Teaching children to self-regulate

Emotional self-regulation is an important aspect of children’s ability to learn. Jean Gross suggests techniques and strategies to help pupils develop this useful skill

Author details

Jean Gross CBE is a national expert on special educational needs and disadvantage, and the author of numerous articles and best-selling books on children’s issues. She was, until 2011, the government’s Communication Champion for children and...

Self-regulation – children’s ability to manage their own behaviour, emotions and aspects of their learning – is emerging as a key skill, according to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

There is, however, some confusion about what self-regulation means. In my new book, Reaching the Unseen Children, I explain the different aspects of the term.

Cognitive self-regulation 

The ‘thinking’ part of self-regulation – for example, controlling our thoughts and monitoring how we are getting on with tasks

Affective (emotional) self-regulation

The ability to manage our emotion

Self-regulated learning

The application of both cognitive and affective aspects of self-regulation to learning, plus the use of metacognitive strategies – thinking about and managing our own learning

In this article, I will focus on emotional self-regulation.

Teaching impulse control

A fun way of introducing the idea of self-regulation to children is the marshmallow test. Here is an example lesson I describe in my book:

Y6 or Y9 pupils are asked to consider whether they are the type of person who usually acts on impulse or likes to think first and act later. They are each given a marshmallow and told they can eat it now if they wish, or, if they are able to wait until the end of the lesson, they will be given another marshmallow.

Their teacher asks them to rate themselves according to how easy they would find it to hold on to their marshmallow. They then come up with ideas they could suggest to a younger pupil to help them resist the temptation and wait.

They watch a video of the original marshmallow experiment, in which four-year-olds were given the same offer of one marshmallow now or two if they waited.

I have seen great calm-down corners in primary classrooms

The teacher asks the students to choose one of several scenarios when they think they might find it hard to delay gratification, such as doing homework when their friends are playing online, or saving up for something special rather than spending their money now.

They then work in groups with others who have chosen the same scenario, and discuss what they have tried or could try to help them hold back the impulse.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher shares the findings from the original marshmallow experiment – that, when they were followed up many years later, those children with the ability to wait had better wellbeing and scored higher on attainment tests.

Understanding the zones of regulation

A great way of developing affective self-regulation is introducing children to the idea of zones of regulation. Many teaching resources are available on the internet.

There are four ‘zones’:

  • blue – feeling bored, low or sad
  • green – feeling calm, focused, happy
  • amber – a bit anxious or cross, silly/wriggly
  • red – panicky or furious and out of control.

The zones can be compared to traffic lights. When in the green zone, we are ready to go, ready to learn. Yellow or amber means we need to take care, whilst red means ‘stop’.

The aim of the zones approach is to help children recognise their zone, based on the environment and its demands. In the playground, heightened states of silliness and excitement might be OK, but not in assembly.

Children can then learn how to take action when necessary to either ‘up-regulate’ or ‘down-regulate’ – for example, to ‘up-regulate’ if they are in the blue zone, children can undertake a physical activity, like doing star jumps, or listen to upbeat music.

Developing techniques for ‘down-regulating’

We can teach children ways to calm themselves down and move from red or amber to the green zone, such as the following.

  • The turtle technique, in which children adopt a pose as a turtle tucked inside its shell, until they are ready to think clearly again.
  • Taking five or more deep breaths, as for example in ‘five finger breathing’, or ‘hot chocolate’ breathing, in which they inhale to smell an imaginary cup of hot chocolate, then blow out to cool it.
  • Finding their happy place: children learn that visualising their happy place can be a de-stressor. They share a photo or draw a place where they feel happy, safe and comfortable, then talk to a partner about why they chose it, practising the visualisation at the end of the lesson. 

Creating safe places

Another idea is to create a designated space in school for children to take themselves to if they need to calm down.

I have seen great calm-down corners in primary classrooms, with smooth stones to touch, intricate patterns to colour in, lavender-scented cotton balls to sniff, a lava lamp and a rocking chair. In secondary schools, there can be a central chill-out space, which pupils can book if they are finding it hard to cope.

For some children, it helps if they make their own individual ‘calm-down boxes’ (link requires free registration) containing objects or photographs they can get out when they need to self-regulate.

Every curriculum subject offers opportunities to address self-regulation

Learning to persist

Keeping going when work gets hard requires pupils to manage feelings of frustration, anxiety or just boredom. They can be asked to identify strategies to self-regulate in these situations, for example:

Foil frustration – relaxation, distraction, having a break, doing something completely different for a short while.

Beat boredom – setting themselves a shorter term target and giving themselves a reward like a break or a drink, taking time to draw what it will look like when they reach their goal.

When children are on the point of giving up, strategies might include:

  • talking to a peer ‘coach’,
  • asking for feedback from others
  • breaking down the task
  • setting a time challenge for each part
  • using a repeated mantra like ‘keep on keeping on.’

Pupils can be asked to do a fairly tedious task in class (like making paper chains in groups, competing with other groups to see who can make the longest), and afterwards discuss ways they helped themselves persist. They can make a class display of ‘what we can do to keep going’ and share with other classes and people at home.

Children can learn how to take action when necessary to either ‘up-regulate’ or ‘down-regulate’

Alternatively, they might work in threes, with one person taking the role of a learner who is trying to complete a long and difficult piece of work, one person being the gremlin who throws in the thoughts, feelings and distractions that stop the learner from getting on, and the third person being the angel who challenges the gremlin’s contributions.

It’s useful to show pupils YouTube films about people who persist through difficulties, such as the ‘Freedom to fail forwards’ films and my current favourite about a baby polar bear.

Self-regulation across the curriculum

Every curriculum subject offers opportunities to address self-regulation.

For persistence, for example, everything from PE to geography offers examples of figures who persisted and overcame obstacles in order to achieve goals.

In English, pupils can explore Arthurian legends and Greek myths about quests and tasks, creating storyboards with thought bubbles showing what a protagonist was thinking and feeling at each stage.

In PSHE lessons, they can match famous people with the obstacles they faced – like Elvis Presley, who was fired after one performance (the boss said ‘You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck’), and Alexander Graham Bell, who was told after meeting with the president to demonstrate his new invention, the telephone: ‘That’s an amazing invention, but who would want to use one of them?’

Resources for social and emotional learning

All the ideas in this article are examples of social and emotional learning (SEL), in my view an essential part of every school’s curriculum. You can read more about SEL in the EEF guidance I co-authored.

And for free SEL teaching resources, there is the SEAL community, which has materials on managing anger in its ‘Getting on and Falling Out’ primary and ‘Learning to be Together’ secondary themes.

It also provides a complete set of materials on persistence in the primary ‘Going for Goals’ theme resources and secondary ‘Keep on Learning’ theme.

SEAL has assemblies, follow-up PSHE lessons, ideas for work in other curriculum subjects, ideas for generalising the learning across the school day, small-group activities for pupils needing additional help, and in the primary materials also take-home family activities.

Why not have a look? You will enjoy it.

Reaching the Unseen Children

You can read more about these and the other practical, evidence-based strategies in my book, Reaching the Unseen Children: Practical strategies for closing stubborn gaps in disadvantaged groups.

For a limited time, you can get 20% off the paperback by using the discount code JG20 on the Routledge web shop.

Last Updated: 
01 Dec 2021