“Stop that!” I heard the shout from across the classroom.
I took a deep breath and headed across the room. I was confident I knew what happened.
Four-year-old Charlie yelled at other children a few times a day. The reasons varied: someone was too close, someone was using a toy that he wanted, or — in this case — someone was looking at him.
I could simply tell him that other children will look at him sometimes, and there is nothing he can do about it. But I knew that wouldn’t work. Charlie was yelling because he was mad, not because he didn’t know children might look at him. What Charlie needed was help calming down and managing his feelings.
And to best help Charlie calm down, I knew this situation called for co-regulation.
At its simplest, co-regulation is when an adult helps a child self soothe in times of stress. It's a building block for self-regulation, and a big step in learning how to handle our own feelings, which is why it is so important to start co-regulation in early childhood.
To look at it more in terms of child development, co-regulating is about sharing space with a child as they move from a dysregulated state to a regulated state. A regulated state, also known as “emotional regulation,” is having the right energy or stimulus level for a given situation.
When children struggle with this, it's likely because their stimulus level does not fit the situation. This shows up in symptoms of emotional distress, and often shows up as fight, flight, or freeze.
You might have read about self-regulation on the Famly blog before. Self-regulation is what the child does, and the co-regulating focuses on the adult’s role. But self-regulation skills don’t happen overnight — children need supportive adults. That’s where co-regulation comes in.
In the case of Charlie, he often became dysregulated in ways that were hard for me to understand. So before I could figure out why he was dysregulated, I had to help him self-regulate. He wouldn’t be able to tell me why he was upset: when someone is dysregulated, they have difficulty using the rational part of the brain.
And before I can help Charlie gain control of his own emotions, I need to make sure I am calm too.
Children will often match and reflect your own energy, so in these situations it’s important for you to be calm. Only a regulated adult can help a child regulate — after all, you can’t give what you haven’t got.
This can be difficult, as a crying, screaming, or hitting child will cause us to be stressed. It's important to pay close attention to your own stress, and perhaps start with some deep breathing.
To help children problem-solve their own big emotions, you need to ensure your own body language, facial expressions, voice and demeanor are gentle and supportive. Then, and only then, can you help address a child's distress.
You can think of co-regulation as sharing space and a relationship with children, working through strong feelings and helping them self-regulate their emotional state.
Here are some important steps for co-regulation:
Now, let’s further explain each of these steps.
When you first start using co-regulation, it’s easy to jump right to trying to fix the problem by trying to get the child to stop crying.
This is where that impulse to say “You’re okay” comes in — but saying 'you're okay' doesn’t make the problem go away.
Instead, the first step is to always observe and label the child’s emotions. As the adult, you need to be able to describe and put into words what and how the child is feeling. Then, you should verbalize what you have noticed to the distressed child.
You can do this by naming the emotion and describing how it is showing up in their body: “Hey Charlie, I can tell you’re mad. I hear you yelling and your fists are clenched.”
Children's distress can be overwhelming, and a child may feel there's no way for them to regain control. But it’s a lot easier for children to separate themselves from their overwhelming feelings, once you give those feelings a name. Also, describing how these big feelings show up in their body allows them to notice how this feeling is affecting them, so they can start self soothing.
There are countless coping strategies for the little ones, but of course, every single one will not work for every child. It is important to find the best coping skill(s) for each individual child.
You can help the little ones learn what works for them by offering a variety of options and techniques: (Of course, you want to suggest these in a way that does not overwhelm the child.)
With that said, it is important to note that of course, overstimulation of the senses will have the opposite effect. Bright lights or loud sounds can be stressful for anyone, but for some even moderate light or sound can be too much.
Educators and caregivers need to take the time with each child to understand what amount of sensory stimulation is calming and what is overwhelming. Over time the child will also learn their tolerace to sensory stimulation, and learn which coping strategies works best for them. Over time, they will build up their skill set and have multiple coping skills and techniques to help them self-regulate and use when they find themselves distressed and activated.
As children calm down, they’ll reach a point where they are ready to try a new activity. They may still be recovering from their frustrations, so moving on to something new can help. There is no easy way of knowing exactly when it’s time to help the child move on. All you can do is suggest an activity.
Here are three common suggestions:
If a child gets more agitated when you suggest other activities, that’s a sign they need some more co-regulation. Make sure that you, as the adult, are remaining calm. Then, continue to rely on their coping skills, or try finding other coping skills if needed.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I found myself having to co-regulate with Charlie a few times a day at first.
After a few days, I noticed that he was able to self-regulate quicker. At the same time, I started to notice a pattern of what was making him upset: he seemed unsure of how to read non-verbal social cues.
When children walked near him, he worried they were coming to take his toys or hurt him. At the same time, he didn’t have the skills to ask for a toy he wanted to use. When I recognized these patterns, I made sure to join Charlie when he was playing in order to further understand his emotion dysregulation and what was triggering it. I would notice when Charlie was just beginning to get stressed. I saw him clench his fists as he watched another child playing with a toy boat. “Did you want to play with a boat? Let’s go ask him where he found the boat.”
Charlie didn’t pick up the skills immediately, but I was now catching many situations before he ran into emotional distress. I was able to help Charlie with these skills because I focused first on his emotional needs. It helped me bond with him and helped me identify skills to work on when he was regulated so he would be more prepared the next time he got upset and dysregulated.
The child is not the only one who learns from co-regulation — it teaches emotional intelligence to both children and caregivers.
All of us become dysregulated at times. There is no way to avoid it for yourself, or the children you care for. What you can do is co-regulate, by sharing space with them while they regain their ability to self-regulate.
In doing so, you show that you care and accept them no matter what emotions they are experiencing.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.