Self-regulation is an often overlooked, yet quite teachable, tool we can provide the littles in our lives. In all honestly, I feel like it’s only been my adulthood exposure to yoga that has really helped me develop the ability to calm myself down, think through my emotions and ultimately form a reasonable reaction to the perceived injustices in my life.
Let’s begin with a clear definition of self-regulation. Wikipedia defines emotional self-regulation as “the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed.” Think about all that is thrown at us on a daily basis, and then think about being a kid and not having a fully developed emotional skill set to regulate all the inputs. Mind blown! You can begin to see why there are tantrums, and fights, and crying, and hair pulling, and attitudes. I’m describing most of the behaviors I’ve observed in my own kids this week, and it’s only Tuesday.
The purpose of self-regulation is to allow for our successful social movement through the world. We have to learn the skill of self-regulation in order to get along with others, show up for a job, establish and maintain a family unit, live in a neighborhood, not go to jail, etc. If we give up on the development of the skill set, we are quite possibly giving up a life of success.
Angela Wilson, a writer, researcher and teacher of the science of yoga states this about how yoga assists in self-regulation: “Yoga provides both “top-down” tools (that is, tools that impact the mind) as well as “bottom-up tools” (tools that impact the body), and it is this synergistic effect, unique to yoga, which creates the most impact.” (Yoga as a Tool for Self-Regulation; kripalu.org)
This means that when we work with children in our yoga classes, it is incredibly important to incorporate breathing instruction, explanations and examples of meditation, savasana, and traditional yogic philosophy. All this in addition to the core pose work, which allows for the idea of “change the body, change the mind” to take hold. And of course, we need to explain why these pieces and parts help us self-regulate: when we stop ourselves from reacting, we give ourselves a chance to choose a better response.
It appears that the lack of self-regulation can be both personality-driven and environment-driven. In other words, the kiddos with apparent problems in developing the skill set are having trouble either because they are prone to it, or because they’ve been exposed to a poor role model. And this is where it gets interesting from a teaching perspective. Instead of approaching kids with poor self-regulation skills as “bad kids”, we need to embrace the teaching opportunity and realize that it is really the result of nothing more than the lack of practice. It’s highly recommended by the experts in the field that parents, teachers and caregivers provide a framework of support and practice time in order for our kiddos to learn the skill of self-regulation.
I recently came across this quote and it nearly blew my mind: “the whole of virtue consists in its practice”. It’s attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero. It feels like it fits with this discussion, even though it’s speaking about the behavior of virtue. Change the word from virtue to self-regulation. Or to anything you are attempting to master really, because it’s truth. We MUST practice so that the desired behavior/skill/ability becomes second nature.
Let’s end with some very specific ideas for our yoga classes!
Breathing of course is the main one! Yoga class should include a decent discussion of breathing and the opportunity to practice deep belly breaths as well as shallow bunny breaths. I always explain to students that focusing on deep breaths is the fastest way we can calm ourselves down naturally.
Meditation is a huge tool for self-regulation. Pick a mantra that they can move across their fingers easily: “I am in control”, “I need my space”, “I am calm now”. Emphasize the importance of repetition.
Introduce any calm down tools you may have, like sensory jars, or coloring mandalas, or play dough, or a Rubik’s cube, or bubbles, or puzzles. Google it! In fact, a calm down kit in every home and classroom would be a great idea (and yoga teacher’s bag).
Games are so helpful as well, like Simon Says (or Yogi Says!), Musical Chairs, Freeze Dance, Duck Duck Goose, Jenga, and many more.
Read books about self-regulation: My Magic Breath by Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor, A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood, Nanette’s Baguette and Waiting is Not Easy by Mo Willems, and The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach. (For more ideas, click here)
Use circle time to connect with your students and what kind of day they are having. What are their frustrations? Do they want to learn anything specific in yoga class? Do they need help calming down in a particular situation? Is there any better way to know how to help than by asking a question?
I am exponentially more skilled in self-regulation because of my exposure to yoga, than before yoga. And I’m grateful that it came at a time when I am parenting three littles. We talk about the ideas above all the time. And in my own personal experience: breath work is number one. I also encourage you to think about how you self-regulate and how that could be translated to a young mind. For example, if you are someone who immediately stretches when you feel angst or tension, then teach that as a tool! It’s easy to teach what we ourselves are practicing daily.