Headstart for Life

Understanding Self- regulation: Why can’t my child seem to control himself?

More than once, I have heard parents give this kind of feedback about their child’s behaviours, “He knows he should not do that, but still, he will do it again and again,”. This is an example where a child is able to understand what he can do and also what he should not do. However, he cannot control himself and still performs the inappropriate behaviour which causes discomfort to the people around him.

This article is meant to decode the components of self-regulation in order to understand where a child is coming from in a particular circumstance. There are three critical components when we are discussing self-regulation: sensory processing, executive functioning, and emotional regulation.

From literature review, there are many names for “self-regulation”. We might have heard some of these terms which include “self-control”, “self-management”, “anger control” or “impulse control”. All these terms describe the ability of an individual to adjust their alertness level and the way they display the emotion through their behaviors. That is to say, self-regulation is the ability to do what needs to be done in the optimal state for the given situation. For instance, given a stressful situation, a person with good self-regulation will be able to control himself and remain calm to cope with the event.

Sensory processing

When we discuss controlling our emotion or impulses, we can start from our heads on the information from the environment. When all the information come in, our sensory receptors will make sense of all the input, these include visual, hearing, touch, smell, taste, movement and body awareness. For example, in a classroom, a child will experience receiving all the sensory input altogether, while a teacher is teaching (visual), and explaining the notes on the board (hearing).

We need to organise and integrate all the information so that we can respond to the information meaningfully, and thus behave in a socially appropriate way. Once we determine a necessary action, our body will be organised and thus to respond intentionally. This will mean, if we saw a child who has difficulty controlling his own behaviour and fails to meet the demand of the environment, we can start to suspect whether he does have a problem in processing his sensory input, in which modulating the sensory information becomes a tough job for him.




http://www.tilrc.org/assests/news/0814news/0814bene26.html Executive functioning is like a control centre in our brain

Executive functioning

Secondly, executive functioning is another crucial element for self-regulation. This indicates the ability to consciously control our thoughts and actions in our cognitive process. It is a control center in our brain that oversees actions and mental operations. These mental operations include attention shifting (attending to two or more activities concurrently), working memory (updating new information to our brain), flexible thinking (considering available options), planning (organising actions), and inhibition (impulse control). All of these cognitive processes work together so that an individual is well equipped with problem-solving skills to overcome challenges. If someone has an issue in any of the processes, the executive function will be affected, and that will lead to a problem in regulating oneself.


Emotional regulation

As the name itself, emotional regulation means the ability to control one’s emotions. It is responsible for controlling our emotional reactions in order to meet our goal. Emotions are automatically triggered in response to our environment. Having said that, we have some cognitive elements, for example, having objectivity, motivation and understanding other’s perspective are used in regulating our emotion, thus regulating our behaviors. One who is struggling with these skills needs more effort in regulating their emotion. If we notice children who have an issue in this area, it is worth considering to implementing the concept of having objectivity, motivation and understanding other’s perspective while teaching them.



After getting more awareness about this topic, I realise that sometimes we take for granted some of the things that work or are correct and conversely, highlight too heavily on the things that went wrong.

In fact, as you go through this article, you may begin to realise that there are many components that regulate a person’s behaviour to meet the social goal. So if you ever meet someone who has a problem in self-regulation, you may be able to relate the problem to these components and start figuring out the underlying concerns are in order to address and improve the behaviour accordingly.


  • Kuypers, L.M., (2011). The Zone of Regulation. Think Social Publishing Inc.
"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Freya

Freya has been working with children with special needs for four years and has a strong interest in Social Skills Training. In her time with children, she believes that “Understanding the child’s ability is the key”. She is grateful for the opportunities to grow and learn together with all the children she has met and also to be their companion.

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