Self-Regulation in the Early Years


Self-regulation refers to how effectively and efficiently one deals with stress and then recovers. Current thinking about the development of self-regulation in the early years has been largely informed by the work that Stanley Greenspan and Steve Porges did back in the 1990s, studying infants whose recovery mechanism was compromised because of biological and/or social challenges. These were infants who were highly sensitive to external stimuli (e.g. temperature, noise, visual stimulation, odour); or infants experiencing problems in attachment. They found that unless actions were taken to reduce the infants’ stress-load, significant changes were observed in the child’s ongoing reactivity to stress, profoundly affecting educational outcome, and indeed, long-term mental and physical wellbeing. But what sort of actions?

Perhaps the most important lesson learned was that each child is different, and indeed, changing all the time. So it is only by carefully observing a child’s reactions to different kinds of physical and/or social stimuli and adjusting one’s actions accordingly that one learns what the child finds stressful or soothing. This reduces arousal and turns off a “kindled alarm,” thereby reducing stress-load and boosting recovery. The effect can be observed in number of vital health and behavioural measures: for example, resting heart-rate, weight gain, growth, sleep, irritability, attention.

We now know that focusing on self-regulation is critical for all infants. We need to recognize the signs of mounting stress in an infant, reduce the stressors, and adjust soothing practices to suit each child’s preferences. The overall principle operating here is that the child has to feel safe and secure. It is imperative to bear this fundamental need in mind when considering something like the use of digital technologies to “stimulate” a child. Here too one must observe whether the activity is indeed stimulating or is stressful for the child.

To hear more about self-regulation and learning, listen to The Learning Partnership’s podcast with Dr. Stuart Shanker.


Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and the CEO of the MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. ( He is a leader in self-regulation research and has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker is also the author of Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation.



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