficult at that age.

Prior to their arrival in our care as infants, babies may already exhibit self-soothing behaviors by seeking oral motor input through finger sucking, thumb sucking, or using a pacifier. They might also find comfort in cuddly toys that aid in their self-regulation.

As toddlers, they are often labeled as experiencing the "terrible twos," but it is crucial to recognize that these apparent outbursts are often manifestations of feeling overwhelmed. Managing such intense emotions can be challenging for them, and it necessitates modeling and teaching cause-and-effect relationships to facilitate their development of self-regulation skills.

As educators, our primary responsibility is to build connections with each child, tailoring our approach to meet their individual needs, as is customary throughout all grade levels.

Additionally, we must consider the child's background and experiences. Have they been exposed to nurturing relationships? Have they spent significant time in daycare, leading to interactions with multiple adults, potentially hindering their bonding experiences outside the family? These aspects are essential to bear in mind when observing signs of dysregulation in the child.

Extensive research has been conducted in this area, and I will share some of these valuable findings with you today.

Research on Early Self-Regulation

  • A new study has found that children's individual engagement with teachers, peers, and tasks was important to the gains they made during the preschool year, even after taking into account differences in classroom quality.
  • Preschool classrooms that are emotionally supportive, well-organized, and cognitively stimulating can help boost children's learning and development. Yet, for the most part, focusing on the quality of early-childhood education has emphasized teachers, often missing the central role that children play in their own development.
  • “Children with higher levels of negative engagement performed at lower levels across nearly all of the academic, language, and social outcomes measured, including lower language, literacy, and self-regulatory skills.”
  • "Interventions designed to prepare children for school should include a focus on children's individual behaviors in the classroom," adds Jason Downer, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, who was the lead investigator. "Observing children's engagement can guide decisions about where, when, and how to intervene with at-risk children, and help educators enact more useful individualized strategies in the classroom."

(Sabol, Bohlmann, & Downer, 2017)

Preschool classrooms are designed to be emotionally supportive, well-organized, and cognitively stimulating environments. However, the focus has shifted towards recognizing the crucial role that teachers play in the lives of these young children. As educators, we often become significant figures in the children's lives, and it is not uncommon for them to quote their teachers at home, reflecting the bonding and respect they develop for our authority and guidance.

Research indicates that children who experience higher levels of negative engagement tend to perform at lower levels in academic areas such as language, literacy, and self-regulatory skills. To address these issues, interventions must be tailored to address individual behaviors.

Ross Greene's theory of lagging skills is a valuable resource in understanding that children misbehave not because of inadequate rules in school but due to their lack of essential skills to behave appropriately. If you are interested in this concept, I recommend exploring Ross Greene's website for further information.

When conducting research in preschool and kindergarten environments, it is essential to observe the children and assess their engagement levels. Identifying any potential yellow flags for at-risk children is crucial, as this information will help us develop personalized plans and provide the necessary scaffolding to support their developmental progress in these learning environments. 

What Does Dysregulation Look Like?

  • Motor actions
  • Unexpected responses, over the top, fussiness
  • Verbal behavior, blurting, yelling, noise making
  • Intrusive and disruptive behavior
  • Snap decision making without thinking of consequences
  • Restlessness, often expressed as “on the go”

In the early years, dysregulation in children often manifests as disinhibited behavior. They may engage in impulsive actions, displaying a "free-for-all" attitude where they grab things without consideration or repeatedly engage in disruptive and inappropriate activities. This behavior can lead to disruptions in the classroom, conflicts among peers, or problems within a group setting, like a play area or center.

Motor actions are commonly observed when children are dysregulated. These may include invading personal space, throwing objects, mishandling materials, or using them in unexpected and inappropriate ways.

Dysregulated children may display overt signs of fussiness, such as verbal outbursts, yelling, blurting out, or making excessive noise. As teachers, it is essential to observe patterns in their behavior to identify triggers for dysregulation. For example, a child might exhibit disruptive behavior right before snack time, while another child may have difficulty settling down after a recess break.

In this role of detective, teachers can pinpoint when the child's "engine" (level of arousal) is running too high or too low. This awareness highlights the need to address self-regulation, which is the ability to manage and control one's emotions and behaviors effectively.

To support children in achieving self-regulation, simple interventions can be employed. These may include providing ordered, purposeful, and rhythmic movement breaks or creating a calming environment by lowering lights and engaging them in a story session. These activities help neutralize and "reboot" the child's system, fostering a more regulated state. 

Reasons for Dysregulation

  • Our early experiences may affect our self-reg abilities later in the school years and even into adulthood.
  • There can be many reasons for this…
    • Neglect as an infant without comfort or soothing.
    • Skills and strategies for coping with frustration, neediness, or insecurity were not offered, taught, or modeled.
    • Lack of routines in the early years fosters unpredictability and possible discomfort
    • Lack of guidance, coaching, practice, and natural consequences may not have been part of this person’s life.
    • Diagnoses such as ADHD, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and Traumatic Brain Injury affect emotional control.

When examining the early experiences of children on their first day of school, it is essential for professionals to be mindful of potential dysregulatory behavior in those who may show signs of developmental delay. This behavior could stem from experiences of neglect during infancy, leading to a lack of comforting and soothing mechanisms, as discussed earlier. Consequently, these children might struggle to develop effective coping skills for managing frustration, neediness, and insecurity, which were not adequately provided, taught, or modeled.

The absence of consistent routines during the early years can contribute to unpredictability and potential discomfort for these children. Furthermore, the lack of guidance, coaching, and practice may exacerbate their challenges. Additionally, some children may present with specific diagnoses such as ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, traumatic brain injury, or autism spectrum disorders, all of which can significantly impact emotional control. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the child's background and experiences prior to their current presentation.

In order to gain comprehensive insights into each child's needs and circumstances, it is imperative to implement a thorough intake form. This form should aim to better understand the child's early years and the specific situations they encountered. Moreover, establishing individual connections with each child is essential, even in the context of a group setting. This personalized approach is vital to successfully addressing the unique requirements of each child and promotes effective teamwork among educators, fostering a conducive learning environment.

Later Effects in Life

  • We will be looking at this topic of self-reg for the younger child…check out the effects later in life. Let’s delve into a bit more of the research.
    • “The researchers found that students attending Head Start preschools that implemented the Research-based, Developmentally Informed (REDI) program were less likely to experience behavioral problems, trouble with peers, and emotional symptoms like feeling anxious or depressed by the time they reached seventh and ninth grade.”
    • “Karen Bierman, Penn State Evan Pugh Professor of Psychology, said she was encouraged that the students were still showing benefits from the program years later.”

(Penn State, 2020)

When examining the long-term impact of early interventions, the REDI program conducted research in Head Start preschools, which caught my interest. The REDI program's mission is to provide enrichment intervention based on a developmentally informed curriculum. It emphasizes the importance of covering essential curriculum topics while promoting center-based learning. However, what I found particularly intriguing is the focus on constant training and coaching for teachers on how to interact with the children.

Creating a safe and connected environment is a key aspect of the REDI program's approach. When children feel secure and connected to their teachers, they are more likely to settle in and participate in activities without experiencing angst or dysregulatory behaviors. This approach resembles the kind of interactions we have within our own families, where we sit down and discuss how the day went. Similarly, the REDI program encourages teachers to have end-of-day discussions about how things went and what strategies were used to engage each child effectively.

By actively working to understand and support each child's needs, teachers not only help them in the present moment but also contribute to their long-term development. These positive interactions and efforts made by educators have a lasting impact on the children's growth and development as they progress through their educational journey.

They go on further to say...

  • "We found that the effects that lasted through adolescence weren't in the academic areas like literacy and math, but in the social-emotional areas," Bierman said. "Perhaps in the past, we've been too focused on boosting academic learning in preschool and have not paid enough attention to the value of enriching preschool with the social-emotional supports that build character and enhance school adjustment. We know from other research that these skills become very important in predicting overall success in graduating from high school, supporting future employment, and fostering overall well-being in life."

The research on early interventions, like the REDI program, indicates that the effects can have a lasting impact through adolescence. While academic areas such as literacy and math may not be significantly affected, it is in the social-emotional domain where the most noticeable changes occur.

In the context of education, there has been an ongoing debate about whether kindergarten is now the new first grade and whether preschool has become the new kindergarten. However, what the research suggests, especially in the post-COVID era, is the importance of social-emotional support. Self-regulation plays a crucial role in promoting social-emotional growth, future employment prospects, and overall well-being throughout life.

An example from my own experience at work highlights the significance of social-emotional support. I observed a situation where a child was upset about not getting her way. The teacher handled the situation with care by setting appropriate limits. Although the child initially resisted, the teacher maintained her patience and understanding, using a time timer to help the child grasp the concept of time. The teacher's decision not to reset the timer and instead sit with the child conveyed trust and a genuine interpersonal connection.

This teacher's approach demonstrated effective scaffolding for the child. Rather than avoiding the reason for the child's distress, she provided a natural consequence while also ensuring a bond of trust between herself and the child. Such interpersonal connections are crucial in supporting children's social-emotional development and fostering a positive learning environment. As we move forward, it is vital to prioritize and implement strategies that nurture social-emotional growth in children, especially in the wake of post-COVID challenges.

How Do We Set Up Relationships, Environments, and Situations to Aid in Self-Regulation Skills?

When establishing relationships with children and creating suitable environments, it's essential to consider various factors. This includes incorporating different elements into the curriculum and activities such as center time and circle time, helping children recognize the value of following routines, as this predictability can generalize to other settings outside of school.

To achieve this, educators and therapists should view children from multiple perspectives and levels. Behavioral aspects are often readily observable, and educators can work on helping children acclimate to the school environment, be flexible, and engage in various activities offered.

Emotional development is another critical area to consider. Children may exhibit a wide range of emotions, and some may find it challenging to separate from their parents or cope with worries when apart from them. Nurturing emotional abilities can contribute to a healthier emotional continuum.

Additionally, play skills are vital, as open-ended play offers a platform for children to process their emotions effectively. Lack of environmental time for play can hinder emotional expression and development. As children of this age are often egocentric, understanding their cognitive abilities, genetic factors, and individual motivations for being at school can help tailor interventions accordingly.

In summary, a holistic approach to supporting children's emotional and behavioral development is essential for educators and therapists. Creating supportive environments, establishing routines, and promoting open-ended play can significantly contribute to their social-emotional growth and overall well-being.

Modeling/Impulse Control


  • We must take all of these areas in mind when we see inconsistent performance.
  • Those who work in education often evaluate children based on these levels.

When considering interventions in these areas, modeling becomes a crucial approach (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Areas where modeling is important.

Children's mirror neurons are highly active, making them eager to imitate. When you provide a pointer to a child, they naturally imitate and engage in activities saying things you may say, "What will the weather be like today?" They listen attentively and use modeling to explore roles, including being a teacher and expressing their true selves. This process is an integral part of dramatic play.

Impulse Control

  • Most challenges for this age are based on impulse control…
    • Let’s think about our own impulse control…Most of it is really based on delayed gratification to reach a higher goal. If we are tired, overwhelmed, or feeling ill at ease, our own impulses may override.
    • Your colleague says, “Hey, let’s bag this day and go to dinner.” Using our impulse control, we may say no to friends who want us to go out on a weeknight for dinner. Why? Need a good night's sleep, must finish a report before the next day, or want to spend time with family. No matter the excuse, we have a purpose in mind. Or, we decide to “bag it and go.” All of the levels of self-regulation are acting on that decision.

When considering the topic of self-regulation and impulse control, it is evident that many individuals struggle to delay gratification in order to achieve long-term goals. This applies to people of all ages, including professionals. For instance, during moments of tiredness, overwhelm, or unease, our impulses can easily take over, affecting our decision-making.

In a professional setting, colleagues might propose spontaneous activities, like going out for dinner after work. However, effective impulse control involves considering various factors, such as the need for sufficient rest, pending work obligations, or the desire to spend time with family. These considerations are part of our own regulatory system, which enables us to make informed choices aligned with our goals and responsibilities.

It is essential to recognize the significance of self-regulation in children as well. As educators, we can discern the emotional state of students when they arrive at school based on their facial expressions and tone of voice. External factors, such as difficult weekends or family situations, can impact their emotional well-being and ability to self-regulate.

As professionals interacting with children, providing a calm, welcoming, and safe environment is crucial. When students are not in a regulated state, they may seek connection with a composed and composed adult, relying on their nervous system for guidance. By fostering this supportive environment, we can encourage flexibility in children and help them transition smoothly into their daily activities.

In conclusion, self-regulation and impulse control play vital roles in both professional and educational settings. Understanding and practicing these skills are essential for making well-informed decisions, achieving long-term goals, and creating a positive and supportive environment for children's emotional development.

Where Does Inhibition Occur?

  • So, if inhibition is the most common issue for young children, let’s consider where disinhibition may occur.
    • Some of the tasks that affect inhibition in a school environment may be:
      • Sharing
      • Compliance
      • Transitional times
      • Being overly hungry or tired
      • Sensory environment
      • Being part of a group

In working with children, one common issue that arises is disinhibition, which can manifest in various ways. As a therapist, I often observe children engaging in behaviors like not sharing, interrupting others' play, or struggling with compliance. For instance, when it comes to following instructions or transitioning between activities, some children may exhibit defiant behavior, such as sitting on the floor and refusing to cooperate.

There are specific areas where we can offer support to address these challenges. First, we should consider the child's basic needs, such as hunger. Some children may arrive at school without having eaten since early morning, so providing access to snacks can help them stay focused and engaged in the learning environment.

Another aspect to consider is the sensory environment. A busy, loud, or overwhelming setting can negatively impact a child's ability to self-regulate. Creating spaces in the classroom where children can relax and regroup can be beneficial. Additionally, providing tools like weighted lap blankets or visors to reduce glare can help children manage sensory input effectively.

Fostering a sense of community and belonging is also crucial. Group names and identities can create a positive atmosphere and a feeling of pride among the children. Research suggests that naming groups is based on gang theory, which highlights the importance of a strong and supportive community for children.

As a therapist, I work closely with educators to identify and address these issues, offering strategies and interventions that promote self-regulation and positive behavior in the classroom. 

Modeling/Portraying Self-Regulation

  • As we model, we must consider how to portray self-reg to the kids we work with.
    • Use of scripts when they want to go first (by the way, this is developmental, 3-5 years). “It’s ok not to be first every day.” “We get what we get, and we don’t get upset.”
    • Provide a routine, such as a job for the day: line leader, plant sprayer, fish feeder, marker checker, picture hanger, etc. Don’t overdo the praise but acknowledge the action.
    • Talk out loud, broadcasting a thought. “I know it’s so hard to wait for snack-time. My tummy is rumbling. I’ll set this time timer, and when the red is gone, it will be snack- time!”
    • At this age, doing is where it is at. Egocentricity is developmental, and de-centering comes along with time.

As educators, when modeling self-regulation for young children, it is essential to project a sense of calm and ease. Teaching these skills can feel like being on stage, as we need to engage the children's attention and make it enjoyable for them. One effective approach is using simple scripts to guide them through challenging situations. For example, phrases like "It's okay not to be first every day" or "You get what you get, and we don't get upset" can help children navigate social interactions and cope with disappointments.

Personalizing interactions by using a child's name or creating playful rhymes can also make learning more engaging and memorable. Providing a daily job or responsibility can foster a sense of curiosity and fun while encouraging self-regulation. Rotating these jobs daily keeps children interested and motivated to participate in the classroom routines.

Another useful strategy is broadcasting, where educators verbalize their own experiences to help children understand their emotions and reactions. For instance, announcing that one's tummy is rumbling and setting a timer for snack time allows children to observe appropriate responses to their feelings.

Although most children will adapt to these strategies and routines over time, some may require additional support and scaffolding. By incorporating these techniques consistently over six to eight weeks, children can develop greater self-regulation skills, which will become more automatic with practice.

Modeling, Cont.

  • Provide opportunities to practice turn-taking, whether it be playing games, doing circle time activities, choosing the class book to read, etc.
  • Offer work in dyads (with coaching) in short increments.
  • E.g., Center time: children share a big tweezer.; two colors (equal number) of unifix cubes on a table; two bowls, one in front of each child. They now take turns picking up their color and putting it in their bowl. Then, they put them together to build their own tower.
  • During reduced motor time, offer something to fidget with. Examples are a gel board, tiny slinky, scarf, straw, etc. Explain and model use.
  • Offer downtime throughout the day. Mindful minutes. Let’s do it together right now!

Promoting self-regulation in young children involves using creative strategies and incorporating examples and anecdotes to make the learning experience engaging and relatable. One fun game, utilizing dice with different instructions, encourages turn-taking and impulse control. For instance, children might perform the chicken dance for a set time or do it on tiptoes for an extra challenge. Collaborative activities, such as building with blocks, foster teamwork and patience as children work together towards a common goal.

Pairing children with complementary strengths during dyadic learning allows them to support and communicate with each other. For example, using tweezers to sort colored cubes becomes a joint effort, enhancing fine motor skills and cooperation. Mindful minutes before transitions help children settle their bodies and minds. A simple exercise, like placing a hand on the heart and another on the belly while saying their names slowly, aids focus and prepares them for the next activity.

Imaginative exercises add fun to transitions, like the activity cards in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Drive-Thru Menu activity cards.

Activities like rubbing imaginary sunscreen on different body parts teach body awareness and create an enjoyable experience. Fidget tools, such as gel boards, keep children engaged during group activities by providing tactile stimulation. Personalized daily jobs, like watering plants or being the line leader, reinforce positive behaviors and instill a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Educators can also use broadcasting to verbalize their feelings during challenging moments, modeling appropriate emotional responses. For example, saying, "It's hard to wait for a snack; my tummy's rumbling too. Let's set the timer, and when it's gone, we can enjoy our snacks" helps children learn to regulate their reactions.

Here is a Story About Promoting Inhibition Prior to Snack Time!

During a consultation at a nursery school in Lexington, Massachusetts, a creative teacher came up with an inventive solution to address the issue of children rushing to snack time without taking a bathroom break. Inspired by the "rocket ship" exercise discussed during the consultation, the teacher devised a modified version to encourage turn-taking and inhibit impulsivity.

The teacher transformed the chairs into "rocket ships" and assigned each child the role of an astronaut. When snack time approached, the teacher would go to each chair, pointing at a child and announcing, "Lexi, it's your turn to take off!" The other children eagerly counted down in unison, "Five, four, three, two, one," as Lexi jumped off the chair. She then proceeded to wash her hands while the teacher selected the next astronaut for liftoff.

The brilliant part was that the teacher purposely mixed up the order to keep the children guessing, encouraging them to pay attention and wait for their turn. The anticipation and excitement in the classroom were palpable, and the children were eager to participate in the "rocket ship" activity. This playful approach not only instilled a sense of self-control and patience but also made the transition to snack time more enjoyable and orderly.

The teacher's creativity and willingness to adapt the concept to suit her classroom's needs showcased the power of practical and fun solutions for teaching self-regulation to young children. It was evident that the children loved the activity, and the teacher's ingenuity demonstrated how simple adaptations to familiar exercises could have a significant impact on fostering self-regulatory skills in preschoolers.

Routine and Ritual Within the Environment of Universal Model of Design (UDL)

  • Posted rules don’t help this age; however, initiatives like the use of simple sign language to promote inhibition will help. E.g., “Wait, stop, more, play, happy, sad, etc.” Visual posters without words help at eye level.
  • Circle time is no more than 10-15 minutes, with assigned carpet squares or designated spaces that may help with defining personal space.
  • Centers are not crowded, and time at centers is developmentally appropriate (roughly 20 minutes) with ample time to explore. Notice your goals…are they clear to the child: To finish a task, to explore, to participate with others.

When considering the environment for teaching self-regulation, it's essential to build on existing work and incorporate effective design elements. One useful approach is the use of posted rules and visual aids to support communication and understanding. Sign language can be employed to reinforce important concepts, like "more," "waiting," or "outside play." Visual posters with signs and pictures at different centers can help children easily navigate the environment, promoting a smoother flow of activities and reducing auditory distractions.

Teachers can also implement positive reinforcement strategies to encourage desired behaviors. For example, during circle time, when a child shares a word that begins with the letter of the day, the teacher can acknowledge similar ideas from other children and promote compliments and turn-taking. Children become familiar with these signs and respond well to them in various situations throughout the day.

During circle time, it's crucial to keep the session brief, no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, and provide designated spaces for each child to ensure personal space and minimize crowding. When setting up centers, thoughtful consideration should be given to the number of children in each area to avoid overcrowding, which can lead to behavioral challenges.

Setting clear goals for children in each center, such as finding items with specific textures (slimy, sandy, rough, smooth), helps them focus on the task and stay engaged in the activity. It also assists teachers in tracking their progress and providing guidance when needed.

Lastly, recognizing the importance of physical activity is vital. When children remain inactive for more than 20 minutes, it can lead to restlessness and behavioral issues. Integrating movement breaks, outdoor play, or gross motor activities into the daily routine can help children release energy and enhance their ability to self-regulate during quieter moments.

Kinesthetic Classroom: Lengel and Kuczala

  • “When the body is inactive for 20 minutes or longer, there is a decline in neuronal communication”
  • Signs of focus loss:
  • Staring, humming, acting out, unfinished tasks, interrupting, talking to others, doodling, fidgeting, attention-getting behaviors, poor direction following.

Recognizing signs of dysregulation is essential for educators to effectively manage their classroom environment and support children's self-regulation. The concept of "yellow flags" from "The Kinesthetic Classroom" helps teachers identify early indications of dysregulation and respond appropriately by shifting or transitioning activities.

The teacher who devised the "rocket ship" activity also demonstrated exceptional environmental setup skills. She understood the importance of heavy work for children to regulate their bodies and fostered a sense of responsibility and independence by having the children set up their centers each day. An example of this is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Example of a center in a classroom.

This not only provided children with sensory input but also promoted a structured routine and a sense of ownership over their learning environment.

Additionally, the teacher ensured that center activities were carefully timed, lasting around 15 to 20 minutes. This duration aligns with research findings indicating that kindergarten to second-grade children can generally maintain attention and focus for about five to eight minutes. By planning activities within this timeframe, she effectively supported children's engagement and minimized the likelihood of dysregulation due to extended periods of inactivity or disinterest.

Overall, understanding and responding to signs of dysregulation, incorporating heavy work, promoting structured routines, and keeping activities within appropriate timeframes are valuable strategies for creating a supportive and effective learning environment for young children. 


  • Teaching With the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen, second edition, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria VA 2005
    • *Has table about direct instruction for new content…
      • K-2 = 5 to 8 minutes
      • Grades 3-5 = 8-12 minutes
      • Grades 6-8 =12-18 minutes
      • Grades 9-12 12-18 minutes
      • Adults = 15-18 minutes

Eric Jensen's work in "Teaching with the Brain in Mind" provides valuable insights into the attention span and cognitive abilities of young children. For three to four-year-olds, direct instruction sessions should ideally last around three to six minutes to effectively maintain their attention and engagement.

Short and focused instructional segments are more likely to be effective in capturing the interest of young learners and supporting their self-regulation. By incorporating interactive and hands-on activities, educators can enhance children's learning experiences while respecting their limited attention spans.

Being mindful of the developmental stage and cognitive capacities of young children helps educators tailor their teaching approaches and create a positive and supportive learning environment. 

  • Considering attention for this age to learn a new concept is 5-8 minutes …check out this formula from Jenson for getting information to long-term memory
  • “Consider repeating key ideas within 10 minutes of the original learning and again 48 hours later, and then tie it all together 7 days later”
    • Sheep story

During a consultation at a school in Beverly, Massachusetts, a teacher shared her experience teaching about sheep. She had given white, black, and brown sheep to different children, expecting them to place the sheep behind felted fences on a board. However, chaos ensued, with the children fighting over the sheep.

Recognizing the need to adapt the activity, a consultant suggested grouping the sheep based on color, allowing children to understand that despite their differences, they were all the same. The teacher decided to reinforce the key concepts using Eric Jensen's learning principles, repeating them within 10 minutes, reinforcing them later, and tying them all together seven days later.

The teacher used a pizza box to showcase pictures of sheep shearing and demonstrated the transformation of wool into yarn and clothes. With real yarn samples and clothing items, the lesson became more tangible and engaging. The result was a highly involved and satisfied class.

Point of Performance Interventions

  • Ritualistic motor movements throughout the day or prior to sitting down; Mindful minutes such as breathing in and blowing on the hot chocolate, smelling a pretend flower, or placing a hand on the heart and one on the belly.
  • Reduction of distractions in the environment
  • Possible use of weighted lap pillow, headphones, move and sit cushion
  • A place to get away, quiet, and chill out
  • Coaching the student a “re-wind technique”… “You both were playing with the truck…then???”

Ritualistic motor movements and mindfulness exercises play a significant role in promoting self-regulation throughout the day. Examples like blowing on hot chocolate, smelling a pretend flower, or the hand and belly exercise can help children focus, relax, and manage their emotions effectively.

Reducing distractions and providing sensory tools like weighted blankets can also aid in calming and grounding children, allowing them to concentrate and engage in activities more effectively. Having a designated chill-out space where children can retreat and take a moment to collect themselves can be especially beneficial during times of heightened emotions or overstimulation.

The "rewind" coaching technique is a powerful tool for resolving conflicts and teaching self-regulation. By giving children a chance to reflect on their actions and identify alternative strategies, educators create valuable teaching moments that nurture social-emotional development. Encouraging open communication and problem-solving helps children build critical skills for self-regulation that will serve them throughout their lives.

Frontal Lobes to Protect and Teach Them

  • Essentially…you act as their frontal lobes to protect and teach them.
    • For some kids, you must provide the scenario, circumstances, and opportunities for the student to practice focus, emotional control, activation, effort, memory, and action.
    • However, remember goal-directed facilitation helps the child succeed. Asking metacognitive questions makes it that much richer.
    • “What should we do with these books before we go outside?”

When considering the frontal lobes, some may assume that executive function only develops later in life, but that is not the case. Frontal lobes show development from an early age. While areas of inhibition and disinhibition may be more prevalent in the early years, they are crucial for the ability to hold back, delay, and begin to organize and plan. These foundational skills for executive function are established and nurtured during these early developmental stages.

Two-Level System: Autonomic and Executive Brain

  • Barkley talks about a 2-level system, the automatic brain and executive brain…thinking fast and slow. Accommodations with a focus on habituation will help.
    • Habitual activities
    • The executive brain is more complex…has to stop the automatic brain…takes more effort…there is only so much they can do in a day. Effort pool, a limited amount available…you will delete the fuel tank, and self-reg issues will get worse. Use too much, too quickly, too often, and the child is depleted.
    • Dangling the carrot: e.g., “First let’s pick up the blocks, then we go to recess,” “First go to the kitchen center, then you can go to the art center,” or “I’ll play ball with you after you get this work done.”

At the age of five, according to Dr. Russell Barkley, who is an expert on frontal lobes, children begin to engage in self-talk. They may say things like, "I shouldn't do that because Mrs. Bowen-Irish said it might hurt somebody." This self-talk demonstrates their growing ability to think about their actions and consider consequences independently. As educators, we can create scenarios and circumstances that encourage self-regulation and problem-solving.

One effective technique is to role-play social situations with the children. For example, we might pretend to tug on a toy like a lovey, and the teacher might say, "I want that lovey." The children can then observe how we work through the situation, finding solutions and cooperating. This interactive approach acts as an auditory social story that reinforces positive behaviors and teaches children how to handle conflicts in a constructive manner.

Creating a forum for open discussion allows for metacognitive questions, such as, "What should we do with these books before we go outside?" This encourages children to think about the future and make decisions that align with their goals. As they develop this ability to plan and think ahead, they are demonstrating regulation in action.

By providing opportunities for children to engage in self-talk, problem-solving, and future-oriented thinking, we support the development of their frontal lobes and executive function skills. These foundational abilities foster self-regulation and empower children to navigate social interactions and challenges with greater independence and success.

Window of Tolerance

  • Have you ever heard about the concept of Window of Tolerance? It’s unique to all people, including ourselves, colleagues, and students
  • Dr. Dan Siegel coined the idea of the “Window of Tolerance” in 1999. It looks at levels of one’s arousal system, psychologically and physiologically. When we are in what he calls the middle zone, self-regulation skills are robust in emotions and actions.
  • If we are overly stressed, don’t feel well, tired, or hungry, our window can shrink=dysregulation

Dr. Dan Siegel's concept of the "Window of Tolerance" is a valuable framework for understanding childhood behavior. Just like Dr. Russell Barkley's pool analogy, the Window of Tolerance illustrates the range of emotional and physiological arousal within which a person can effectively function.

Imagine your colleague inviting you out for dinner after work. Whether you accept the invitation or decline it depends on your own Window of Tolerance at that moment. If you're feeling relatively calm and energized, you may be more inclined to go. However, if you've had a stressful day, your Window of Tolerance may be smaller, and you might prefer to go home to rest or work on a report.

Similarly, children also have their individual Windows of Tolerance, which can be influenced by various factors like stressors or fatigue. For instance, if a child has been consistently sharing toys during a play session, their Window of Tolerance may become narrow. Providing opportunities for independent play can help expand their Window of Tolerance and allow them to engage in parallel play and enjoy solitary activities.

Zigger Zagger Day

The song "Zigger Zagger Day," created by Mary Ann Harman and myself, offers a fun and effective way to help children cope with challenging situations.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Zigger Zagger Day on YouTube.

When kids experience a "zigger zagger day" where things don't go their way, they can use the song's strategies to navigate through their feelings. Whether they stomp their feet, have a snack, let out a big sigh, pretend to cry, or engage in playful movements like giggling and wiggling, these actions can help them regulate their emotions and expand their Window of Tolerance.

Using the term "zigger zagger day" with children allows them to identify and express their feelings in a lighthearted manner. It empowers them to recognize when their Window of Tolerance is shrinking and prompts them to employ the coping strategies they have learned.

The concept of "zigger zagger day" and the associated strategies can be applied to children of all ages, even without the music. Encouraging children to verbalize their emotions and offering them tools to navigate difficult moments fosters emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

By promoting the use of coping strategies and providing a playful way to address challenging emotions, we empower children to handle various situations effectively and cultivate resilience. Helping kids understand and manage their "zigger zagger days" enables them to grow and develop the essential skills they need to navigate through life's ups and downs with confidence.

Mind Your Head

  • What we’ve experienced is an overview of how critical self-reg skills are for younger kids.
    • We must continue to promote an ability model that helps kids connect to others that are calm.
    • We must help increase their self-awareness so they can respond versus react.
    • Finally, we must recognize developmental needs and neuro-diversity in the kids we work with.
  • Don’t forget your own self-care as you work with kids!

I hope you've gained valuable insights into the importance of self-regulation skills for children. Your dedication to this work is commendable, as you play a vital role in helping children develop self-awareness and the ability to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively.

In our approach to working with children, it's crucial to consider their unique neurodiversity. Embracing and celebrating their individual strengths and challenges creates inclusive environments that support their specific needs.

As you continue your journey in nurturing and supporting these young minds, remember to prioritize your own self-care. Taking care of yourself ensures you can sustain the energy and commitment needed to make a positive impact on the lives of the children you serve.

Keep up the great work, and together, let's foster an environment that promotes self-regulation, celebrates neurodiversity, and ensures the well-being of both the children and yourself.

Drive Thru Calming and Stress Busting Menu

  • Join me in one of my favorite exercises to finish this workshop. From the Drive Thru Calming and Stress Busting Menu.
  • Slow, repetitive movements, combined with breath, can be a pathway toward increasing focus. A few minutes a day sprinkled prior to a concentration task may reduce distractibility and increase concentration.
  • We’ve taken in a lot, let's Tie it in a Bow!

Let's finish with a wonderful exercise called "Let's Tie It in a Bow." This exercise is from my Drive Thru menu for Tress Busting and Being Calm, and it's perfect for any age, especially young children who love to mirror and imitate. To start, stand directly across from the child. I say, "We've got so much energy, but let's bring it in and tie it in a beautiful bow." 

Together, we raise our arms up, fingers down, fingers up. Then we turn our hands, bring them in, and pretend to tie a bow. We repeat the same with the other arm, and finally, both arms up, fingers down, fingers up. We turn, bring our hands in, and tie a bow. With a sense of calm and focus, we say, "We're going to have a good day." This exercise helps in promoting a sense of calmness and focus for a positive day ahead.


  • Keep this quote in mind when considering self-reg for littles!

Mildred Ross, OTR/L

In conclusion, let's remember this quote. This emphasizes the importance of creating a supportive and familiar environment to promote self-regulation in children.

Questions and Answers

Is this related to general ed or primarily neurotypical students?
It is general ed, and any child can be dysregulated, as all children have different reactions. These strategies are good teaching and implementation practices that can work well in any classroom. Modifications or accommodations may be necessary to help certain children access the strategies, but overall, they are beneficial for all.

Do you have any strategies for kids that struggle with perfection and frustration management, especially those who cannot handle not completing a project or artwork perfectly?
It's possible that struggling with perfection and frustration management could be an innate personality trait. To help these kids, we might want to expose them to activities that have no model to follow, such as open-ended playdough or blocks without a specific goal. For projects that do have a desired outcome, providing step-by-step guidance in the form of a rubric or picture reference can be helpful. Offering choices can also empower them, but it's best to limit the choices to no more than two options for this age group.

What are your thoughts on offering choices to empower kids in this age group?
Offering choices can be beneficial for empowering kids. However, it's recommended to limit the choices to no more than two options for this age group. Words and language also matter when presenting choices to children.

Do you have any resources for parents?
While I don't use any specific resources, there are many educational materials available that can help parents understand child development and the importance of self-regulation. One recommended book is "Yardsticks," which covers development in school-based programs starting from age four.

Have you noticed an increase in self-regulation challenges in this age group compared to pre-COVID times?
Yes, there has been an observed increase in dysregulated behavior in this age group, likely due to the disruption in social and play skills caused by the COVID pandemic. Some schools may be focusing on curriculum rather than prioritizing social-emotional learning (SEL), which could be contributing to these challenges.


Alber, D. (2021). A little SPOT of feelings and emotions educator's guide. Retrieved from dianealber.com.

Gillen, G., Hunter, E. G., Lieberman, D., and Stutzbach, M. (2019). AOTA’s Top 5 Choosing Wisely® Recommendations. Am J Occup Ther, 73(2):7302420010. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2019.732001

Kinder, W. (2019). Calm: Mindfulness for kids. Penguin Random House.

O’Brien Martin, C. (2020). Skills for big feelings: A guide for teaching kids relaxation, regulation, and coping techniques. Whole Child Counseling.

Occupational Therapy Practice Framework: Domain and Process—Fourth Edition. (2020). Am J Occup Ther, 74(Supplement_2):7412410010. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.74S2001

Sabol, T. J., Bohlmann, N. L., & Downer, J. T. (2017). Low-income ethnically diverse children’s engagement as a predictor of school readiness above preschool classroom quality. Child Development, DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12832

Schunk, D., Berger, E. M., Hermes, H., Winkel, K., & Fehr, E. (2022). Teaching self-regulation. Nature human behaviour, 6(12), 1680–1690. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01449-w

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2015). The whole-brain child workbook: Practical exercises, worksheets, and activities to nurture developing minds. PESI Publishing & Media.

Vasilopoulos, F., & Ellefson, M. R. (2021). Investigation of the associations between physical activity, self-regulation, and educational outcomes in childhood. PloS one, 16(5), e0250984. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0250984


Bowen-Irish, T. (2023). Exploring self regulation with 3 To 5 year olds. OccupationalTherapy.com, Article 5630. Available at www.OccupationalTherapy.com

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tere bowen irish

Tere Bowen-Irish, OTR/L

Tere Bowen- Irish has practiced Occupational Therapy in pediatrics and psychiatry for over 40 years. Through her business, All the Possibilities, she continues to provide treatment, assessment, and consultation for clients. Workshops for therapists, educators, and parents are offered privately or publicly on a variety of topics such as inclusion, child development, classroom management, behavioral challenges, executive function, and other topics relevant to the 21st-century educational system. The focus is on common sense and a practical approach toward empowering educators and students to create a climate of learning, understanding, and inclusiveness for all abilities.

Tere is also the creator/author of The Drive Thru Menu Suite of Exercises, which is an initiative to bring movement and mindfulness into today’s classrooms. She is a certified YogaKids teacher and a Certified Mindful Schools Instructor. She is the author of Yoga and Me, Come be a Tree and co-authored My Mindful Music with Mary Ann Harman. Feel free to contact Tere at tereirish@gmail.com


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