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Promoting Self-Regulation in Children

For people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, or other developmental challenges, it can be difficult to follow behavior patterns which are typically expected in society. A child who appears to be throwing a tantrum may not be poorly behaved – he or she may be feeling overwhelmed and is asking for help in their own way. Many children struggle with self-regulation, and by understanding  the topic we are better equipped to help them achieve their full potential.

Joel Desotelle, licensed pediatric occupational therapist and program director of Keystone Pediatric Developmental Center in Chambersburg, often helps his patients cope with self-regulation difficulties. In today’s article, he explains what everyone, and especially parents, should know about self-regulation.

What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is a person’s ability to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviors to be able to accomplish a task, adapt to a challenge or situation, or achieve a goal. Individuals who struggle with self-regulation tend to have difficulty staying focused, keeping still, and are often impulsive and disorganized. This makes it hard to complete tasks or cope with challenges at home, in school, and/or in their community. Likewise, building and maintaining relationships can be very difficult.

Self-Regulation and Behaviors

Certain behaviors are common for children with self-regulation issues. Tasks or demands that require attention and focus are hard, especially when the child needs to sit down for any given time. New or challenging situations can be overwhelming and often lead to emotional outbursts. Kids with self-regulation issues quickly learn that these behaviors can be used to avoid challenging or non-preferred situations, clearing the way for preferred tasks, such as video games and television, which have a low investment, high reward benefit. These behaviors can put a significant strain on parents, siblings, friends, as well as teachers and others. The key is to understand that behaviors related to self-regulation issues are a tool a child uses to try and cope with the demands of their environment. Over time, these become habit, especially if more effective coping strategies are not developed.

Self-Regulation and Self-Esteem

Kids with self-regulation issues and their related behaviors tend to get into trouble more frequently than their peers. This can have a dramatic impact on his or her self-esteem, overshadowing other talents and abilities. It is easier to be patient when one understands that their child is both still developing and also coping with trying to regulate. Helping a child learn to cope with self-regulation issues is critical to their long-term success. It is important that the message stay positive and encouraging instead of punitive. For example, instead of saying, “Why do you always do that,” you can say, “I see you are trying to do this, do you mind if I show you a better way?”

Self-Regulation and the Environment

The environment can have a tremendous impact on how a child regulates, as well as how he or she learns to cope. Environments that are often disorganized, loud, cluttered, etc. challenge these kids who are struggling to organize themselves. Keeping a clean and organized environment helps a child to focus better without being distracted by everything else around them. It is equally important to model the behaviors you expect from a child. A young child is still learning how to cope with stress and other demands and that learning starts at home. Modeling good stress management and communication skills will help a child to manage those situations as they grow up.

Self-Regulation and Therapy

Kids who struggle with self-regulation benefit from occupational and speech therapy services. Kids with self-regulation issues often avoid difficult situations and as a result, many skills are delayed. Occupational Therapists and Speech Language Pathologists can help bridge that gap, focusing on the skills a child needs to be successful. Additionally, Pediatric Occupational Therapists specialize in self-regulation problems and can help to develop a program to improve regulation, while also offering strategies to help a child be more successful at home and school.

If your child is struggling, it’s best to be proactive. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider about your concerns. Therapy can be a great step towards helping your child reach his or her full potential.


This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.