Preschoolers’ Self-Regulation and Challenging Behaviors: What We Must Know

Reflect for a moment: Do we expect infants to control their behavior on their own? If they cry, flail their arms and legs, is this misbehavior?

Source: istock/CareyHope

No, we see these behaviors as cues to caregivers that the child needs help regulating. And we respond by soothing the child (picking them up and using a calm voice) or we engage the child in a positive interaction/activity (game of peek-a-boo, etc.).

Yet, sometimes we assume 4-5 year olds will automatically regulate– without any adult support!

(Aside: Would we ever expect this with literacy learning? “They’ll just learn to read on their own…”)

The Problem (or Solution) of Self-Regulation

In last month’s blog, we introduced you to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP), which expands the measurement of school readiness skills to include self-regulation.

Some people responded with questions about what we mean by “self-regulation” – it’s not something most educators learned about in school. But it is something that you deal with every day. More often you hear about the flip side of self-regulation – challenging behaviors like disruptive behavior, non-compliance, and aggression.

Often we think about “how we can decrease these challenging behaviors?” – but it’s helpful to flip the question to: “how we can promote positive self-regulatory skills?”!

3 Things Administrators and Educators Need to Know about Self-Regulation

#1) Self-regulation can be taught and supported as a proactive way to address behaviors. Behavior regulation, a key aspect of children’s self-regulation, involves children learning to STOP certain behaviors and START an appropriate behavior (based on the expectations of adults and peers in a particular activity/setting). Children 4-5 years old naturally display a wide range of behavior regulation skills but all children can make progress with the right strategies. (We’ll introduce some key strategy resources to you at the end of the blog!)

#2) The same child can be highly regulated or highly dysregulated depending on the context (including adults’ expectations and supports.)

#3) The lens we use to observe self-regulation behaviors in context is critical. If we miss the context (what happens before-and-after) moments of dysregulation we end up missing teaching opportunities—and we may react to behaviors in less helpful ways.

To see point #3 in action, let’s take a quick look at a 4-year-old child (the girl in the orange vest) who is developing her behavior regulation.

Video [0:10]

source: UVA-CASTL: ECI

What are your initial observations? How do you interpret her behavior: is she being “aggressive”? “Having difficulty controlling her anger”?

That’s a common first take.

Now watch again, this time with some more context—what happened before and after?

Video [0:22]

source: UVA-CASTL: ECI

Typically observers see the behavior differently this time, once they notice the context. Although the child clearly intruded on her peer’s space in an unwanted manner, it wasn’t intentionally “aggressive” or driven by “anger.” They agreed to ‘play fight’ with the horses (“Let’s see who wins!”). This girl is having a hard time regulating her behavior during the play. She isn’t aware that her level of ‘pretend fighting’ with the horse isn’t appropriate for the setting. She misses several cues from her peer that the play is too rough (grimacing, turning away).

What did it take for her to become regulated? Her teacher providing the cue that she needed to stop and play more gently (“Lilly, that’s too rough”).

The Take-Aways

Some of the misbehavior we see in early childhood classrooms is just a normal part of young children learning about behavior— what’s appropriate, when, with whom?

Now, this doesn’t mean that misbehavior should just be accepted!

Nor does it mean that all misbehavior should be punished.

Remember: punishment won’t serve to teach a skill or replacement behavior! (In fact, frequent reactive punishment can exacerbate negative cycles with children—especially when that child is viewed as a “problem child” or labeled “aggressive.”)


Instead, behavior difficulties can be seen as opportunities to teach and support children to self-regulate.

Here’s an example of how a teacher is proactively teaching children as a class to regulate their behaviors (“use calm bodies and voices” to greet one another) in morning circle time.

Video [1:07]


What Can I Do?

#1 Ensure that children showing challenging behaviors are observed in context—When is the behavior happening? What happened before and after?—so that needs for teaching and supporting regulation skills can be assessed (and then re-assessed over time to ensure response to interventions).

#2 In addition to individual child observations, it’s important to understand ALL children’s regulation needs and look for opportunities to teach and support regulation class-wide. Looking at classroom level self-regulation data, ask: What are the trends in data to suggest the need for class-wide strategies versus (or in addition to) more intensive individual supports to one or two children? It’s easy to focus in on one child when many/most young children could benefit from regulation teaching and supports!

#3 Share strategy resources to teach and support self-regulation, as outlined in this helpful Self-Regulation resource from the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program.

On page 4 are links to free guides to implement 6 evidence-based strategies to promote children’s self-regulation, including these three—which we pulled out to get you started:

  1. Playing Games
  2. Using Cues and Visuals
  3. Modifying Activities & Environments

We’ll return to the complex challenge of challenging behaviors (it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach!), but we think looking at challenging behavior with a regulation-in-context lens is a critical first step.


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