Self-regulation in the classroom

Self-regulation is our ability to monitor, adjust and maintain our emotions, attention, thoughts and behaviour in response to the things happening around us(1). Essentially, it is our ability to stop, think and then act(2). In the classroom, this important skill is pivotal for students to develop and achieve their academic goals as well as to engage and interact appropriately with their environment, peers and teachers(1). Self-regulation allows students to sustain attention and motivation during lessons, switch focus between tasks and follow instructions(2). It helps children take turns with others, resist big emotional reactions and calm themselves down if something upsetting or frustrating occurs, or adjust to unexpected changes in situation(2,3). Conversely, difficulties with self-regulation can lead to ineffective study practices and behavioural challenges(1,4). Self-regulation can be particularly tricky for some children with a disability, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder or learning disabilities(4).

Like any skill, self-regulation needs to be taught, practiced and refined(2). There are many strategies that can be incorporated into classroom routines to help students learn and practice self-regulation:

  • Model and practice self-regulation skills: Scaffold and model appropriate and desired responses. Talk out loud to model regulation of your own feelings, thoughts and actions(2,4). Emotion charts can help children identify and verbalise how they are feeling and facilitate follow-up conversations. Provide supportive feedback, including positive alternatives such as different ways of asking things or responding to situations(2). Visual cues, classroom schedules and social stories can help children anticipate and prepare for transitions over the school day and understand expected behaviours(2,4).
  • Set up the classroom environment to support self-regulation: Reflect on current classroom set-up and how it might be modified to encourage self-regulation. For example, dimming the lights or playing calming music can help set the tone for or mark transition to quieter activities. Consider how student work displayed on classroom walls can be arranged in a visually calming manner to improve self-regulation and reduce distractions(4). Have a quiet corner for children who need a break from the hustle and bustle of the classroom and teach them how to use the space effectively. Having a container of fidget toys or pieces of fabric with different textures within the classroom for children who need to fiddle with something whilst listening can improve focus.
  • Activity breaks: Regular movement breaks such as yoga and heavy work activities like animal walks can help children connect with their bodies and stay ready for learning. Games such as “Simon Says” or “Musical Statues” teach children to pause and think before reacting, as well as practice their listening skills(2).
  • Breathing Techniques: Child-friendly breathing techniques can have calming effects and help students bring their focus back within their bodies when they are feeling heightened. These can be done as a whole class when transitioning from an active task to a quieter one or in individual situations as needed(5). These can be practiced at home as well as at school.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques are being increasingly incorporated into classroom settings to help children be present in the moment regarding their thoughts, emotions, body sensations and surrounding environment(6). Like breathing techniques, these can be practiced in many settings.

1. Germeroth, C & Day-Hess, C 2013, Self-regulated Learning for Academic Success: How Do I Help Students Manage Their Thoughts, Behaviours and Emotions?, ASCD, Virginia, U.S.A.
2. McClelland, M & Tominey, S 2016, Stop, Think, Act: Integrating Self-Regulation in the Early Childhood Classroom, Routledge, New York, U.S.A.
3. Child Mind Institute, How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation?, Child Mind Institute, viewed 21/1/2020, <>.
4. deFur, S & Korinek, L 2016, ‘Supporting Student Self-Regulation to Access the General Education Curriculum’, TEACHING Exceptional Children, vol. 85, no. 5, pp. 232 – 242.
5. National Center For Families Learning (NCF) 2018, Promoting Self-Regulation in the Classroom, NCF, viewed 21/1/2020, <>.
6. Kinder, M 2017, Why Mindfulness Belongs in the Classroom, Mindful, viewed 21/1/2020, <>.


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