Self-Regulation: The key to achieving success

Self-Regulation: The key to achieving success

Self-Regulation: The key to achieving success

Alex and his older sister Olivia are arguing over who gets to play on the IPad—Alex insists that it is his turn now, while Olivia is adamant that since Alex was playing on it this morning, it is her turn now. The disagreement eventually escalates into a fight when Alex grabs the IPad out of Olivia’s hands, and in anger, Olivia pushes him. Now both children are crying and throwing a tantrum, leaving their mum with the uphill battle of trying to placate her upset children.

This scenario might be familiar to parents—one that almost always ends in frustration for all parties involved. Pre-school teachers might be familiar with such feelings of frustration too, when a child resorts to tantrums, or is constantly distracted and disruptive and is unable to follow instructions. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem, and it lies in a child’s ability to self-regulate.

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is an important facet of becoming a successful, well-rounded adult. It is the ability to monitor, regulate and modify our emotions, behaviours and cognitive processes (or thoughts), according to different situational demands. Self-regulation also includes the ability to bypass or inhibit impulsive reactions, to overcome distractions, and to persist with tasks we find challenging and unenjoyable (hello, Monday morning meetings).

The difference between an adult and a child lies in how well they are able to self-regulate. When you were a child, you might have thrown a tantrum or two about having to do your homework, because you would rather play with your toys or watch TV. As an adult with self-regulation skills however, you would be able to reflect on and alter your thoughts, emotions and behaviours to better help you meet the demands of the situation, and preserve to achieve your goal.

Self-regulation is not something we were born innately knowing how to do – it is a skill that can be learned, practiced and perfected. It is so important that researchers and teachers alike consider it to be the most valuable skill a child can master prior to entering primary school according to a recent Straits Times. Once a child is able to self-regulate, they will be better equipped to handle the demands of primary school (and beyond). The extensive research confirms: self-regulation results in students who perform better academically, have richer interactions with peers and elders, and are highly motivated. With all of the potential benefits self-regulation has to offer, a more holistic education that focuses equally on social and developmental skills is vital to the growth and advancement of infants and toddlers.

Going back to our earlier scenario, how different would the situation be if Alex and Olivia had better self-regulation skills? Perhaps, instead of giving in to their impulse and reacting with anger, they could have both taken a moment to cool off. Instead of resorting to tantrums or fights, they could have calmly reacted. Ultimately, a child who can regulate his anger or anxiety in response to an upsetting situation, can continue to participate in activities without emotional tension, and will be able to continue to persist in the face of challenges without getting frustrated.

How can parents help?

The first thing parents have to understand is that children develop at different rates, and high expectations places a lot of pressure on children – they cannot self-regulate on demand. Children learn how to self-regulate by observing and modeling their parent’s behaviours and responses. It is also harder for children to continue an unenjoyable activity (cleaning up the room) than it is to inhibit an enjoyable activity (playing with toys). This is because continuing an activity requires a sustained effort, whereas the latter can be easily replaced with another pleasurable activity (reading books). Instead of forcing a child to listen to instructions, it might be more prudent for parents to try explaining the reasoning behind the necessary change of behaviour.

Setting routines is also one way a parent can build up their child’s self-regulation skills. Parents must remember to be more inclusive in the planning process, by allowing their children to choose certain activities within the set routine.

Parents should also encourage and praise instances of positive self-regulation. When the child realizes that their behaviour has been rewarded, there is a higher chance of them doing it again, increasing the frequency of the desired behaviour. Eventually, the behaviour will be automatic and internalized.

Children are also more likely to listen to a request if they agree with it and when it doesn’t hinder their independence. For example, Olivia doesn’t like getting ready for school. Instead of forcing her to get ready in a rush, her mum can let her pick her clothes the night before. That way, Olivia has something to look forward to and, she gets to maintain her independence while understanding that getting ready for school can be a positive experience.

The Mulberry Edge

While self-regulation is not a skill we are born knowing how to do, it is something that can be learnt from infancy. Self-regulation at this stage is shaped by the interactions infants have with their primary caregivers, they are also completely dependent on their caregivers for social cues. At 12 months though, toddlers are more aware of social demands, and they can consciously imitate, stop and continue behaviours. By age 2, toddlers are able to self-regulate without the presence of their primary caregivers. From ages 3-5, they undergo rapid improvements in their ability to self-regulate, making a good pre-school education incredibly important.

Here at Mulberry Learning Centre, we are committed to providing your child with the best holistic education that not only accounts for academic skills, but also focuses on developmental and social skills. Our Habits of Mind is about knowing how to behave intelligently and respond effectively to uncertainty or dilemmas. It provides children of all ages a framework for autonomous learning, critical thinking and effective inquiry. With the Habits of Mind programme, young children are exposed to concepts that help with the cultivation of self-regulation, ensuring that they are well equipped with the tools needed to succeed in life.


  • Florez, I.R. (2011). Developing young children’s self-regulation through everyday experiences. YC Young Children, 66(4), 46.
  • Golinkoff, M.R, Hirsh-Pasek, K, & Rajan, V. (2014, July 8). Self-Regulation: Just as Important as Learning Your ABCs and 123s. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from
  • Dicum, G. (2010, December 1). A book lover’s San Francisco. New York Times. Retrieved from
    Littlefield-Cook, J., & Cook, G. (2014). Child Development Principles and Perspectives. Retrieved from
  • Montroy, J.J, & Bowles, R. (2017, January 2). For school success, teach kids to self-regulate at an early age. The Straits Times. Retrieved from
  • Rice, M. (2012). Understanding the importance of self-regulation for preschoolers. Retrieved from
  • Stepp. G (2010). Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control. Retrieved from

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