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Developing emotional regulation skills in young children to improve their social skills

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After experiencing two years of Covid-19 lifestyles, many of our young children are facing difficulties with regulating their emotions and socialising with others. It is important to recognise that behaviours such as shyness and introversion can be an individual’s personality trait, rather than an anti-social behaviour. Likewise, a child who experiences tantrums and meltdowns at ages 2 and 3 is a normal part of childhood development. However, if these behaviours are occurring regularly after 5 years of age and are hindering the social development of your child, you may need to think about implementing some behavioural strategies.

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation refers to the way in which a person experiences different types of emotions and the way that they experience and express these feelings. We can teach our children from an early age to identify their feelings and appropriate ways to regulate and express them.

The Zones of Regulation

We know that little people have big feelings! The ‘Zones of Regulation’ theory was designed based on the premise that we (and the children themselves) can monitor our children’s behavior and implement strategies to help them cope with their feelings and emotions before they reach a heightened level.

There are four zones of regulation, which include: green ‘go’, yellow ‘caution’, blue ‘slow’ and red ‘stop’.

While we aim to have our children in the green ‘go’ happy and content zone, we know that in life there will always be extraneous variables occurring in our environment that can affect how we think and feel. If we can provide coping or intervention strategies to our children, we can teach them how to self regulate their emotions so they can get themselves back to a calm and relaxed state. This leads to a happier child who is less frustrated, anxious, angry or likely to have a meltdown. Thus resulting in more positive social interactions with their peers and others around them.

Zones of Regulation

How to introduce the Zones of Regulation to your child?

Many educational institutions have implemented the zones of regulation into their teaching and learning environments such as the classroom. Parents or teachers can print out a Zones of regulation chart which can be placed on the wall as a reminder for children to regularly “check in” with how they are feeling.

For example, if a child is completing an activity in a content and happy fashion, they would be considered in the “green” zone and can keep performing the activity. However, if they are in the “blue” (slow down) zone such as being sleepy before bed, that would be a great time to brush their teeth, read a short book and get them into bed.

The “yellow” (caution!) zone is perhaps the most important zone to acknowledge. This is where the child is starting to act silly, feel frustrated or hyperactive. If left to their own devices, their feelings may continue to escalate which could lead to the “red” zone – such as meltdowns, losing control and lashing out at others. By helping a child acknowledge that they are in the yellow zone, we can encourage them to stop what they are doing and try to self regulate. Some ways of doing this include going for a short walk around the yard or classroom, taking themselves to the designated “chill out zone” such as a bean bag or book corner to read or sit quietly, or practice some mindfulness activities such as deep breathing or yoga stretches. Once they feel themselves return to the “green” zone, they can return to the previous activity they were doing.

Provide a Sensory Chill out Space for your child

A sensory chill out space is an area that has been created to help children cope with the sensory overload that they face every day. A sensory chill out space could be a carpeted area with bean bags, cushions and calming music, a book corner, or a tepee tent. Setting up a “chill out” corner or space in your house or the classroom gives children the responsibility and independence to take themselves to the designated area before their emotions escalate in a heightened and negative way. The sensory chill out space could also include reading materials such as mindfulness posters or emotions flash cards which can prompt them to communicate about how they are feeling with their parent, teacher or carer.

Implement a daily routine into your child’s day

Many professionals are urging parents and teachers to incorporate a daily routine into their child’s day. Maintaining a routine for children makes a child feel organized, stable and ready for what comes next. A great way of doing this is using a set of routine flash cards, a daily chart, or timetable. Using one of these tools instills a sense of routine and predictability into their daily life, which will result in less anxiety about what will happen throughout the day. By taking a look at the example below, by using the routine flash card “quiet play” in the days routine, the child understands the expectation to play quietly during that time frame. 

Photo credit: Creative Sprout Emotional Cards for Kids

Develop your child’s social skills through role play activities

There are many resources available to help parents, teachers and carers support a child’s social skill development. Some of these include board games such as “feelings Bingo”, books that get them to read and draw about different feelings, or flashcards that get them to discuss a particular feeling and their thoughts about it.

We can encourage the development of their social skills and emotional intelligence through playing role play games with our children. If you have a set of toys such as dolls, dinosaurs or cars – use these to create different role play scenarios to prompt communication, empathy and social skills. For example, you could say “dolly is feeling sad today, what could we do to help cheer up dolly?” or “the blue car just bumped into the red car, how do you think that might make the red car feel?”

Helping our children identify their emotions and giving them appropriate ways to express these feelings is a valuable life skill that they can use for the rest of their life.

Sarah James is the owner of The Sensory Specialist and a qualified Melbourne psychology teacher and mother of two boys. The Sensory Specialist is an online store that delivers high quality sensory toys, fidgets, educational products, special needs resources and sensory homewares across Australia.

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