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Co-Regulation: An Approach to Support Early Emotional Development

During the first few years of life, children develop important self-regulation skills to help them manage their emotions, needs, and behaviors. During this learning process, young children may express frustration through temper tantrums, aggression, and other challenging behaviors as they struggle to cope effectively with their feelings.  A process called co-regulation can help educators and caregivers support young children by demonstrating what it looks like to understand and manage emotions.  

What is Co-Regulation?

Co-regulation is a tool that can be used by caregivers to help children learn to recognize and manage their emotions and needs. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Co-regulation is the warm, responsive interaction and support, structure, coaching and modeling provided by caregivers to foster self-regulation development in children.”   Co-regulation occurs when the educator observes the child’s behavior for clues about the child’s needs, uses simple language to help the child identify and label feelings, and then helps guide the child to the next routine.  For example, an educator might notice a toddler showing signs of being tired before naptime, by rubbing their eyes, yawning, and grabbing a stuffed animal to snuggle with. In response, the educator might say, “It looks like you’re getting tired. Should we start to get ready for a nap?” The educator would then help the toddler to their nap mat, rub the child’s back for a few minutes, and then leave the child to fall asleep. 

When used by care and learning providers, co-regulation helps young children learn to understand, express, and manage their emotions. In an article entitled It Takes Two: The Role of Co-regulation in Building Self-Regulation SkillsZERO to THREE explains that co-regulation “requires teachers and providers to pay close attention to the cues children send, and to respond consistently and sensitively over time with just the right amount of support.” 

How Co-Regulation Supports Self-Regulation

During the years of early childhood, children are still developing their capacity to self-regulate. They are learning to navigate big feelings, communicate their needs, and manage their behavior. The National Institute for Children’s Health Quality explains, “self-regulation helps a child to calm herself or himself before a tantrum or to solve a problem without giving up. Without self-regulation, children struggle to develop meaningful relationships, communicate reciprocally, and succeed at school or work. This makes self-regulation essential to early childhood development.” 

Through co-regulation, providers will seek to provide just enough support to encourage children to work towards managing their feelings without the support of an adult. This will look different based on the individual child’s age and level of independence. In their brief, Caregiver Co-regulation Across Development, researchers and clinical psychologists Desiree Murray, Ph.D. and Katie Rosanbalm, Ph.D. highlight the way a child’s needs for co-regulation support will shift throughout the early stages of development. They share the following examples of co-regulation that children might be ready for at various ages: 

  • In infancy, children require adults to manage almost all of their needs, which means that co-regulation will require caregivers to be sensitive to the cues of the infant and soothe them when they are upset. 

  • Toddlers are building skills in movement and communication that allow them to have more control over their bodies and their own needs. At this age, educators might use co-regulation by labeling feelings to help children learn how to express their emotions. This is also the age at which we can encourage children to practice waiting to take turns. 

  • In preschool, children are able to use more complex thinking skills, such as problem-solving and perspective taking. At this age, caregivers communicate rules and coach children through self-calming strategies so that they can start to become comfortable with more independence. 

Helpful Tips for Co-Regulation with Young Children

A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Young Children, shares the following tips for successful co-regulation:  

  • Start with self-care. Working with young children can be a challenging and demanding job. It is important to practice self-care and stress management to enhance your own well-being and resilience in the classroom.

  • Establish a warm and responsive relationship with each child. Supporting young children’s self-regulation skill development occurs in the context of positive, supportive relationships. A warm relationship with each child is the foundation for co-regulation practices.

  • Create a calm and structured environment. Most days, young children will experience normal moments of frustration and stress. As educators, we can buffer the negative effects of these experiences by creating calm environments with predictable daily routines that help children feel safe and secure.

  • Respond with warmth during stressful moments. Children need the most co-regulation support when they are upset and unable to regulate their own emotions. In these moments, maintaining a warm, calm, and responsive demeanor can help children calm down.

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