Self-management in childhood
In their early years, children are just beginning to learn about emotions and feelings, and how to manage them. From time to time, most young children display behaviours such as aggression, emotional outbursts and inattention. Gradually, children learn what situations are likely to upset them and how they can handle emotions better when these situations arise. This learning continues into adolescence. Children and young people learn to manage their emotions for themselves through their experiences with warm, responsive and trusting adults. Check out our Child development Fact Sheet.
Individuals are unique
Children vary in the way they perceive, respond and interact with the world around them. Some children have lots of energy while others are calm and quiet. Some children prefer variability and new experiences whereas others prefer regular routines. Moods also reflect the individual; some children are mostly positive whereas others are less so.
Children also vary in how they switch between moods, with some taking longer and needing more help than others to recover from being upset. In new situations, some children dive straight in while others tend to withdraw and observe from a distance to decide whether to join in. Concentration spans also vary with some children sticking at tasks for longer than others.
Children’s ‘feel good’ hormones (serotonin) are higher when they experience life in their own way and in their own time. Over-scheduled children can feel rushed from one thing to another, causing stress and tiredness. This can lead to tantrums, lack of cooperation or difficulty sleeping. Children with high levels of stress hormones and low levels of ‘feel good’ hormones may:
- engage in conflict or be hard to please
- lack motivation or feel sad or low
- have difficulty focusing
- be unresponsive or find it hard to express themselves
- run away when upset or act defensively
- be worried, wary or watchful
- act silly or be hyperactive
- appear tired or have trouble sleeping.
High levels of stress hormones (cortisol) lessen the child’s ability to concentrate, manage conflict, problem-solve and try new things. Children who’ve experienced higher levels of stress in their preschool and primary years show more aggression and anxiety and are not as socially competent than those who’ve experienced less stress. The good news is it’s never too late for children to learn about developing their coping skills and building resilience.
Self-management in adolescence
In secondary school, young people experience more complex situations and relationships. They still need support in understanding and managing their feelings.
By adolescence, the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour) is well developed. However, the brain’s pre-frontal cortex (responsible for our ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses) doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their mid-20s. As a result, young people’s brains typically rely on the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems, particularly in emotionally charged situations.
For this reason, adolescents are more likely to:
- act on impulse
- misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
- engage in dangerous or risky behaviour.
You can help young people to develop their planning, thinking and problem-solving skills through both planned activities and everyday interactions. Support young people to:
- find creative and expressive outlets for their feelings (for example, sport, music and writing)
- explore the immediate and long-term consequences of actions
- develop empathy by talking about emotions and understanding how people will have different reactions to events depending on their circumstances
- develop problem-solving and decision-making skills by following a process (defining the problem, working through options and considering outcomes).
You can also encourage self-management by role-modelling how you manage your own feelings, and by talking directly about strategies to manage strong or uncomfortable emotions.
How to help children and young people develop self-management skills
To have a positive self-image and healthy relationships with others, children and young people need repeated experiences of having their needs met by a responsive and caring adult. Warm, trusting and responsive care towards children helps them respond with appropriate emotions, internalise a positive view of themselves and others, and learn appropriate behaviour. Children and young people also develop self-management skills by watching and experiencing how other people manage their emotions – they then gradually learn how to do this for themselves.
Develop coping skills
You can support the self-management skills of children and young people in your classroom by explicitly teaching ways they can notice and manage their emotions. These might include:
- talking about problem-solving ways of managing upsetting situations (for example, having a calm thought or moving away)
- developing a strategy to use when they’re feeling out of control (for example, having a ‘calm thought or picture’, taking time out by having a family member read them a calming story, or talking with someone about how they feel)
- expressing their emotions in productive ways (for example, by drawing or acting out their feelings with toys or stage props)
- helping children slow down their breathing (for example, by blowing bubbles or pretending to blow out birthday candles) and encouraging them to take deep breaths
- practising mindful breathing with older children and young people.
Talk about emotions
You can also help children and young people develop self-management skills by acknowledging and responding to their emotional communication. Do this by:
- showing appropriate levels of emotion in your interactions with children and young people
- understanding the child or young person’s behaviour and how they communicate their emotions
- helping them express their emotions in productive ways (such as drawing, acting or through music)
- trying to see things from the child or young person’s perspective and understanding their motives. This helps you to ward off any potential problems and respond quickly and appropriately when challenges do arise.
Promote a calm environment
It’s important to recognise how the environment of your early learning setting or school contributes to children and young people’s self-management. Promote a calm, welcoming and encouraging environment by:
- speaking in a soft to normal volume, using a normal to low pitch and a slow, even tempo
- providing structure and predictability
- establishing age-appropriate routines and limits
- avoiding competitive experiences for young children (for example, by having enough of the same toy available for several children or playing more cooperative games)
- including relaxation breaks in the day (for example, stretching, aerobic exercise or quiet time)
- encouraging children to imagine they’re a floppy rag doll and to give themselves a shake (this helps release tension they might be holding in their body)
- helping children to imagine and pretend they’re a favourite animal taking a nap (this encourages them to close their eyes and relax).
Consider how you manage your emotions
It’s important for you to be aware of how your interactions with children and young people affect their self-management skills. Increased self-awareness allows you to maximise your positive interactions with children and young people and support their mental health and wellbeing.
Knowing how to manage your own emotions is crucial. By demonstrating calmness and staying in control of your own feelings and behaviours, you’re providing a positive blueprint for children and young people to learn from. Understanding and managing your own emotions will help you be relaxed and calm for those in your care.
Learning to recognise when a child or young person ‘pushes your buttons’, and developing ways to manage these situations, will minimise stress and enable positive experiences for everyone.
Cooper, P.M. (2007). Teaching young children self-regulation through children’s books. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34, 315-322.
Kochanska, G., Coy, K.C., & Murray, K.T. (2001). The development of self-regulation in the first four years of life. Child Development, 72, 1091-1111.
Post, Y., Boyer, W., & Brett, L. (2006). A historical examination of self-regulation: Helping children now and in the future. Early Child Education Journal, 34, 5-14.
Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 13-39).
Helping children and young people manage their emotions is important for fostering positive mental health and wellbeing.