Inclusion and wellbeing

How co-regulation helps children handle emotional distress

Before children can self-regulate, co-regulation helps build up their soothing strategies.
A teacher helping a child deal with emotional distress
May 2, 2023
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • Guest author Mike Huber explores the concept of co-regulations in early education, and how it can help you support children's emotional development and well being.
  • In a sentence, co-regulation is when adults help children calm down. It’s like the training wheels for self-regulation skills, which is when children learn to cope with emotions by themselves.
  • Keep reading for plenty of practical, in-classroom tips on when, where and how caregivers can use co-regulation with children in the early years.

“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.

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What is co-regulation and why is it so important?

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.

The big ideas

Co-regulation requires self-awareness from adults

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.

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‍Doing the Co-Regulation Dance

How does co-regulation work with children?

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:

  1. Approach calmly. Take a deep breath yourself if needed.
  2. Label the child’s emotions: both the feeling and how it shows up in their body. “Hey Charlie, I see you gritting your teeth. You seem angry.”
  3. Assist the child with finding a calming strategy, such as:
  • Taking deep, controlled breaths together
  • Hugging a stuffed animal or trusted adult
  • Swinging or rocking
  • Watching objects with slow soothing movements, like a glitter jar or fish tank
  • Chew something appropriate like a chew toy, gum, or dried fruit.
  • Moving away from stimulus that is causing distress
  1. When the child is relatively calm, try talking about what to do now. “What would you like to play with now?” “Do you want to read a book with me?”
  2. If there’s still a conflict that needs to be resolved, use open-ended questions. “You want to build with blocks alone and Sheila wants to build a store. What could we do to solve this problem?”
  3. If the child is still upset, repeat step three until they have calmed down and will be able to hear what you are saying and answer your questions without getting more triggered and distressed

Now, let’s further explain each of these steps.

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Co-regulating starts with labelling children’s emotions

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.

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Helping children when they're feeling overwhelmed

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.)

  • Taking deep breaths works for almost all children, because it increases the oxygen flow to the brain.
  • Gently engaging the senses, especially touch, help slow the child’s breathing and heart rate. You might look to your classroom’s sensory table, or to children's comfort objects, like a blanket or stuffed bear.
  • Proprioception is our awareness of our bodies, and supporting that can help us feel more in control. Engaging in sucking or chewing activates the proprioceptive sense in a calming way.
  • The vestibular sense relates to balance, and engaging this can also help soothe children. Rocking motions are a good way to activate this sense, as children move between balance and unbalance.

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. 

The child seems calm - Now what?

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:

  • Reading books often works because it keeps you and the child connected while giving them something else to focus on.
  • Drawing or building are good activities because the child focuses on the ideas in their head while using their hands.
  • If there was a conflict that precipitated children's distress, you can help them resolve the conflict at this point.

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.

Father tapping his daughter's head

Co-regulating takes time

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.

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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.

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