Teaching Toddlers Self-Regulation Skills

With strong parental relationships and feedback from their surroundings, children can build and grow self-regulation skills that serve them into adulthood.

Although we are not born with self-control, we are born with the ability to develop self-control. With strong parental relationships and feedback from their surroundings, children can build and grow self-regulation skills that serve them into adulthood.

What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is your ability to manage your feelings, thoughts, and reactions. It starts with identifying how you are feeling both emotionally and physically. At a given time, you need to be able to answer the question, how am I feeling? Am I sad or happy? Am I tired or hungry? By understanding your current state, you can decide how you want to respond. If you are angry, then you can take some breaths or step out of the room. If you are tired, you can to take a nap or if you are hungry, you can grab a snack.


How to Teach Toddlers Feeling Words

When we see a child fussing, we often say that he or she is feeling upset. To help build self-regulation and a better understanding of feelings, though, parents and caregivers should build a vocabulary of feelings words. Sharing your feelings or the feelings of others can help toddlers learn happy, excited, sad, mad, scared, sick, or worried. For example, “Do you see that little boy? He is crying. He must be sad. I wonder why the little boy is sad?” To help toddlers learn about their feelings, help them put their feelings into words. For example, “You are mad. You are mad because your sister took the toy away.”

The ability to understand and name feelings helps children problem-solve. When a child knows how he or she is feeling and what is wrong, then they are more likely to come up with an effective way to manage the situation. A young girl who knows she is sad because her parents are at work, can go hug a favorite blanket or toy as a coping skill.

How Toddlers Build Coping Skills

The toddler years mark the emergence of autonomy and the growth of independence. As they are more active and aware, toddlers can often become overwhelmed by all their thoughts and decisions they need to make. Even relatively small decisions for adults can become a huge stressor for a child – which shirt to wear, what toy to bring, and where to sit can all feel like monumental decisions to a Toddler.

child with teddy bear

There are many ways that caregivers can help build coping skills in toddlers. First, focus on the basics – sleep, nutrition, and environment. Lack of sleep, being hungry, or being overstimulated can cause rapid changes in a toddler’s mood. Maintaining predictable and stable routines helps toddlers develop inner regulation. Predictability and structure provide a framework and set expectations for the toddler’s day. This predictability helps the toddler understand what is going to happen next, so they develop inner regulation. For example, being on a regular eating schedule helps a toddler manage hunger feelings. It also helps them begin to understand the length of time.

Separation anxiety coincides with the cognitive growth where toddlers begin to realize that their loved ones exist when out of sight, but they do not understand time or the ability to know that their loved one will come back. Children often cope by latching on to a transitional object or a lovey. Typically, these objects are soft and snuggly items that a child will integrate into his daily activities and they allow him to feel connected to the loving care he gets with his parents throughout his day. I highly encourage caregivers to allow children to keep these items close by during the day. If for some reason it is problematic for the lovey to be by a child’s side, it needs to be in an easily accessed place or part of the room and the child should be allowed to go to it whenever needed. Loveys are a comforting bridge between being fully attached to a caregiver and being independent. Toddlers who can connect well to a lovey often cope better during disruptions in their usual routine.

child playing with ball

Toddlers experiment, learn cause and effect, and develop problem-solving skills. Parents and caregivers can encourage this process by talking about things that might cause stress. Coping mechanisms for high stress situations may include having the child looking away while getting a vaccination or thinking of something fun that will happen later after the discomfort has passed. Toddlers can also start learning about proactive plans by talking about what to do if he gets worried while he is at daycare each morning. In addition, toddlers can learn some basic calming techniques such as counting to 10 or even taking some deep breaths.

Self-regulation builds in the toddler years as their brain continues to mature and their mobility allows them to have increasing impacts on the world around them. Toddlers are active explorers of their world and they are eager to touch and see everything! Though they tend to still be impulsive, they are better able to make behavior choices based on the feedback from their surroundings and their caregivers. They are increasingly able to observe what behaviors make their caregivers happy or stern and change their behavior based on that feedback. They also tend to judge actions based on whether they will get in trouble rather than if it is the right thing to do.

To learn more, a Self-Regulation course is available with enrollment in the Advanced Childcare program.


Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval

About the Author. Dr. Lauren Formy-Duval is a licensed psychologist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Working with children and families for over 15 years in schools, hospitals, community agencies, Dr. Formy-Duval is currently in private practice and is also an adjunct faculty member of Amslee Institute.



Teaching Children Good Citizenship for National Clean-Up Day

Americans are fortunate to have many beautiful national and state park areas and we all have a responsibility to contribute to their success for future generations.

Americans are fortunate to have many beautiful national and state park areas and we all have a responsibility to contribute to their success for future generations. Outdoor enthusiasts and families can enjoy a variety of activities throughout the year from hiking mountain trails in the spring to ocean swimming in the summer to fall photography and winter skiing. Sadly, many of these activities are diminished or ruined by the litter and trash left behind by others.

National Clean-Up Day is an unofficial holiday created to bring together those who love the outdoors and nature to help clean natural communal spaces. The goal is to encourage people to reduce littering and increase recycling so that the nature around us remains clean and devoid of garbage. This is a great opportunity to work with children and teach them social responsibility and how to serve their community.

clean up day

Children are taught in the schools that the environment needs protection, but schools usually lack the resources to provide hands-on opportunities to work in the community. A good way to reinforce these teachings is to get children involved in cleaning up trash and litter. This builds awareness of the ecological impacts of our lifestyle as well as reinforces the role of good citizenship in the community.

Young children can begin by cleaning up paper trash in their local park. Make sure they are well supervised in case they come across anything that might present a danger like broken glass, rusty cans, or other sharp items. This activity can be done by a single-family or during an afternoon by a nanny caring for children, but it’s more fun if it’s a neighborhood event.

As children get older, they may participate in community clean up efforts through their schools or other organizations by creating an event with the parent-teacher organization (PTO), working with a local church, or various youth groups. Older children can clear hiking trails of debris, pull weeds in common areas, or pick up curbside trash. Working in the community will help older children gain pride in their city or town.


dad and son

Outdoor activity clubs may have more focused cleanup efforts. For example, a crewing club may focus on cleaning trash and litter from the river. Hiking clubs may focus on cleaning up along their favorite trails and creeks. Camping groups may want to ensure their sites are free from debris with clear fire pits and tent sites.

Removing trash and litter from our national and state parks and forests benefit all of us. When enjoying these outdoor areas, make sure children understand how to minimize any damage their activities may cause on the environment and ensure they carry out all trash for proper disposal.

For more information on National Clean-Up Day or to sign up for a local event, visit nationalcleanupday.org.