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Doing the Co-Regulation Dance

Self-regulation is something we talk about a lot when working with very young children, as we attempt to give them ownership over their ability to manage their impulses. As caregivers, we assume that the youngest of children will need the most guidance, as in infancy a child depends upon the adult to manage basic functions like eating, eliminating, getting to sleep, and being soothed when upset. As children grow, we naturally expect them to take more responsibility for the way they handle themselves – not just in biological needs but in social interactions as well. By toddlerhood we expect them to begin to use words to express their needs, rather than just cry; to walk around and explore on their own, rather than be carried and shown. And in the preschool years, we hope to see children attempt to negotiate using words rather than physical force to achieve their goals.

To be effective, these hopes and expectations can’t come without support and guidance. Caregivers can set the stage for this kind of development by first establishing caring and responsive relationships, and secondly, managing the environment in a way that reduces unnecessary stress so that the child can put their energy towards the self-regulation tasks at hand. Finally, modeling skills for children and providing feedback and coaching will help to pave the way on to the next developmental milestone. These three elements are the foundation of co-regulation, a process we see between caregivers and young children to help the child achieve the healthy development of self-regulation, according to Co-Regulation From Birth Through Young Adulthood: A Practice Brief from Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy.

Co-regulation is basically providing scaffolding for the development of self-regulation. It is a delicate dance between being compassionate and responsive, yet at the same time maintaining high expectations and a dedication to encouraging the child’s autonomy. It probably won’t look the same twice, as the efficacy of this type of guidance is based upon providing just as much help is needed, and no more. Think of it in terms of filling a bucket. “Depending on developmental stage, environmental circumstances, and individual differences, young people themselves have the capacity to fill their self-regulation bucket to varying levels. To successfully manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, they need caregivers to provide co-regulation that fills the remainder of the bucket (Rosenbalm & Murray).”

The younger the child, the more participation from the adult is assumed. Co-regulation is a common topic in infant and toddler mental health discussions, but it isn’t only babies who need us to co-regulate with them. It is important to be aware that when children come from lives full of trauma or toxic stress, they may need the same help you would usually give to a much younger child. When too routinely exposed to stressors, children’s brains become oriented to be vigilant for a threat and the reactiveness that occurs as a result makes it difficult to develop healthy emotional coping skills and self-regulation techniques (Thompson).

In a time where educators consistently report having an unprecedentedly high rate of children who can claim many ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences), it is imperative that we as caregivers be ready to adjust our expectations accordingly to be able to meet our students where they are at.

I think of the five year old boy who joined my class last year after being placed with a new foster family, and who needed near-constant contact with an adult (being held, cuddled, or at least holding hands) as he went through his preschool day to be able to maintain emotional homeostasis. Whatever experiences he had before I met him had clearly left him with a lack of trust and security in the world, and to manage his behavior he needed physical reassurance in the same way an infant might. Though it heavily taxed our staff to provide so much one-on-one support, it met his developmental need and allowed him to function in a setting with his typically developing peers.

I also think of the almost-four-year-old girl in our program that melts down into inconsolable tears at the slightest frustration. Due to frequent renegotiations in the custody arrangement between her two parents based on the switching of residences, partners, and jobs, her short life has held so many changes that little in her world feels predictable and safe. Her threshold for stress is worn down from the volatility of her everyday life. While her teachers will encourage her to “use words” and respond when asked “how can we solve this problem?,” they also keep in mind that depending on the day, they may need to set aside their usual expectation for a child of this age to return to calm and show autonomy and initiative in wanting to solve the problem. Her teachers instead offer patience and support, giving her the time she needs and allowing her to draw on the strength of her trusted caregivers until she is able to regulate her emotions again.

Self-regulation does not develop in a vacuum or of its own accord – it is a learned behavior that children adopt after observing others. They need to be shown how others do it; but they don’t need it done for them. It is really an art form to be able to provide the balance of challenge and assistance that each individual requires. Your best tool in offering this nurturing guidance is forming close and caring relationships with each and every one, getting to know their cues and their story. The better you understand where they are coming from and what makes them tick, the easier it will be to read what they need.


Dunn, T. & Hamilton, S. (2018, August). Social-Emotional & Self-Regulation Skills Building for Infants, Toddlers, and Twos. Presentation to the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative & the Family Connection.

Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). Caregiver Co-regulation Across Development: A Practice Brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services.

Thompson, R. A. (2018, August). How to Think Like a Baby. Presentation to the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative & the Family Connection.

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