Self-regulation skills are one of the biggest keys for success for students in the classroom. These are some of the skills that help students focus during lessons, wait their turn to share in group activities, transition to a new task when time is up, and start tasks right away. Self-regulation skills are extraordinarily important in the classroom, especially as we continue to place more and more demands on children and teens.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation can be defined as the ability to manage our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This means regulating our emotions by staying calm in times of stress. It also means regulating our behaviors by making positive choices even in times when we really want to do something else (raise our hand instead of shout out).
The good news is that research tells us that self-regulation skills are malleable. They can be modeled, practiced, and improved over time (Tominey & McClelland, 2011).
Here are 15+ self-regulation practices for the classroom to help support and shape these skills over time:
1. Think Alouds
Developing an inner-voice is one of the backbones to strong self-regulation skills. By expressing our inner thoughts out loud, we can convey our strategies and techniques to learners.
For example, before a transition, an adult might say, “I know that we’re going to switch from art to reading in just a few minutes. How can I get ready for that? I’m going to start putting my art materials away. Even if I’m not done, I’m going to put them away until a later time.”
The best part is that think alouds work with all skills and subjects, from academic content like math or reading to social skills.
2. Teaching and Practicing Coping Skills
In order to make the best decisions, we need to be calm. In order to be calm, we need to know how to get calm. Adding one more layer to this, we need to know how to get calm in times of stress. That’s why teaching and practicing coping skills is paramount. The truth is that many learners come into the classrooms without these skills as strong as they need to be; therefore, we must make time to teach and practice them together.
Some coping skills to try with learners include:
- Mindful breathing
- Positive self-talk
- Exercise, yoga, and movement
3. Brain Breaks
Breaks are essential to success. A brain break is a short pause between tasks. These pauses end up helping learners replenish valuable self-regulation skills they need for more challenging tasks. Some ideas for brain breaks include:
- Have a student lead the class in exercises and stretches.
- Play calming music and color mindfully.
- Practice mindfulness with activities like mindful breathing or mindfulness 5-4-3-2-1.
- Listen to music and take a dance break.
4. Creating a Class Schedule
Developing a daily class schedule provides structure and routine into every day from the start. Create a predictable schedule for students and post it where they can view it.
This isn’t to say the schedule can’t ever change – it will sometimes and that’s okay! What’s important is to discuss and preview those changes when you can.
5. Providing an Emotion Check-In
Managing emotions is a big part of self-regulation skills. When we understand our feelings and cope with them effectively, we free up emotional space for working through other challenges.
Support emotional self-regulation by providing a daily emotions check-in. Students can start with a daily emotions check-in worksheet to assess how they’re feeling and what they might need to feel their best for the rest of the day. Use this free emotions check-in to get started.
It’s also important to not just acknowledge these emotions, but validate them. Kids and teens need to know it is okay to feel however they feel.
If you need something more, use a daily emotions check-in that teaches social-emotional skills at the very same time. The journal pages also incorporate mindfulness and positive self-talk, giving an incredible start to every morning.
6. Practicing Transitions
Transitions are the time between important tasks. The shorter and smoother the transitions go, the more time we can spend learning. With that, transitions need to be practiced often (not just at the beginning of the year). Some strategies for making it more fun to practice transitions include:
- Set a timer and try to beat the clock.
- Transition “like a robot” and acting like a robot as you move.
- Play music.
7. Developing Routines
Routines turn multi-step directions into habits for students. Consider what multi-step activities should have routines in your classroom. These may include coming in the classroom in the morning, starting morning work, turning homework in, finding homework if a student was out, getting with a group, and transitioning from one task to another.
8. Problem-Solving Together
Kids and teens encounter problems every day. By problem-solving together, we can help guide and support them to make good decisions along the way. The key here is to problem-solve together, not for them.
For example, if a student feels upset when they can’t solve a math problem, we might ask: What is the problem? How big is that problem (from 1-5)? What strategies could you try? What do you think will work best?
Use these free problem-solving scenarios to practice these skills with your learners ahead of time.
9. Preparing for Transitions
Preparing for transitions helps give students a warning that they will be changing activities. This is helpful for all students, but especially those who struggle with time management or time-blindness.
Use strategies to help prepare for transitions. Some ideas include:
- Using a visual timer to count down the transition time.
- Use a bell or chime and give a 5-minute warning prior to transition.
- Sing a song for transition.
10. Schedule Organization Time
Schedule daily and weekly organization time right into the day. Use this time to tidy up desks, backpacks, binders, and classroom supplies. It’s important for learners to see that organization is a long-term activity, not something you do once and you’re done!
11. Morning Meeting
Morning meeting is a semi-structured time each day that helps build relationships, review expectations, and teach meaningful skills. There are many reasons to believe that every class should have a morning meeting. Not only is this a structured and predictable way to start each morning (which helps build self-regulation on its own) but is also the perfect place to teach about self-regulation skills too.
For example, you might lead daily morning meetings focused on being responsible, routines for success, calming strategies, thinking before speaking, self-control, and staying organized. All of these skills are rooted in self-regulation and they can be directly taught in a morning meeting. Use these daily morning meeting cards and slides if you want to give it a try.
12. Using Games
Games can be an engaging and fun way to build self-regulation skills. You can play these games as a “break” after challenging tasks or even a reward at the end of the week. Some favorite self-regulation games to try:
- Jenga – As kids remove blocks, they have to be patient, thoughtful, and use self-control.
- Blurt – A vocabulary game, you can practice self-regulation skills by having two students battle each other, while others must remain silent. That winner will go on to the next student around the room and so on.
- Simon Says – Focus on attention and self-regulation skills by listening to what Simon says to do.
- Self-Control Speedway – I designed this boards game to explicitly teach about self-control and self-regulation skills.
13. Providing Targeted Interventions for Specific Learners
Some students are going to need more support when it comes to self-regulation skills in the classroom. Consider some more targeted interventions to help them succeed, including teaching self-regulation lessons.
14. Focusing on the Relationship
Strong relationships can help foster an environment where students can learn and strengthen self-regulation skills. When kids feel safe, secure, and supported, they are more likely to look to them as a model to learn self-regulation skills.
Building a strong relationship is truly the single most important way we can impact kids lives. There are many ways to foster strong relationships from letting kids teach us about their own interests to talking about non-school related topics together. You can use these 100+ relationship-building questions to get started.
15. Using Music and Movement
Music and movement are important strategies to help build self-regulation across all ages. Some simple strategies to try include:
- Dance to rhythms at different speeds.
- Make your own unique drum beats and have students play them back.
- Playing instruments (triangles or drums, for example) have one person act as a conductor to control the rhythm and beat while others play along.
16. Creating a Calm-Down Space
A calm-down space has many names: chill spot, vacation station, relaxation zone, calm-down corner. Whatever you call it, this area is a designated spot where students can go to calm-down and self-regulate before going back to the classroom environment. While not all students will need one, it’s a valuable tool for those who do.
It’s important to stress that a calm-down space is not a “time out” area in the sense that students are in trouble. Instead, this is an area to help practice coping skills and self-regulation strategies. Add calm-down tools like coloring books, mindful breathing cards, a journal, and more. Fidgets like calm strips and stress balls can be helpful too.
17. Providing Visual Cues
Give reminders for expectations and instructions with visual cues. These are particularly helpful to strengthen self-regulation skills and promote expected behaviors because they do not require any verbal discussion. Students can learn to use visuals completely on their own.
Some examples of visual cues include:
- A poster on the door reminding students what they need to be organized before entering.
- Steps to wash hands next to a sink.
- A photo of a what an organized desk looks like during clean-up time
18. Using Literature
Read alouds can build a variety of social-emotional skills, self-regulation included. Choose stories that focus on coping strategies, mindfulness, thinking through our choices, and managing emotions. An important note is that short stories are excellent for a huge range of ages, even big kids.
19. Keep an Organized Classroom
Students do what they see. Keeping an organized classroom helps provide structure and creates a calm learning space with the tools kids need for success. Consider reducing clutter, choosing meaningful decor, and labeling materials.
20. Providing Feedback
In order to truly improve, we all need constructive feedback. Set a weekly (or bi-weekly) time to meet with individual learners. Develop goals and work on them together, providing specific and meaningful feedback along the way.
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