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Children who engage in self-regulation skills have developed the ability to voluntarily control their behavior (Calkins & Williford, 2009). Teachers and parents of young children may refer to the processes involved in self-regulation as socialization and the child’s emerging abilities as self-discipline. Researchers in the area of early childhood understand that no matter what this ability is called, all adults working with children impart these essential skills in an effort to foster the inner controls a child needs to carry out successful social interactions, resist negative impulses and delay gratification. Adults teach pro-social behavior and children learn societal rules through observation, direct instruction, and positive and negative consequences (Thompson & Twibell, 2009). Thus, the developmental emergence of self-regulation requires appropriate environmental structure and the opportunity to apply the learned skills; these practices result in the internalization of the rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavior as demonstrated in the environment.
The Development of Internal Regulation
The acquisition of self-disciplined behavior in children occurs gradually (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012). The progression toward internal regulation takes time and a responsive, supportive environment; these elements are essential as the child develops, allowing the acquisition of skill and understanding as the child progresses through a series of changes moving from:
1. No regulation
2. External regulation
3. Shared regulation
4. Internal regulation
Consider how infants regulate their needs; without the ability to walk or speak, the only recourse is to cry. When a caring adult in the environment responds to this cry and seeks to cure the distress, the infant develops trust (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012). The establishment of trusting relationships with adults is an essential first step in the development of internal-regulation. In this case, the infant quickly learns that she is dependent on the adult and innate survival skills help the infant to adapt her behavior in ways that get her needs satisfied. As the infant grows, physical assistance and verbal cues help to keep the toddler on task, prompting behavior that is acceptable in a given situation. For example, when an adult wants a child to pick toys up from the floor instead of telling the child to do it, the adult gets on the floor and helps the child to engage in the task.
The help that caring adults provide children with their adherence to the rules of the environment provide the opportunities for external regulation. External regulation occurs when the adult engages the child’s behavior with acts of reinforcement and/or negative consequences. As the toddler gets older and enters childhood, expanding language and cognitive skills allow her to utilize observation and imitation to emulate the behavior of those trusted adults. The child watches how the adult behaves, and in an effort to gain approval she mimics what she sees. When children imitate a trusted adult’s behavior they have engaged in a process of shared regulation or identification. As children grow, the opportunity for them to observe adults in a variety of situations increase their ability to practice the skills they see, increasing their ability to display self-regulation in different settings. Experiences with self-regulation result in the internalization of the socialization process enabling the child to display self-disciplined behavior in a variety of circumstances.
Caring adults guide children toward self-discipline, however, not all adults engage in similar discipline styles. Early studies on discipline identified four common styles exhibited by adults (Baumrind, 1978) and these discipline styles remain the standard in the field:
Authoritarian – unquestioning obedience is valued
Permissive- warm relationships with few rules
Uninvolved- self-absorbed adults who put little effort into child rearing
Authoritative – warm relationships with clear behavioral expectations
Although cultural and child temperament factors moderate appropriate discipline style, experts agree that most children benefit from caring relationships with adults and clear expectations that are characteristics associated with the authoritative style of discipline (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012). Adults who utilize authoritative techniques teach children how to behave by combining an established trusting relationship with expectations and rules. Children engaged in this way over time typically exhibit behavior that demonstrates cooperation, curiosity, self-reliance and self-control.
The Personal Message: A Strategy for Pro-social Behavior
An effective strategy for communicating expectations and rules to children is the personal message (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2007). This three-part strategy is an effective method to convey to a child that you understand their point of view while communicating your feelings about their behavior and if needed, provide an expected alternative behavior to the child. When used effectively, personal messages provide children with information, understanding and guidance about their behavior, enabling this knowledge to be stored for self-regulation behaviors in the future. The three-part personal message strategy is summarized as follows Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012):
Think about what the child is trying to accomplish with their behavior; each child has their own perspective and goals. This shows the children that you respect them and are trying to understand their personal point of view. The adult communicates that respect through a statement. “I can see that you are very angry right now.”
2. React and provide a Reason. Tell the child how you feel in response to the behavior they displayed. “I am upset that you ripped up your paper.” Then tell them why you feel that way. “Now I will not be able to hang your paper on the wall with the rest of the class’s papers.”
3. State a Rule or Redirection. Tell the children what to do, this provides them with the explicit behavioral expectations. Do not fall into the trap of telling the child what not to do. When a child is told what not to do, they may not know what the appropriate behavior is. “Take a new paper to complete at home tonight. Bring the paper in tomorrow morning so that I can hang it on the wall.”
As adults who care about children, we have the tools to foster the development of self-discipline which in turn helps to promote pro-social skills. Remembering that self-discipline is a developmental process that is grounded in warm, caring relationships and respectful teaching will guide our interactions with children when they do not display appropriate self-regulation. Children of all ages and all ability levels benefit when the adults in their lives use personal messages to guide their behavior. For concerns about a child’s ability to engage in self-regulatory skills, consult the school psychologist or mental health practitioner in your school district.
Baumrind, D. (1978). Parental disciplinary patterns. Youth and Society, 9, 223-276.
Calkins, S.D., & Williford, A.P. (2009). Training the terrible twos: Self-regulation and school readiness. In O.A. Barbarian & B.H. Wasik (Eds)., Handbook of child development and early education: Research to practice. (pp.172-198). New York: The Guilford Press.
Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J.S. (2007). Chalenging behavior in young children: Understanding, preventing, and responding effectively. Boston: Pearson.
Kostelnik, M.J., Gregory, K.M., Soderman, A.K., & Whiren, A.P. (2012). Guiding children’s social development and learning, Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Thompson, J.E., & Twibell, K.K. (2009). Teaching hearts and minds in early childhood classrooms: Curriculum for social and emotional development. In O.A. Barbarian & B.H. Wasik (Eds)., Handbook of child development and early education: Research to practice. (pp.199-222). New York: The Guilford Press.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. She teaches courses in the Foundations of Special Education, Research in Special Education, and Child Development. In addition, Dr. Malow has presented at numerous professional conferences and has published articles on friendship, students with disabilities, and effective strategies for students with disabilities. Additionally, Dr. Malow has co-authored a book about adolescent risk taking behavior from Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Contact Dr. Malow at firstname.lastname@example.org.