Self-regulation is a critical skill for people of all ages. It is the ability that helps us to control our behaviors to make good decisions for the long-term, rather than just doing what we want in the moment. It’s also the skill that allows us to manage our emotions when we’re feeling angry, disappointed, or worried. These can be difficult for adults, but are significantly more challenging for children and young adults, whose brains are still growing and developing.
There are huge benefits to helping kids and young adults improve their skills for self-regulation. These skills can help kids and young adults to complete their work and chores (even if they don’t want to), maintain lasting friendships, make safe choices when out with friends, stop themselves from breaking a rule, work through challenges when they feel like giving up, and so much more. Simply put, kids and young adults are more likely to lead happier and healthier lives when self-regulation skills are strengthened. Of course, working on self-regulation skills doesn’t just happen overnight. Especially for those who struggle with them, these abilities must be working on and improved over time. The good news is that kids and young adults can learn strategies and skills to improve their self-regulation.
Here are 15+ strategies and ideas to use with your learners:
1. Practice self-control with games. There are many different games that help students work on their self-control skills! Jenga, Freeze, and Simon Says are just a few of them. One of my favorites is Blurt, but you could really play with any trivia questions or content from your curriculum. You can play with a small group of full class. Just have two students stand together at a desk. Ask them a question (from Blurt or your own), and only those two students can shout out the answer to the question. Everyone else must use self-control and remain silent, even if they know the answer. The person who says the correct answer will move on to the next desk, while the other student will sit down at that desk. As the game continues, the goal is to try and make it all the way around the room. Another one of my favorites is Guard Duty. This one is fun because students actually pretend they are guards at a palace and have be serious, even when someone might try to distract them. Of course, this is a perfect game when walking in the hallway on the way to another class. Try this set of Executive Functioning Games & Play Activities if you want more!
2. Create a share journal. If your student likes to share a lot of extra information throughout a class lesson, give them a special journal. They can write down all of their questions, thoughts, and connections in the journal. Once or twice a day, make sure to sit down with the student to review the journal and hear what they wanted to tell you.
3. Explicitly teach self-regulation skills. Some learners who struggle significantly with self-regulation skills can most likely benefit from a small group that targets these skills head on! Put together a group of your own during morning meeting, lunch time, or any other time that works to teach these skills. If you do not have flexibility in your schedule for such a group, consider talking with the school counselor, school psychologist, special education teacher, or social worker to create a group with the student or students you have in mind. More than likely, many other students can benefit from these skills, too! I have created a Self-Control Bootcamp for older students, as well as a Self-Regulation Station (with a train theme!) for younger learners. Use these group times to highlight what self-regulation and self-control are, why they matter, and specific strategies for how students can make improvements.
4. Use literature. Picture books are a great way to introduce and discuss self-regulation skills at all levels. Even my middle schoolers loved when I got the picture books out for a read-aloud! Some great options to target self-regulation skills include: My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook, I’m in Charge of Me! by David Parker, and What Were You Thinking? by Brian Smith. One of my absolute favorites is Super George and the Invisible Shield by Laurie Mendoza. In this story, George has to learn some strategies to help him stay in control and out of trouble. With whatever books you choose, make sure to highlight the self-regulation skills, discuss how each character uses the skills, and how it relates to your students’ lives.
5. Use visuals as reminders. Visual supports can be extremely helpful reminders to students about routines and activities in the classroom. You can tailor your visuals for individual students. For example, if a student struggles with calling out during class lessons, add a visual on his or her desk that reminders about raising our hand first. If a student is having difficulty waiting in line, keep a visual showing reminders near the door.
6. Create a social scripts binder. Social scripts are short narratives about any situation. Create an individualized binder for your student with stories specific to their needs. For example, if a student struggles to self-regulate behaviors during transition times, add a story about transitions to their binder. If they continue having issues getting settled in the morning to start morning work, add a story about the morning routine. To start, have the student read through the social script prior to the activity to remind them what they should be doing before the task. Eventually, the goal is that the student will need the stories less and less, as they become more independent.
7. Give movement breaks. Kids and young adults who struggle with self-regulation often need extra physical activity built into their day. One simple strategy is to incorporate movement and break brains in between your instruction time. One year, I used our morning homeroom periods to play basketball in the gym. In another instance, I was able to schedule a student with an extra gym class throughout the week. It’s important to be creative because a little extra physical activity can often make a huge difference for these learners!
8. Practice mindfulness. So often, in our busy world, kids and young adults do not know how to “just be.” Mindfulness can be a perfect solution for that. While it’s not an instant fix, learning to be more mindful can help kids and young adult stay present in the moment, feel calmer, improve focus, and better manage emotions in the moment. There are many different strategies for practicing mindfulness. You can start with simple breathing exercising with these free mindfulness breathe boards. Another great activity is to practice mindful coloring, which involves just coloring and not talking to anyone else. I’ve developed a whole set of Mindfulness Activities to help learners improve these skills over time.
9. Develop routines for success. While many of these strategies are directed at the student, educators can also play a huge role in creating routines for success. Consider the specific areas where your student is struggling and identify routines and strategies you can implement. If a student seems to never remember to bring back their homework, set them up with a specialized homework binder to go home. If a student continually calls out during lessons, make a plan that you will call on them at least once during a lesson when their hand is up.
10. Discuss scenarios. Talk about real-life situations that encourage learners to stop and think about managing their behaviors. You might say, “Someone is kicking the back of your chair during a test and it’s really annoying you. What do you do?” Have students talk in small groups or partners and share about how they might handle those situations. While you can’t plan for every situation, using scenarios can help students train their brains for how to think through problems as they happen.
11. Use role-play. Using any of the topics you discuss as scenarios, act the situations out in small groups or partners. Not only is role-play a lot of fun for kids, but it makes it memorable. Note that it’s always most helpful to act out the socially appropriate way to handle situations. For this reason, it’s extremely helpful to partner students up with peer role models who can help kids brainstorm solutions for handling challenges.
12. Use guided meditation videos. A guided meditation is just a script that guides people through the practice of relaxing. Youtube is a great free resource for many guided meditation videos for kids and young adults. Another way to practice mindfulness and just being still, guided meditation helps kids learn to be in control of their bodies, thoughts, and emotions in the moment. Again, these would be a great activity to do before a test, after a transition, or just first thing in the morning.
13. Create a calm down space. Design an area in the room for students to go who need a few minutes to themselves. Not all students will need to use this area, but the ones who do, will benefit greatly. It’s important to teach that the calm down area is a space to self-regulate and get in control of emotions so we can return back to our normal days. Most of all, it’s critical to show all learners that it’s normal and healthy to need a break once in a while. Taking five minutes in the calm down area to gather your emotions is a much better choice than pushing someone or saying mean words you will probably later regret.
14. Develop SMART goals. A huge component to improving self-regulation skills is being able to get past the “right now”. Students need to be able to see the future and what’s in it for them. Take time with your learner to develop individualized SMART goals on areas that are important for them. Perhaps your student needs to improve the number of class assignments they complete, raising their hand when they have a comment to share, or using appropriate language in the classroom. Any of those could be written out as a smart goal, with specific strategies for the student to work on over time.
15. Teach how to gauge emotions. I love to use an emotions scale that helps students gauge the level of their emotions. So often, kids who struggle with self-regulation skills are missing this internal meter that lets us know how intense our emotions are at the moment. This helps students learn to be more self-aware about their emotions and body, and once students are more self-aware, they can be more open to finding solutions for their struggles.
16. Incorporate self-reflection times. All kids and young adults can benefit from becoming more self-reflective. That involves assessing past behaviors and choices, as well as identifying next steps for improvement. This can be a tough skill for kids to learn at first, especially because it can be so personal to admit where you went wrong. I suggest creating a reflection binder that holds information about student SMART goals and areas that the student needs to improve. Each reflection binder really should be individualized because every student needs to work on different things. Some students of mine had data on grades, while others focused more on behavior or attendance. Meet weekly with the student as an intervention. Discuss the goals, progress made, challenges, and next steps for the future. Most of all, try to let the student take the lead! This can slowly help him or her develop the ability to self-reflect and self-regulate in the future.
17. Encourage positive habits. Having a healthy diet and sleep pattern can contribute to how self-regulated someone is. Talk with the student and family about making sure he or she is well-rested at night to achieve success the next day. If this is an area you are not comfortable addressing yourself, consider consulting with the school social worker or school counselor for extra support.