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What is Self-regulation and Co-regulation?

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Self-regulation is the process in which a person manages own psychological and physiological states and actions. It is the ability to understand and manage the reactions to feelings or emotions such as frustrations, excitement, anger, and things happening around. Self-regulation is a process that requires self-awareness and monitoring of individual emotional state and response to stimuli. On the other hand, Co-regulation is the warm and responsive interactions that provide support, coaching, and modelling to children with an aim to make them understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.

Self-regulation and Co-regulation

Regulation involves regulating our level of arousal in terms of how calm or excited we are. It is a process manifested in two ways, outwardly or inwardly. Outwardly, expressed as feelings or emotions (calm, angry, or concerned) and inwardly expressed as the physiological or bodily response (faster heartbeats or tense muscles, or shallower breath).

The ability to regulate our arousal level begins to develop as an infant and it provides the foundation that later allows us to self-regulate to information in our environment depending on what is useful and what is not. Self-control is a core competence that enables the ability to form relationships with others.

An infant has a limited capacity to self-regulate, for instance, an infant can be overwhelmed by the external environment and as a result, may simply fall asleep. Alternatively, when the infant has an unfamiliar or uncomfortable feeling, whether hunger or other discomforts, the infant will cry signalling that something is wrong. In such a circumstance, if the parent/caregiver picks up the infant and makes eye contact or soothes them, then the infant begins to calm down. This is referred to as co-regulation.

Co-regulation is a form of coordinated action between participants that involves the continuous mutual adjustment of actions and intentions. It is not a one-way process but involves exchanges with each participant adjusting their responses based on the response of the other.

Self-regulation is influenced by external factors such as the environment and interaction with others or internal factors such as temperament while co-regulation involves tuning responses towards a common purpose for instance finding ways to resolve upsets from stress to return to balance.



Self-regulation and Emotional Regulation

The ability to regulate emotions in social and non-social contexts enables an individual to deal well with stressful events. An individual can focus attention on positive aspects of the situation or on ways to cope or decrease the negative emotion. It was assumed that children have little capacity to self-regulate but researchers have identifies early indicators of unsophisticated self-regulation or precursors of efforts to control and evidence that self-regulation processes continue to develop through adolescence.

Self-regulation and cognitive processes

Self-regulation is essential to human function based on the capacity to maintain control over behaviour and function. The process depends on a range of dissociable processes including attention, decision-making, volition, and the inhibition of unwanted impulses. Self-regulation has been associated with better performance on cognitive tasks and vocational and academic success. 

Cognitive self-regulation is the development of a set of constructive behaviours that affect the use of cognitive abilities to integrate learning processes. The processes are planned and adapted to support the pursuit of personal goals in the dynamic environment. Mental strategies are controlled for better cognitive performance. Cognitive self-regulation involves personal initiative, perseverance, and adaptive skills and cognitive functions allow humans to perform everyday life activities in the spheres of personal, social, and occupational activities. Cognitive abilities include the ability to attend to things in a selective and focused way, the ability to concentrate over some time, to learn new skills and information, the ability to determine a course of action and how to execute plans, and the ability to comprehend, communicate verbally, and to self-express and the ability to gain information and manipulate it to solve complex issues.

Understanding the importance of co-regulation between parent and child

Parent-child co-regulation is the process through which parents and their children regulate each other in a goal-oriented behavior and expressed affect. There are two co-regulation patterns namely dyadic contingency and dyadic flexibility. The patterns are particularly beneficial in early childhood although their roles in the typical development of self-regulation are not clear. Caregivers and teachers expect children to manage their emotions and behavior by their bids. Self-regulatory components such as temperament-based effortful control, inhibitory control, emotion regulation, and behavioral regulation are positively associated with major markers of successful development such as school readiness and improved socioemotional functioning. Parent-child co-regulation supports self-regulation in early childhood due to the moment-to-moment coordination of goal-oriented behaviors and expressed affect between parent and child. Parents establish behavioral and affective patterns with their children and the process provides external regulation for children who cannot regulate themselves.

How to target self-regulation to promote healthy behaviour in children

Poor self-regulation contributes to unhealthy behaviors across the lifespan. Enhancing self-regulation from an early age may increase positive health outcomes. For example, obesity is associated with self-regulation, hence the need for self-regulation and healthy behavior in eating and exercise habits. Childhood obesity is a major public health concern and once established it becomes difficult to treat and tracks into adulthood. The moment one is obese the greater the risk for obesity-related comorbidities such as coronary heart disease, diabetes type II, or hypertension. The prevention and treatment programs focus on diet and physical activity in children and youth, however, it has limited efficacy due to limited attention to basic mechanisms of health behavior change, especially self-regulation processes that shape how the promoted health behaviors are adapted.

How to improve self-regulation

  • Improving cognitive capacity through modeling, instructions, providing an opportunity for practice
  • Focusing on long-term outcomes
  • Motivation towards a goal
  • Emotion regulation; encouraging them to engage even if there are obstacles
  • Establishing a favorable environment to enable the child to form a long-term and trusting relationship with the teacher or caregiver
  • Responsive, consistent, and nurturing care to develop trust and comfort
  • Critical thinking to create an enabling environment where children feel safe