Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be invited to be the guest speaker at the AGM of the Early Childhood Australia NSW North Coast group. I was asked to speak on parenting and its influence on children’s self-regulation, and ways in which early childhood professionals can best engage parents around this topic. In turn, I think some of the stories may speak to parents about the ways they can best engage with early childhood teachers and carers around this stuff. And about the developmental progression of self-regulation and how parenting can support it. Here’s my speech……
First, so we have a shared understanding of the term self-regulation – I’m talking about the ways in which we all regulate our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviour so that we can be acceptable members of society and have some degree of success and wellbeing.
When we are all born, we are all other-regulated, rather than self-regulated. Parents must soothe us, feed us, help us transition to sleep; even physically regulate us by dressing us in appropriate clothing for climate, and swaddling when required. But the absolute major task of early childhood, and I would argue the most important, is to learn to self-regulate.
In fact, self-regulation skills continue to develop through to adulthood, so this isn’t something confined to early childhood at all. But crucially, the skills that children bring with them to school are going to set them on paths of learning and social success, and thus why early childhood is such a focus. Early childhood self-regulation skills are also predictive of things like career success, tertiary completion, adult relationship stability and all the good stuff…. Even after we account for growth that occurs between early childhood and adulthood. So it is clearly an important time to try to focus on these skills with children.
When we think about self-regulation across early childhood there are a number of important things to remember.
First, and critically, the leap from other-regulated as an infant to self-regulated does not happen without co-regulation in between. And what I mean by co-regulation is the sensitive available adult teaching, coaching, soothing, talking, hearing, and being with children before withdrawing little by little over time as children develop the skills for full self-regulation. Other-regulated, co-regulation, self-regulation.
Second, and related, is that self-regulation is learned through practice, it does not just happen with development. So while some dysregulation is developmentally appropriate – think about a standard toddler tantrum – signs of dysregulation that are not age appropriate will not be ‘grown out of’ as such, and it is risky to think of them like that. “He’ll grow out of it” won’t really cut it. But these skills can be taught, scaffolded, modelled and practiced and absolutely learned…… other-regulated, co-regulated,…. Self-regulated.
Another thing to remember is that part of how we react to situations is genetically driven. Many early childhood professionals experience this: they have a child in their care that they find rather interesting, only to get to know their parent a bit later and suddenly think…… “ok, I get it now! A chip off the old block”. But while how we initially react might be partially genetically based, the skills we have to regulate that reactivity can be developed and taught, other-regulation, co-regulation….. self-regulation…so all is NEVER lost.
So other than biology, what role does parenting have to play in all of this? As a parent myself, you’ll never catch me parent blaming, I hope. The research seems to be telling us that parenting is about being ‘good enough’ for the child you have, never perfect, but just good enough. What do I mean by good enough for the child you have?
Well as parents and educators you will know well, that some children seem to be born ‘easy’. And I am speaking primarily about self-regulating here. You could pretty much give these children to a mother chimpanzee to raise and love, perhaps read them a few books every now and then… but essentially they will do just fine in any stable circumstances. I am lucky enough to live with one of these….. So good enough parenting or educating this kind of child is largely a pretty cruisy affair. And for that reason they can sometimes get ‘lost’ in early childhood settings and left to their own devices, which can be a shame….. but that’s a discussion for another day.
Then there are children who are born highly reactive, sensitive, a bit tetchy, a bit high maintenance. Parenting and educating these children is a 110% effort, all of the time, physical and mental challenge, push you to your limits, tough mudder, iron woman / man kind of affair. I am also lucky enough to have birthed one of these children….. I don’t want you thinking I have it all sweetness and light. But when I say I’m lucky, I’m not being sarcastic. Because what happens with these children, like anything that you have to work hard for, the rewards are huge and exponential when all of the work begins to pay off.
But let’s back track a bit. So we have these two extreme types of temperamental self-regulation in children – and there are hundreds of other types in between of course – but we also have different types of parents in combination with these children. And while children’s temperament and biology are important, the dynamic interplay between them and their caregiver’s behaviour has the most effect on how self-regulation skills develop. For example, if one of those tricky infants who are fussy from birth meets a parent who is low on social support, low on patience, perhaps vulnerable to depression, than this fussy infant might eventually get some pretty negative responses from this parent over time. These babies can be difficult-to-soothe, frustrating, and awkward to interact with. This baby will not get as many opportunities, through co-regulation experiences with their caregiver, to experience positive regulation, and practice the skills required for self-soothing over time. In fact in parents vulnerable to depression, these infants can make the mental health of their parents worse.
On the other hand, if this tricky infant is lucky enough to land with parents who are able to persist in co-regulation attempts, and provide the baby with lots of positive feedback, then the baby is more likely to begin to build up its self-regulation skills it can use to dampen down its own reactivity over time. These children might even start to look like those easy children on the outside, but those who know them well will understand they are still sensitive souls on the inside.
Being a positive, sensitive, persistent, and consistent parent or carer for children like this is hard yakka even for well supported and calm parents. And I would say that no one can do it well all day every day. So I would advocate for much empathy and support for all parents who report finding their child particularly tricky at times. I think starting with empathy and understanding can be a good place to start a conversation around this stuff with parents…. But more on that later.
Another important thing to remember about children’s self-regulation and how they display it, is that it will be different in the settings that early childhood professionals see them in, compared to at home with their parents. It is universally found, that educator and parent ratings of children’s self-regulation skills rarely match…… you may as well be looking at two different children when you look at the data. The reason for this is that the home and childcare or kindy are two very different contexts that demand different things from the self-regulatory systems of children.
Generally speaking, at home there is less demand for children’s self-regulation. They are part of a smaller group there where co-regulation with adults is usually more available, just because the adult to child ratio is more favourable. Often in early childhood, children can set their own play agendas at home and parents can be sensitive to their likes and dislikes and sensitivities, thus not pushing the boat out too far in terms of self-regulatory demands.
In childcare or kindy, children need to function as part of a group, they usually have to fit into a routine that may not be their own, the adult to child ratio is different, and there are probably less opportunities for co-regulation and much higher demand for independent self-regulation from children.
And this leads me to different parenting styles and how they can also mean that parent and educators see very different sides to children’s self-regulation skills. I will tell you a story I heard recently. Last year at a kindy at a parent teacher evening earlyish in the year, one of the mums complained that her son had never been naughty or in any trouble at all until he had come to kindy. Kindy had taught him to be naughty; it must have been the other children there! He had not been to any other early childhood settings in terms of care or anything.
This mother also happened to have a highly permissive parenting style. The boy was allowed to do what he wanted, when he wanted, his demands were always met.. pronto…. And thus he was never required to self-regulate at home. He rarely experienced disappointment, frustration, was never required to complete a task, do something he didn’t want to do etc. Parents like this might also present a preferred activity like an iPad or ice-cream at the first signs of the slightest upset. They might continue to pat or stay with their child until they are asleep right through early childhood and beyond. There are all sorts of ways in which children in this situation can miss out on opportunities to practice the shift from other-regulated to co-regulated to self-regulated. I think this was what was happening with this boy….. he had essentially remained co-regulated through this highly permissive parenting style and never had the opportunity or requirement to develop independent self-regulation skills.
Of course at kindy, the demands for self-regulation are quite high compared to this boy’s home life and this resulted in his behaviour being at odds with what the teacher needed, and his lack of self-regulation skills being really highlighted in that context. But totally bewildering to the mother who had never had any feedback from educators or carers about her child’s behaviour being a problem before. This certainly caused some tension between the kindy teacher and this mother over the course of the year…. And I’ll come to how we could approach this issue.
So that’s permissive parents, and there are lots of other styles out there too that interact with children’s temperament in different ways. Remember there is no perfect parenting, and no perfect children, only a good enough parenting fit for the child you have.
So now, let’s talk about how early childhood professionals can positively engage parents in this vital area of self-regulation development for children.
First, I think we need to get the self-regulation language in higher rotation and make it part of our regular work, our curriculums, our pedagogies, the way we write and the way we speak. Unfortunately, because self-regulation issues come out in children as emotional or behavioural difficulties they can feel a little bit personal for parents when bought up by educators or carers. You wouldn’t imagine the same kind of angst over a discussion of numeracy or literacy….. but I think if we can make self-regulation known to be a developmental skill that can be coached, just like literacy, then we can take the personal element out of it. We are not talking about temperamental or personality deficiencies here. We are simply talking about yet another skill area that all children are working through at different rates across early childhood.
What if learning stories in children’s portfolios always incorporated something about self-regulation? We might start to desensitise parents around this stuff. We could document how children paid attention, used problem-solving in a social situation, used a particular strategy to calm themselves when upset.
Even with very young children we can talk about the co-regulation strategies that you and the children use in times of upset. When you think about a very young child who still needs co-regulation when emotionally upset….. if that child comes to a caregiver for support, rather than withdrawing or hitting out or something less positive, than this child is actually showing they are on their way to self-regulating. They are actively seeking you the carer to support them and that is a regulation strategy which should be celebrated.
We also need to have age and developmentally appropriate expectations around this stuff. It is not age appropriate to have toddlers sitting still for long periods of time, and when they can’t they aren’t dysregulated… they are just two years old. However, when they do start to attend for longer periods with a bit of coaching and co-regulation… then this is something to celebrate and point out in learning stories and parent discussion.
Remember that nothing can bridge other-regulated to self-regulation except for co-regulation. Infants and some toddlers will need physical help to be soothed, put to sleep etc. You could ask parents how they handle it if their child is upset or stressed at home, and this might give you an idea of what level of co-regulation is happening in the home. If you suspect children aren’t getting co-regulation experiences at home you might need to offer more of this in the centre. You could also document these strategies, particularly if they worked, and discuss them with parents who might get ideas for home. It might be that you are still co-regulating much older children if they haven’t had these experiences before. This takes time and effort and can be exhausting but should pay off in the longer term. This is one of the reasons we do not want to see a roll back of adult to child ratios in early childhood care settings.
Also if children are hungry, tired, stressed, or traumatised, lower or erase your expectations for self-regulation. Their system is caught up with other issues and until and unless you can address those things that are taxing their system, it will be very difficult to coach self-regulation.
I think we also need to contextualise why we are concerned with these behaviours and skills and make our discussions specific. So rather than, general comments about a child being disruptive and having trouble with self-control, we can be more specific. For example, we could discuss that we are working on paying attention for longer periods of time during group time because this is an important skill at this age and will be expected by teachers at school. Perhaps talk about the group as a whole and mention that many children find it difficult, others are ok with it and comment to parents about specific goals you are working on with their children in relation to self-regulation. Having group goals clear also takes the personal out of it and means that parents may feel less singled out.
As I commented before, starting with empathy for parents is always important. But remember that the children you find tricky might have parents who don’t find them difficult to manage at all as the story demonstrated.
It might also be that your easiest most self-regulated children at your centre wreaks havoc at home. It is always disconcerting for a parent when they comment to an educator that they had a rough morning or night with behaviour and the educator gives them a bewildered look and comments that they can’t imagine that as little Beth is always such a delight at the centre. What’s usually happening here is that little Beth has made some smart decisions to use all of her self-regulation skills that you and her parents have worked hard to develop during the day, but her little system is exhausted and has had enough of self-regulating by the time she gets home.
So she lets it all hang out in the place where she knows people will love her unconditionally anyway. This is very common in young children, especially those trickier ones, but actually they are making the right decisions about where to use their self-regulatory energy. The implication when an educator says ‘oh no, not perfect little Beth really?’ is that it must be the parent and something they are or are not doing. When actually clearly that parent has probably worked quite hard to develop those self-regulation skills you are seeing in the centre, and we should be grateful…. But they pay the price at home.
Be very aware of parents who appear depressed or report a history of depression, particularly matched with a tricky kid. Try to give extra support and understanding and perhaps linking in with other local services if possible. It might be that you have these other services come in and offer parent workshops or information. You might offer parent tip sheets or night time information sessions on sleep and diet with are really foundational for children self-regulation. You might also offer ideas and resources for parental self-care and social support networking to help boost parents’ psychological resources and energy to continue to persist with their efforts.
And finally of course, remember to care for yourselves and each other as early childhood professionals, and as parents. This is difficult work, but so worthwhile. Children will come to your care in various stages of other-regulated, co-regulated or self-regulated. You are in an important position to assess where they are at developmentally and work with them from there. As well as to try and engage with parents and bring them along with the ride too. Just like a good enough parent, you won’t be able to be at 100% capacity all day every day. You are only human after all…..and you should never hesitate to seek some co-regulation from your colleagues, friends, or family when needed. The little and big successes you have along the way will have huge and long-lasting ramifications for the life stories of the children you work with.