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What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation refers to our ability to manage our alertness to meet the demands of tasks, respond to stress appropriately, regulate our emotions, and control our impulses. Self-regulation is not the same as self-control, as the latter is more related to willpower (Shanker, 2016). Self-regulation goes hand in hand with the executive functions of the brain, meaning the ability to plan and organise our ideas, sustain information in our head, filter out distractions, and problem-solve flexibly.

Children are not born with these skills, but have the capacity to develop them with support from their parents, caregivers, teachers and/or people around them. Some kids have more difficulty learning them due to diagnosis such as SPD, ADHD and Autism. Nevertheless, even in regularly developing children, skill development might be delayed or impaired. Children with decreased self-regulation are often impulsive and struggle to learn how to wait or put a break on their actions. They tend to talk at the wrong time, get sidetracked during activities and strongly react to situations more than other kids their age.

Why is self-regulation important?

Self-regulation skills are a crucial for learning higher academic skills and the overall healthy development of the child. Children need to be able to self-regulate and sustain attention before they are ready for more challenging academic tasks like sitting down for longer periods of time while listening to school lectures.

Some people refer to self-regulation skills and emotional learning as important as learning your ABCs and 123s. Michnick & Hirsh-Pasek (2014) wrote a wonderful piece describing self-regulation skills as a base for school readiness and explaining how they predict kindergarten reading and math achievement.

Games/Activities To Work on Self-Regulation

The Center on The Developing Child from Harvard University has compiled a list of activities that are useful when teaching children self-regulation skills (link to the website below). Many therapists like to use board games to teach children how to take turns, follow sequences and control impulses/emotions; however, there are numerous sustainable and practical games that could be done at home.

Games such as red light/green light, musical chairs and freeze dance, can be played with the family to help children learn how to control their bodies according to situational demands. They allow them to practice their ability to follow directions and control their impulses. Kids with self-regulation difficulties often have a hard time with these sorts of activities. They move at the wrong times and/or become extra silly.

Another strategy is to use “stop and go” commands whenever possible (e.g. right before they go down the slide at the playground). In sessions as a pediatric occupational therapist, we play the “magic word” game. The idea is to use a “magic word” instead of the usual “stop and go” command: “ready, set, go!”. It is important to grade this activity up/down according to the child’s ability. If they cannot hold attention for a long time, keep it simple and choose a color as the MAGIC WORD comes up and that will be the cue for them to GO! If this is easy for them, pick a random word like “spaghetti” and tell them a story! They have to practice the ability to pay attention to what is being said to them until the magic word comes up and with it, the cue to go down the slide. Children love this game!

If emotional control is also an issue, a winning/losing element should be added into the games. Begin by allowing the child to win so you can model what it should look like to lose and gradually start introducing a couple of losing scenarios. You’ll be surprised at how useful this is to help children get better at controlling their emotions. Ask them to be happy for you when you win! Tell them things you’d want them to tell themselves as they grow older “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and it’s okay”.

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Center on The Developing Child at Harvard University (2017). Executive Function & Self-Regulation. Retrieved from

Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2014, August 14). Self-Regulation: Just as Important as Learning Your ABCs and 123s. Retrieved from

Shanker, S. (2016). What is Shanker Self-Reg? Retrieved from

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