Helping Your Child Learn Self-Regulation Skills

One very important part of children’s development is their ability to learn how to control themselves and to manage their emotions and behaviors. This is called self-regulation and is mediated by the brain and nervous system. Thus, it is important for parents to have some understanding of brain development in order to interact with children in ways that encourage normal brain organization, functioning and development. The brain and nervous system are extremely important when looking at problems in children associated with their education and mental health. Since the brain is the organ that oversees all emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, motor, and physiological functioning, research in neuroscience has been very helpful in informing us on ways to ensure healthy brain development in children.

Different brain areas develop at different times throughout childhood. During brain development, the brain organizes from bottom to top, with the lower parts of the brain (those that control simple regulatory functions) developing first, and the higher parts of the brain in the cortical region (those that control language and abstract thinking) maturing much later in life. In order for the higher parts of the brain to fully develop, the lower regions of the brain must first be fully developed.

Evidence emerging from recent studies of the brain suggests that irregularities in certain regions of the brain contribute to children’s problems with self-regulation. Often with poorly developed areas in the lower part of the brain, known as the brainstem and diencephalon, the result in children can be poor self-regulation, which can include problems inhibiting behavior, attention problems, impulsivity, and low frustration tolerance.

The skills of self-regulation develop normally in children from birth when they are provided with consistent, predictable, nurturing, and enriched experiences. Most children progress normally and gradually learn to regulate their emotions and behaviors.

However some children may be behind in developing the skills of self-regulation due to individual differences in brain structure and function or deficits in their environment such as chaotic, neglectful, or frightening environments. These children do not choose to behave inappropriately but rather they are delayed in the process of developing the ability to self-regulate.

What seems to be emerging from the latest developments in neuroscience is that the first step in self-regulation success for children is brainstem regulation. Activities that are helpful to repair damage and encourage development in this region include patterned, repetitive, somatosensory activities, including expressive, sensory-based and proprioceptive (perception related to position and movement of the body) activities, which provide these brain areas the patterned neural activation necessary for re-organization. In other words activities that have sensory, rhythmic, or movement components are very helpful in brainstem regulation.

We are also learning that regulation in our nervous systems happens when we become aware of ourselves; self-awareness leads to self-regulation. Mindfulness is about becoming aware of what we are doing, saying, feeling, and thinking and also becoming aware of what is in our environment. As part of mindfulness, breathing exercises have also been found to have a huge impact on our nervous systems and play a big role in self-regulation. So any activities that involve mindfulness in children are also very helpful for developing self-regulation skills in children.

Once there is improvement in self-regulation using the above sensory-motor and mindfulness activities to help the brainstem develop properly, the focus of development moves to a different part of the brain known as the limbic system. For this area, relational-related activities are best to ensure proper development of the limbic system. When relational skills have improved, the final focus of brain development would be in the higher brain (the cortical region) where activities that involve language, reasoning and insight would be utilized. However, if the lower parts of the brain have not been fully developed, activities geared towards the higher parts of the brain may be ineffective or unhelpful.

A key factor to remember in healthy brain development is that humans are social creatures. It is very important that children have positive experiences with others for their brains to develop normally. These positive experiences would include relationships with others who show acceptance, understanding, compassion, empathy and playfulness. Positive relational interactions create positive neuroendocrine and neurophysiological states that promote healthy brain development in children.

This means that the above sensory-motor and mindfulness activities must be done in the context of a positive relational experience. The activities need to be carried out with parent and child together and not independently for children. An investment of time on the part of the parent is crucial. Neural systems in specific brain areas can change and develop appropriately with consistent, focused repetition of positive experiences that include the above activities within a positive relational context.

What does this mean for parents? If you are concerned about your child’s self-regulation skills, it means spending time with your child engaging in fun and playful activities that could include movement, rhythm, sensory stimulation, and mindfulness. These activities need not last a long time, perhaps three to five minutes if time is short, however, the important thing is that they do need to be consistently repeated a number of times per day often for months. The brain requires repetition over time to form new neural connections that will ultimately change and regulate children’s behaviors. This can be frustrating for parents, however, changing a child’s neural patterns does require time, consistency and patience.

Below are some examples of categories of activities that would be helpful for children in developing their self-regulation skills. These are just examples; you may know of many other activities that include rhythm, movement, mindfulness or a sensory component.

Examples of Sensory Activities


Sniff It

Draw a Letter

Adapted from: Self-esteem Games: 300 Fun Activities That Make Children Feel Good About Themselves, Barbara Sher, 1998.


Caring for Hurts



Adapted from: Theraplay.

Examples of Movement Activities


Adapted from: Theraplay.

Cross Crawl



Lazy 8s


Double Doodle


The Rocker


Adapted from Brain Gym.

Add a Move

Moving Colors



Hello, Good-Bye


Adapted from: Self-esteem Games: 300 Fun Activities That Make Children Feel Good About Themselves, Barbara Sher, 1998

Examples of Rhythmic Activities

Clap or Drum the Same

Adapted from: Self-esteem Games: 300 Fun Activities That Make Children Feel Good About Themselves, Barbara Sher, 1998





Adapted from: Theraplay

Examples of Mindfulness Activities


Adapted from Filial Therapy

Belly Breathing


Adapted from Brain Gym




Mind’s Eye


Day Dream Time


Adapted from: Self-esteem Games: 300 Fun Activities That Make Children Feel Good About Themselves, Barbara Sher, 1998

Do a 360


In the Same Breath


Love Breaths

Adapted From: Spirit Games: 300 Fun Activities That Bring Children Comfort and Joy, Barbara Sher, 2002

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2016. All Rights Reserved.


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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist

Kathy Eugster