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How to Help Kids Regulate Themselves for Learning

Photo Credit:  Rafael Ben-Ari – New Zealand

In the last blogpost, I talked about how important it is to be able to regulate ourselves as parents (or teachers), because our children learn to self-regulate through interactions with parents/teachers/caregivers whose nervous systems are balanced. In this post, I’ll share how nervous system regulation affects learning. We often believe that if our children are sitting still, looking at us, or seem to be paying attention and listening, that they’ll be capable of learning. Not necessarily so.

Do Self-Regulation “Strategies” in School Work?

Before I knew much of the science behind self-regulation, I had been told that a primary goal of teachers who were using self-regulations strategies with kids was to get them sitting in their seats, focused, and ready to learn. While that seemed to me (on the surface) to be a worthy and beneficial goal, my experience with my son was that the strategies didn’t work that way. In fact, I began to totally question the value of trying to get kids to self-regulate when my son was in primary school. I noticed that while the teacher was using activities to get the students into their “optimal zone” for learning, my son (who was “sneak drawing” under his desk) was basically disconnected from the teacher and often disengaged in general. Something was amiss. It felt like the teacher (albeit with good and honourable intentions) was trying to co-opt all the students into following the agenda for the day, without necessarily connecting with them.[1] For my son, this meant that the self-regulation strategies were ineffective in helping him to engage in meaningful learning or to connect with the teacher.

I’ve since learned the kids must have a regulated nervous system to be capable of learning, not just regulated behaviour (e.g., sitting quietly in their seats). The science shows that if you want to help kids self-regulate, you must create an environment in which they feel safe, and in which they can form a connected and trusting relationship with the teacher. It’s not just about changing their behaviour.

Further, many kids with anxiety or difficulty focusing have had a past experience or experiences with stressful or traumatic events that leave them more prone to having difficulty regulating themselves. These events could be as common as:

  • having a parent who was unable to recognize or meet their emotional needs, or
  • having had an unavoidable hospitalization or separation from their parent (or primary caregiver).

They could also include exposure to physical or emotional violence in their homes.

Even if the past trauma is considered “mild”, the outcome is the same in the child’s nervous system. Any past experience that caused a child to become dysregulated in her nervous system, in which she didn’t have a caregiver or teacher to co-regulate[2] with, will result in her have difficulty learning to self-regulate in some situations. The child may display anxiety, have outbursts or aggressive behaviour, or be lacking in motivation, and often has difficulty focusing or learning. Here’s why.


What the Brain Needs to be Ready for Learning

Dr. Bruce Perry says that for learning to happen, we must attend to a child’s needs starting at the lowest (reptilian) level of the brain.[3] The lower level needs must be met in order for higher levels to function. This is how all mammals have evolved for survival—if anything is triggering the reptilian part of the brain, that “survival” activity overrides any other brain activity. Reflective, meaningful and lasting learning happens at the highest level of the brain (the cortical level). Cortical function is hampered when the lower levels are unregulated or poorly developed because of past stressors. When the brain’s lower level needs aren’t met, the child is more focused on survival, will automatically focus outward on the environment, and will be ready to be on the defensive if anything potentially threatening appears. This is automated and beyond her conscious control. The part of the brain that is used for being openly curious and engaged fully in learning can’t function well, if at all, when the reptilian brain is over- or under-activated.[4]


It may seem odd that your child could feel unsafe, when you know in your head that she issafe because she’s at home or in her classroom. But it’s not about whether or not the child actually IS safe; it’s about whether her nervous system is picking up signals from the environment that trigger past memories in the (subconscious) nervous system that are causing the child to be vigilant and on-guard without realizing it. When that happens, her sympathetic nervous system is likely to be activated, and her nervous system won’t be regulated at the level of the reptilian brain.


The Science Behind It

Dr. Bruce Perry’s model,[5] based on current neuroscience, says that we must attend to:

  • Regulation first, at the lowest level (reptilian) of the brain. Children need to feelsafe (it’s not enough to be told that they are safe, or to know in their heads that they aresafe). They need to be able to bring their nervous system back into balance before learning or connecting with others can take place. “Orienting” can help, and you can learn a few practices for that here.
  • Relationship second, at the mid-level. A child needs to be able to connect or attach to their parent/teacher in a trusting relationship, before learning can take place. Specific strategies for doing this include our tone of voice and how we interact with them. I’ll share more on this in the next blogpost.
  • Reason third, at the highest level. It’s here that conscious, intentional learning can take place when the lower levels have been attended to. We can engage our children or students in reflecting, remembering and expressing themselves. They can be fully present to participate because the brain’s lower level needs are met.

This is further supported by the scientific knowledge we now have about how memories are made.


How Memories Are Made

We often think that if we’ve told a child something once or twice—whether it’s to pick up her Lego, or how to spell a word—that she should be able to remember. Sometimes she can’t, and current science shows us one of the physiological reasons this can happen.

We tend to think of memory as being a sort of storage bank from which we can retrieve deposited information at will. Dr. Theresa Kestly (2014) explains that memory is actually a lot more complex. If a memory of being told to pick up your Lego is associated with feeling afraid because in the past, your parent or teacher was angry when telling you that, a future experience of being told to pick up your Lego may “trigger” that fearful response in your nervous system, even if the parent isn’t angry this time. That’s because when memories are formed, the neurons that were activated and firing together during the first experience tend to “wire together”. They then “fire together”[6] again in the future.[7] Knowing this makes it easy to understand why kids who are exposed to stressors have more difficulty learning—whether the stressor is a frequently angry parent, or a teacher who shames them or uses punitive language when they don’t or can’t perform as requested. When a fear response is triggered, the reptilian brain becomes activated and safety/survival becomes the priority; the cortex, where higher level learning takes place, doesn’t function very well in that moment. In fact, if the triggered fear response is severe, the child may even dissociate somewhat, meaning she loses some awareness of her body sensations and the environment around her.

When we understand this, it becomes easier to comprehend why even subtle shaming language, for children who aren’t able to sit still or behave in the required way, does more harm than good. The child may be compliant, but she may also learn to hate learning, hate school, and if she’s feeling angry about how she’s treated (which would be a healthy response to being shamed or punished), she’ll also associate that feeling of anger with the learning, the school and/or the parent/teacher involved. If she’s dissociating to cope, her brain and nervous system are “learning” to be in that state on a more regular basis.


Long-lasting Learning: Keeping the End in Sight

The key to working with kids who may be struggling with this is to create safety. Attend to the lower level brain first.

For learning to be long-lasting, children need to be present in their bodies. They stay present when they feel safe, and when parents and teachers able to stay fully present with them without judgment, no matter what they dish out.


As parents and teachers, we need to shift from trying to change the behavior of our children and students, to creating safety and connecting with them.


In regular everyday circumstances, if you want your child’s learning to be lasting because it’s associated with the warm feelings of connectedness and safety, you’ll make more progress by tuning in to what she needs, and connecting and using the strategies below. It may seem like less learning is taking place when you don’t insist that she take in all that you have to offer, or all that is in the curriculum, but the learnings that she does engage in will endure, her dignity will remain intact, and her self-confidence will grow.


Parent Practices

When your child (or student) isn’t doing what she’s “supposed to”, here are a few practices you can use. These focus on safety and connection, although often behaviour change follows.

Open, welcoming curiosity– Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. What is her intention? Is it to have fun? Move her body? Acknowledge that. E.g., “I see you’re up moving around. Do you feel like you have some energy in your legs and arms that you need to use?” or, “Are you having trouble focusing right now?” When we ask our children questions, with a genuine curiosity and intention to understand their experience (and no judgment), they not only feel seen and heard (which itself is calming), they also gain self-awareness which is invaluable in their growth and development as a human being. This practice can help meet the safety needs at the reptilian level of the brain, but it’s vital that we show acceptance, or they won’t feel safe.

Connect with her– One of the easiest ways to do this is through eye contact. Look into her eyes with as much kindness as you can. Remember that when our children aren’t complying with our wishes—sometimes it’s because they have a different agenda which we can be curious about. Other times it’s because they have an unmet need. Looking into her eyes and continuing to inquire about her experience with curiosity can establish safety and connection, meeting the needs of both levels one and two in the brain.

Invite her to join, in a way that shows her she’s valued and welcome. E.g., “We’d really like your help here,” or “we missed you when you didn’t join in”, etc. Remember that an invitationmeans that she has a choice to say “yes” or “no”. The invitation needs to be extended without pressure for her to change her behaviour. It can help to keep it light.

Integrate if possible– if she seems like she might be open to joining in the group activity, see if you can integrate what she’s doing, or trying to do, to the current activity.  For instance, if she needs to be active, can she be a helper? Or can she do a similar learning activity that involves more movement? Can the learning activity be made into a fun, participatory game?

Using these practices can feel difficult if we feel we don’t have enough time.

They also might be difficult for you if you were raised to obey your parents and teachers to avoid punishment—this type of upbringing sometimes leads parents and teachers to believe that children should just be obedient as well. However, if you consider how little your child might be learning anyways when their lower level brain needs aren’t met, it’s a bit easier to see the value of putting first things first. We may alleviate our own anxiety (because we’ve done our “adult responsibility”) when we insist our child complies with what we believe she needs to learn (e.g., making her finish a worksheet, apologize to her brother, sit still in class), but we have to ask ourselves—Is the child really learning what you think she’s learning? The answer is often “no”.

There’s no cookie cutter recipe for which of the above practices will work best with different children. It’s always best to check in with your own intuitive feelings. However, you can use the following as your guiding principle:

For a child (or anyone) to learn, the brain’s needs at levels one and two must to be attended first, starting with level one. If children don’t feel safe to be themselves, or if they feel judged, or feel as if they don’t belong in the group, they will be focused partially or fully on getting those basic needs met, and they won’t learn much of what you’re teaching anyways.

And, last but not least, if you recognize yourself in the above patterns, remember to be gentle with yourself. We learn these habits from our parents, who learned from their parents, all of whom had the best intentions. We can change. But it takes regular practice and also support from other parents and mentors who are on the same path, and even then, we’ll have some days where we slip into old habits. Role model compassion by being forgiving with yourself when you have a day where you slip.

In the 3rd blogpost of this series, I’ll be sharing more detailed practices for connecting (level 2), and in the 4th, I’ll share practices for how to repair the relationship after conflict or when we realize we’ve been harsh with our kids.


I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and stories on this topic. Please feel free to share below!


Also, if you’ve found this helpful, please feel free to share the link with others who might benefit, or on social media.









Kestly, Theresa A., Ph.D. The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Play: Brain-building Interventions for Emotional Well-Being. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.


Perry, Dr. Bruce. The Three R’s: Reaching the Learning Brain.Accessed May 25, 2018.


[1]I want to acknowledge the hard work of teachers, who often have large classes and other factors that make it difficult for them to connect with each child. And, nonetheless, I believe it’s important to begin asking ourselves what we’re accomplishing if our child doesn’t engage in the learning. How can we make changes to support our children and the teachers?

[2]If you don’t know what co-regulation was, read my last blogpost here.

[3]This is true for adults as well as children.

[4]Over- and under-activation were explained briefly in this blogpost.

[5]See the diagram listed in the References.

[6]This wiring together and then firing together is what sets down a person’s brain wiring, forming their habitual behavioural patterns.

[7]There is a way to help prevent them from firing together in future. If, after you’ve become angry with your child, you stop, regulate yourself, and repair the relationship by apologizing and -re-creating safety and connection with the child, her nervous system can come back into a regulated state as well. She’ll often draw closer and be more likely to develop compassion for herself and others (more on this in Part 4)