Teaching a child how to regulate their emotions and control their impulses is an important part of development. As any parent will know, this is not an easy thing to achieve but understanding what’s going on in the brain can be extremely helpful.

Getting angry with a child and lecturing them can often make you feel like your talking to a brick wall. That’s because one part of their brain is in control and they aren’t focused enough to either listen to your explanation or act on it.

The self-regulation part of our brains is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. It’s the centre of logical reasoning and is often called the learning brain. If we need to read a map or formulate a plan, it’s the prefrontal cortex that is in charge.

Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex competes with a much older part of the brain called the limbic system which is in charge of our emotions and impulses. In young children, the limbic system tends to hold sway, which is why they can find it hard to manage their emotions.

Self-regulation can help us manage those unwanted emotions and impulse behaviours but first, we need to destress the situation and calm the limbic system down so that the prefrontal cortex can work its magic.  

Elements of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation involves the growing ability to develop mechanisms that allow us to handle our emotions, avoid certain behaviours and control our thoughts. This happens naturally as a child’s brain begins to rapidly grow.

That development does depend on having a co-regulation relationship with an adult. In other words, the parent or teacher is involved in explaining and instilling self-regulation and working with the child towards a common purpose.

This co-regulation is more urgently needed for younger children. As the child grows, becomes a teenager and heads towards adulthood, they begin to take over control themselves and self-regulate without any input from a parent.

In the early stages after birth, a parent will generally manage self-regulation almost intuitively. A baby may cry because they are hungry or need to have some sleep. The mother or father’s soothing voice and coming to the baby’s aid teaches the child to return to an emotional balance and enables them to feel safe.

As the child grows, emotional as well as cognitive self-regulation become important as their world becomes more complex. A child that gives into their emotions will not be able to resist impulses. Their limbic system stays in control and not their prefrontal cortex.

When those emotions are back in balance, the child has a better opportunity to give sway to their learning brain and they are more focused, happier and make informed decisions.

The environment that is needed to learn self-regulation requires a loving and caring environment where there are positive relationships. Self-regulation skills can be taught by mirroring, modelling or suggesting strategies. In addition, having the opportunity to practice regularly is also highly important.

Cache Level 2 Neuroscience in Early Years Course

One of the most important and formative times for learning self-regulation is during those early years. It starts from the moment a child is born and becomes increasingly complex. By the time they are in preschool, children should have begun to learn the rules and what is expected of them. They still may have plenty of tantrums but they are beginning to find their place in the world and how to self-modify behaviour.

At the London School of Childcare, we offer a cache level 2 Neuroscience in Early Years course for childcare professionals. It’s designed to give you an introduction to how a child’s brain develops and why they may exhibit certain behaviours as they grow. The course includes content such as neural physiology and child regulation.

You can request a prospectus on our website here.