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Socio-emotional regulation

Definition. Social and emotional development refers to a child’s understanding of who they are, what they are feeling and their response to daily interactions (e.g. interacting with peers, tasks and routines). It helps them form lasting positive relationships, express and manage their emotions as well as exploring the environment. Self-regulation is how a person deals with and recovers from stress. 

Why is it important?

  • Fewer behavioural difficulties
  • Help children manage challenges in their life
  • Process and organize sensory information
  • Help with executive functioning – e.g., thinking, learning, memory, and controlling impulses

Signs to look for

  • “Crabby” in the morning
  • Gets upset easily and have trouble calming down
  • Have trouble paying attention or hearing your voice 
  • “Volatile moods” – happy to sad to fearful to angry in a short amount of time
  • What are some of the factors (I.e., stressors)that affect self-regulation? We see the behaviour, but what stressors are contributing to it? 
    • Social – difficulty picking up on social cues, or understanding the effect of their behaviour on others
    • Cognitive – difficulty processing certain kinds of information 
    • Emotional – strong emotions, positive (over-excitement) or negative (anxious, fearful)
    • Biological – too crowded, noisy, visual stimulation, not enough sleep (could it be sensory processing concerns)
    • Prosocial – difficulty coping with other people’s stress

How to support children?

  • Offer a predictable, comfortable safe space for children to go to when they feel dysregulated
    • Create this physical and sensory space (pillow, fidget toy, blanket, bubble tubes, blackout curtain etc.) with the children 
  • Keep routines and expectations as consistent as possible – provide advanced warning to children before transitioning to another activity, provide notes to supply staff to keep expectations the same
    • Timers, visual schedules, first –> then cards
    • Use steps to breakdown a task e.g., toileting; use short and simple sentences “hat on.”
  • Co-regulation – being present with the child in moments of stress and being responsive to their needs
    • Model your own self-regulation with the children, while teaching children to self-regulate their own emotions (what is my own body language like? tone?) Are you demonstrating supportive words, sounds, gestures for the child? Simple language, soft tone, low volume
    • Give some time to the child to take in your body language and tone
    • Make sure the child is paying attention to you (know through body language, sounds)
    • Ask what would help the child/ their body to feel safe and calm
    • Sitting quietly in the space beside them
  • Breathing exercises – stop and count deep breaths when upset 
    • Blow out birthday candles – pretend fingers are candles, blow with long breath
  • Grounding exercises – help child feel more regulated by identifying negative thought patterns
    • Favourite colour- have child pick colour and name everything in the room that has a colour
  • Remember – not all strategies would work for children, observe or ask the child how to best support them! 



Center on the Developing Child. (n.d.). A guide to executive function. Retrieved from,  

Connectability. (n.d.). Understanding self-regulation in young children. Retrieved from,  

Kid Sense. (n.d.). Self regulation. Retrieved from,  

The Mehrit Centre. (n.d.). Self-reg 101. Retrieved from, 

Written by: Stephanie Wong OT Reg. (Ont.)

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