This is a transcript from a parent night given virtually, through Zoom, last night. We had great attendance from our parent community. If you'd like a transcript that includes the community building activities, group discussion questions, beginning ice breaker games, feel free to email me.
Parenting for Self Regulation
A famous test was conducted in the psychology department at Stanford in the 70’s. They gathered a bunch of 4 year olds and put them in a room one at a time and gave them one marshmallow and would say “I’m going to leave the room now, and if when I come back you haven’t eaten the marshmallow, I will give you a second marshmallow.”
Two out of 3 children would invariably eat the marshmallow. Most of them right away. But one out of the 3 would not. They would use all kinds of strategies to keep themselves from eating it: singing to themselves, looking away, covering their eyes, smelling it, one child even rested her head on the table and fell asleep.
The experimenters at Stanford observed these children and followed them for the next fourteen years. At the end of the study they found that 100% of the children who had not eaten the marshmallow had good grades, were happy, had good relationships with friends, and were considered generally “successful”.
Sure, there are some flaws with the marshmallow test. It cannot really predict what level of “success” your child will have when they are older. It only seems to work when children trust the adult’s promises, and what about children who don’t like marshmallows? More importantly, it has been proven that brains change and are flexible for longer than science believed possible.
It is a fun experiment though that gives us a glimpse into just one of the aspects that make up Self Regulation.
Self regulation is a whole set of skills that has to do with control in the brain (for example when you can positive talk yourself into succeeding through a difficult situation), control of feelings (like being able to calm yourself down when you get angry), and control of actions (like being able to delay gratification for a bigger reward- like the marshmallow test).
Sharing, listening, waiting for a turn, managing your emotions, problem solving, are all skills that require self regulation.
There are some aspects of it that are genetically determined at birth, but it is very teachable as well. It develops differently in every child, just like rate of growth, or like learning to read. It is a developing skill in children, and the ages of 3-6 are particularly good times to lay the foundations for this important skill.
Parents at our school receive a weekly photo album of children at work and play, and they must wonder, “Why is my child so exhausted by the end of school when all they do is play and eat snack and play outside?” Others may ask their child what they did that day and their child might respond “Nothing, I played.” or “I had lunch", further baffling them. The children are not aware that they are busy all day at school exercising the skills of self regulation that are built into so much of what we do.
Let’s have a look at some of the moments in our first 6 weeks at school of children practicing self regulation:
I had a realization when I was putting together this presentation that self regulation is very similar to “mindfulness”. It is basically being mindful of yourself and others so that you can control the impact you have on the world around you. It has to do with awareness, accountability, and with respect. Respecting yourself, respect of other living beings and of your environment.
It has to do with self discipline too. The skills we are hoping the children will develop come directly from the child, not from fear of the adults or from fear of punishment, but from a place of love for themselves, others and their environment. Self regulation doesn’t diminish the child, it is the child rising to a standard of love for the common good.
In order to be able to learn socially, emotionally, and academically, we have to be able to exert some control over ourselves. To enjoy life and solve problems and have good relationships we have to be able to regulate ourselves. Learning to self regulate is the hidden backbone of much of what the children are learning at school. Even though it may not be explicitly written in the curriculum, if there’s any valuable skill you want your child to learn, it’s this one!
The home environment is the most important environment in your child’s life, and the place where they do all their primary learning. Their relationship with their parents is their most instructive model of how to be in this world. In order to foster self regulation in children at home, you can consider some of the following suggestions:
*Make sure their basic needs are met. No learning is possible is the children are tired, hungry and stressed out. On the same token, no teaching is possible if you yourself are tired hungry and stressed out.
*Remember this is a skill in development. Children are not meant to be perfect at it yet. They need your help to coach them and to understand where they are in their development. Having realistic expectations will help you temper your own response to your children’s behavior.
It is a skill in development.
*Structured environments go a long way in supporting the development of self regulation. Predictable routines at home, especially bedtime, mealtime, and after school routines help children understand the pattern of their day and be able to anticipate what’s coming ahead.
Clear rules and boundaries that are established together as a family also help a child with self regulation. Understanding why certain rules are in place and how their actions affect others, is the foundation for good citizenship. Natural and logical consequences are helpful in learning about accountability and responsibility.
*Acknowledging children’s feeling, talking about feelings, and being comfortable with their whole range of emotions can help them regulate themselves as well. Understanding that all feelings are accepted, but not all behaviors is a good distinction to make here as well. (see part about rules and boundaries).
*Coaching children by preparing them for difficult situations, practicing different skills, role playing, and brainstorming solutions to problems together not only build the skills for success in children, but also help them develop a growth mindset mentality. I can get better at something by practicing. Self regulation is a teachable skill.
*You cannot help your child or make good parenting choices if you yourself are overly stressed. Developing a strong partnership to raise your children, cultivating a support group around you that can step in when you need help, and recognizing when you need some time out for yourself are key elements in modeling self regulation for your child. It is demonstrated that parents who focus on improving their own coping and calming down skills build their own self regulation and provide a more calming influence on the children in their care.
What can we learn from the children?
In Montessori we strongly believe there is as much for us to learn from the children as they have to learn from us. I found this lovely piece written a researcher/parent Dr. Ashley Soderlund in her blog "Nurture and Thrive":
"I loved it when I would return to the room as a researcher in those delay of gratification studies and the kids who had waited would stuff both marshmallows in their mouth as happy as could be, no restraint at all. They waited until I came back and then they reveled in the fact of being able to enjoy those marshmallows. At a young age, they had learned how to really savor, enjoy, and also when to let go.
In other cases, kids would do a good job waiting, but when I came back in the room they were overcontrolled and anxious. Those kids could hardly enjoy the marshmallow. So, it isn’t just about waiting or controlling, it’s about being flexible in that control.
Having the control so you can choose when to use it, and when to let go.
Ultimately, we want our children to have the ability to control impulses when needed and to be able to let loose when they can."
We’ve created a “Parenting for Self Regulation Checklist” so that you can see what areas of your parenting you might want to strengthen. Once you fill it out, it may clarify what skills you can work on at home and also help you recognize in which areas you are already doing well.
I encourage you to begin even with small steps. We can do this!