What’s missing from the conversation about self-regulation? Part 2

In my first post on the topic, I suggested we need to go further than environmental accommodations.

This is especially true with students who don’t have the ability to self-regulate consistently.

What’s missing from the discussion on self-regulation?  An emphasis on external regulation and co-regulation.

Regulation is simply the return to equilibrium.

We regulate our thirst and hunger when we sit down for a meal.

We regulate our comfort in uncomfortable temperatures by wearing a toque, sitting in air conditioning or running through a sprinkler.

Reaching equilibrium.

Coming back down to earth.

Hitting the reset button.

These are concrete examples of regulation, but emotional regulation is not much different.

When someone takes your parking spot, you take a deep breath and go to the next lane.

When you’re walking through the park and there’s a dog’s mess, you grimace, pinch your nose, then drag your foot on the grass.

With emotional regulation, it comes down to knowing that “everything will be okay”.

Depending on the individual and situation, this can take milliseconds, minutes, hours, or longer.

In order to regulate, to “come back to earth”, to reach equilibrium, we need to learn what it feels like to be calm.

When does this learning begin?

Infancy. And it continues indefinitely.

Take a look at Shanker’s graphic below.


1)External Regulation

An infant is externally regulated when their cry results in being fed. This process leads to a calm baby.

An agitated toddler is externally regulated with a hug and a back rub. This provides a sense of calm.

If a child has not been externally regulated in a sufficient manner, they will have difficulty getting into or remaining in a state of calm.

This is described in the large body of research surrounding Adverse Childhood Experiences and how trauma and neglect affect the brain.

External regulation is the building block for co and self-regulation.

This is why Dr. James Garbarino describes some of the convicts he works with as 240lb toddlers, who never were adequately regulated by establishing positive attachments in early childhood.

A lack of external regulation stunts an individual’s ability to self-regulate.

2) Co-regulation 

Whereas external regulation is solely provided by the caregiver, co-regulation is a cooperative process between the individual and caregiver.

An example of co-regulation is walking a child through a difficult episode (can you tell where this is going?)

“Oh, Abdul, it looks like you’re upset right now – what’s up? Did Adam take your toy?  Oh, he did?” etc.

In co-regulation, the adult leads the way, from identifying the child’s concern, validating the emotion, to finding a way to reduce the stressor.

3) Self-regulation 

Lastly, self-regulation is the ability to recover from stressors and achieve equilibrium independently.  This is the result of successful instances of external and co-regulation. If a kid can’t self-regulate consistently, we should look to an approach based on co-regulation.

Kids need the environmental accommodations espoused by the movement. No debate there.

But what our room looks like, and what sensory experiences we can provide, might be less important than what we say and how we say it.

Ideally, we combine the environmental accommodations with a co-regulatory approach.

Part 3 in this series looks at the connection between attachment and self-regulation, while including some practical ways of co-regulating with students.


2 thoughts on “What’s missing from the conversation about self-regulation? Part 2

  1. Our students, especially early years and early primary, still need co-regulation in order to be successful in the classroom. Our learning environments have significantly different norms and expectations than their world’s at home. We need to support our students as they learn to regulate at school. In order for this to happen our students need to feel securely attached to us. They must trust us completely and know that we are there for them – regulated and unregulated. Being open and clear with our expectations and our communication with pur students and their families goes a long way to building that trust. We need to work (teach) with a more wholistic understanding of our students and their development. It is just not as simple as giving directions and students following them – regulation is very complex and take a lot of time and energy to build. Thanks for taking the time to share your reflections on the process!

    1. Sarah, excellent comment.

      Although I liked and agreed with everything you mentioned, “securely attached” is the phrase that most resonates. Fostering secure attachments should be at the top of every educators list.

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