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Helping Kids Find Self-Control

Last month I wrote about “doing the co-regulation dance,” or helping children to develop their self-regulation abilities. Let’s talk about some activities you can lead in your classroom to help develop these skills for a large group of young children.

In preschool classrooms there are many authentic social opportunities throughout the day to practice controlling ones desires and exhibiting some self-control. A child’s toy is snatched from their hand and they find words to use instead of grabbing it back or hitting the culprit. A bowl of crackers is passed around the snack table and the children show restraint in taking their proper portion and then passing it to the next person. It doesn’t always go this way, but when it does we heap praise upon the child who has demonstrated control over their impulses.

It takes so much practice for the developing brain to truly master the many instincts that rise within a three or four year old’s brain, and to be able to express desires in a socially appropriate way. As with anything we teach a young child, we want to make it fun and successful to practice these skills the seemingly hundreds of times they need to be practiced. One of my favorite games for practicing self-regulation is the Freeze Game. There are plenty of variations to keep it fresh, but the easiest is to put on a song (or better yet, play it on an instrument), then pause at unexpected moments and instruct the children to stop their bodies at the same time. Mix it up by slowing down or speeding up the music, and having kids match the pacing.

To get bodies calm again after such an exciting and active moment, I suggest leading a “breathing circle.” There are copious resources in the form of yoga card sets and books that teach various breathing exercises. Anything that encourages kids to slow down, focus, and consciously breathe is going to give the kind of practice they need at getting grounded. I like “balloon breathing,” where children hold out their hands to demonstrate a balloon getting bigger and bigger with each deep breath. You can end by slowly letting it out, or with a big POP! to get a lot of smiles.

In Kerry Lee MacLean’s Moody Cow Meditates, children learn how to make a glitter shake bottle that represents their busy minds when their energy is all stirred up. As children calm their bodies, slow their breathing, and relax their minds, they can visualize their energy acting as the glitter in the bottle as it settles slowly to the bottom, representing the stillness achieved inside through meditation. Whether or not you can get your hands on this book, I highly recommend this activity as a way to make tangible that crazy energy kids are feeling inside their minds and bodies. Using this to aide in the chaos of transitioning from outside time to a calmer inside activity has worked wonders for my classes in the past.

Self-regulation is greatly about not being reactive to stressors right in that moment, and instead being able to take a breath and know that there are more peaceful ways to get your needs met. This is a difficult skill to teach in a culture of immediate gratification, where people are programmed to want it NOW! You can work against this societal norm by intentionally modeling how to remaining composed even when things don’t go as planned, giving voice to the positive self-talk one can use in the midst of an unexpected plot twist. With a deep inhalation, and an unruffled tone, you might say “This is not what I expected. I wanted something different to happen, but that’s ok. I’m just going to stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and figure out what to do next. We can solve this problem.” Giving children a script for changing plans and moving through the unexpected is a great tool for the development of their self-regulation.

As children learn to cope with their big feelings they are sure to react in big ways, yet with maturity comes self-control and the ability to move beyond the need for immediate justice. Self-regulation is a skill that will look different at each age and stage of development, but as with everything else in preschool, repeated opportunities for practice is the key to mastery. The ideas mentioned above are just the beginning in terms of activities that promote self-regulation. You can try any game that gives children a chance to practice managing their impulses or having to exert a lot of self-control, as long as you can keep it fun! Please share your favorite ideas in the comments below for other caregivers to benefit from.

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