Self-Regulation: The Secret to Success

self regulationBy: Jessica Drake-Simmons, M.S. CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist

I have a confession.  Sometimes I have poor self-regulation skills.  I have difficulty resisting the distractions in my home–getting a snack, doing the laundry, playing with my dog, taking a nap, turning the TV on while I work, the list could go on and on and on.  Therefore, I have to make modifications for myself.  I need to remove myself from my home and go to the local coffee shop in order to be able to focus on the task of brainstorming, researching, organizing information and writing this blog. This process is called self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage ones thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Research is finding that self-regulation is TWICE as influential as a child’s IQ!  Self-regulation is the single most important predictor of success.  The ability to control one’s actions is the foundation for all other learning.  Children develop foundation skills for self-regulation during the first five years of life with the most rapid time of development being between the ages of 3-7.

Children need to be able to filter out distractions, handle emotions, delay gratification and inhibit impulses in order to be able to focus their attention on the information that we want them to learn.   Parents and teachers play a critical role in providing consistency, organization and structure.

Here are a few strategies to teach self-regulatory behaviors:

  • Enforce rules consistently.
    • This provides children with a greater awareness of what is expected of them and opportunities to practice controlling themselves.
  • Tell the child what you want them TO do, not what you DON’T want them to do. Be explicit in your directions.
    • Keep your hands to yourself—versus: stop touching everything!
    • Walk next to me—versus: stop running!
  • Provide 2 positive choices in order to allow your child the opportunity to exercise autonomy and self-regulation by selecting how to do a task.
    • You can sit on the floor or sit on a chair.
    • You can walk with your hands by your side or hold my hand.
  • Combine challenging tasks with a bit of pleasure! Find a hook that turns a chore into a game.
    • Provide rewards, breaks or integrate motivational activities into challenging tasks (e.g., jump, run, wheelbarrow walk across the room to find a piece of a letter puzzle).
    • Sometimes activities naturally facilitate this and sometimes we have to come up with ideas to hook kids into an activity.
  • Encourage self-talk. Inner speech is not fully developed until around the age of 7.  So, for tasks that are challenging, we frequently hear children using self-talk.
    • Self-talk supports a child’s ability to complete difficult tasks.
    • Reinforce self-talk when you hear it: “Hey, you did a great job talking yourself through that problem!  Good for you!”
  • Model self-talk for self-regulation and problem solving. What children hear becomes internalized over time.  The self-regulatory, self-talk that we model will help support a child’s self-regulation skills for the rest of their lifetime.
    • “hmmm…I’m not sure how to do this puzzle.  I think I will start with the boarder pieces first.”
    • “I’m feeling upset.  I am going to take 10 breaths to calm down.”


  • Use pictures to communicate expectations. Children who are developing language skills do not think in words.  Rather, they think in pictures.
    • Stage a picture with what you want child to do during given activities.
    • You can remind them of the expected behavior by showing them the visual before and during the activity.

walking pic

Kids are most receptive to developing these skills when targeted in a fun, playful manner.

Here are 8 ideas to practice these skills at home with your child:

  1. For the child that has a hard time giving up control during preferred activities, start with quick turn-taking opportunities during play. For instance: putting a ball down a ball tower, putting a piece in a puzzle, shooting a basket or rolling a ball back and forth.  These quick turn-taking opportunities are the perfect place to start.
  2. Red Light, Green Light: Children try to reach a given destination but can only move when verbally and/or visually presented with “green light”.  They have to stop when they are given the direction “red light”.  Providing a visual cue, like a red and green piece of paper, provides another sensory modality for your child to process the direction.
    1. After children have adjusted to the rules of the game—make it harder. Have them respond to the opposite cues: red light=go, green light=stop.
  3. Freeze dance: This is another fun activity to get your child moving!  When the music stops, your child stops dancing.
  4. Have children play musical instruments and you are the director. They have to watch your hand cues and respond when you cue them to stop.
  5. Any game that requires turn-taking and rule following is a great opportunity to facilitate waiting and self-regulation. The child is naturally rewarded for waiting by being able to participate and take their turn.
  6. Play a game where children have to pay attention to a certain attribute. For instance, when driving in the car, have your child: clap when they see a blue car, count how many trucks they see or pat their legs every time they see someone walking outside.
  7. Don’t Pop the Bubbles” is a fun game where participants take turn blowing bubbles and the other participants have to wait until they hear a magic word to be able to pop them. Participants can alternate being the bubble blower in order to monitor the behavior of other participants.  Scaffold the difficulty:
    1. Level 1: model self-talk by cueing participants with, “wait, wait, wait, GO!”
    2. Level 2: fade the verbal wait cue and only provide “GO” cue
    3. Level 3: throw out some trick words to really have the children auditorily attend, “chair…rainbow….GO!
  8. Simon Says-This is a childhood favorite! Kids have to follow the directions, but only when they hear the direction start with “Simon Says”.

    Photo by Courtney Penzato
    Photo by Courtney Penzato

Are you familiar with the famous marshmallow test?  Researchers told children that they could either have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later.  The findings of the research indicated that the children who were able to delay gratification had better test scores and were more likely to finish college later on in life.

What do you think your child would do with the great marshmallow quandary?  I am pretty sure my sweet tooth would have led me to impulsively gobble up the marshmallow immediately.  And look, I still managed to do well in school and have a career that I love. We are all wired a little differently and that’s okay!    It’s most important to have an awareness of our skills, know how to develop areas of weakness and make modifications when necessary to help our children be successful.

For more information about Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley please visit

3 thoughts on “Self-Regulation: The Secret to Success

  1. Great post! I love all these ideas and it’s presented in such an easy way to read and understand. And I totally would have eaten the first marshmallow too (and then tried to negotiate a 2nd one later 😉 ) Love your posts, thanks for sharing them.

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