Infants are born with amazing competencies including the ability to connect with their caregivers and to learn from the socio-cultural and environmental contexts they are born into. What infants are not born with is the ability to independently self-regulate. Self-regulation is “the ability to monitor and manage one’s thinking, attention, feelings, and behaviour” (Thompson, 2009,p.33) in response to a range of social, emotional, physical, auditory, visual or other environmental factors. Put another way, self- regulation refers to how efficiently and effectively an individual deals with a stressor and then recovers. “ To deal with a stressor, the brain triggers a sort of gas pedal, the sympathetic nervous system, to produce the energy needed; and then applies a sort of brake, the parasympathetic nervous system, in order to recover. In this way the brain regulates the amount of energy that the child expends on stress so that resources are freed up for other bodily functions, like digestion, cellular repair, maintaining a stable body temperature, or paying attention and learning” (Shanker, 2013, p.2).
At birth infants have some basic self-regulation abilities to help them respond to sensory information and stressors - shifting their attention or looking away when they feel overwhelmed ,self-soothing by sucking on their fingers, a pacifier or a breast to help reduce distress or shutting down. These are helpful strategies in the short term, but in the long-term infants don’t have the capacity to change their experience independently. Infants need more capable others to help them with their regulatory needs including feeding, temperature control and managing environmental stimuli. “They need adults who are sensitive to their cues, responsive to their needs, and able to provide a soothing presence in times of distress.” (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017, p.4).
Co-regulation is the term used to describe the ways in which adults can provide support, coaching and modelling for infants, toddlers and young children as they develop the ability to self-regulate. Co-regulating requires adults to pay close attention to the cues children send, and to respond consistently and sensitively with just the right amount of support (Gillespie, 2015). Adults also need to manage environmental stressors (eg excessive noise, bright lights, temperature) and provide consistent, predictable routines and expectations to support the child to self-regulate (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017). Essentially the adult is able to use their own more highly developed brain and ability to self-regulate to offer the young child what they need to either up regulate or down regulate their autonomic nervous system back into a balanced, calm and alert state
Although Magda Gerber’s teachings (Gerber & Weaver, 2002) did not explicitly use the terms self-regulation or co- regulation, the principles and practices within the Educaring® Approach provide guidance for adults in how they can co-regulate and support children’s developing capacity to self-regulate. In particular adults can:
•Trust in the child’s competence – recognising when and how much support individual children require.
•Observe sensitively – to understand the child’s communications and needs.
•Involve the child in caregiving times – create opportunities for children to be active participants in their own care. During care moments focus on interaction, cooperation, intimacy and mutual enjoyment by being fully present to the child.
• Create a safe, challenging, predictable environment – to support children’s feeling of trust and security but with opportunities for children to experience challenges and develop resilience.
•Provide time for uninterrupted play and freedom to explore – by appreciating and observing the child’s self- motivated play and exploration adults can offer support and coaching for problem solving if needed.
•Be consistent – establish clearly defined limits and support children to develop awareness of the perspectives of others as well as awareness and acceptance of their own feelings. Children need the adult’s in their lives to offer a calm, stabilizing presence so that the child can also achieve a balanced and calm state.
Of course, in order to be able to co-regulate effectively with children, adults must also be able to self-regulate. Young children are incredibly sensitive to the emotions and behaviours of adults. As Magda said “ What [adults] teach is themselves, as models of what is human – by their moods, their reactions, their facial expressions and actions. These are the real things [adults] need to be aware of, and of how they affect their children” (Gerber & Weaver, 2002, p.14). If adults are feeling stressed, they may find it more difficult to calm a child and may actually increase the child’s dysregulation making it even harder to soothe them (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017). Magda was a great advocate for caregivers respecting their own needs and being able to balance their own needs with the needs of the children they care for (Gerber & Weaver, 2002). Rosanbalm and Murray (2017) have identified that caregivers who focus on improving their own coping and calm-down skills build their own self-regulation, provide a more calming influence to children in their care, and are better able to teach these same skills to children as they grow.
The ability to self-regulate and co-regulate are closely intertwined for young children and their caregivers. If caregivers are able to effectively self-regulate then they will more effectively co-regulate with young children. Responding to children from a place of stability and calm demonstrates respect for them as competent, authentic human beings and supports their developing self- awareness and ability to manage their own thinking, attention, feelings and behaviour in healthy and positive ways. It takes two.
Gerber, M. & Weaver, J. (2002). Dear parent: Caring for infants with respect. Los Angeles, CA: Resources for Infant Educarers.
Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). Promoting Self- Regulation in Early Childhood: A Practice Brief. OPRE Brief #2017-79. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services.
Shanker, S. (2013). Calm, alert and happy. Retrieved 20 August 2019 from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/childcare/shanker.pdf
Thompson, R. (2009). Doing what doesn’t come naturally. Zero to Three, November 2009, 33-39.
Justine is a NZITC Board member and a Professional Teaching Fellow at the University of Auckland. She completed the RIE® FoundationsTM course in 2012 with Polly Elam