Self-Regulation: the #1 skill for success in school and life!

As our summer blog book study on Challenging Behaviors continues, I am thrilled to bring you a guest post written by Jenny Spencer and appreciate her for taking time out of her summer to prepare this post for all of us. You can read more about Jenny at the end of this post but let me just tell you that she knows her stuff as she travels and speaks to folks all the time about how to address challenging behaviors. So let me hand the rest of this post over to Jenny!

Self-Regulation: The #1 Skill for Success in School and Life!

Several years ago when I  came across a workshop titled “How to handle all the fussing, fighting, fits, and tantrums” I really didn’t think that I needed it.  I thought I had everything under control.  Regardless, I decided to attend.  What I learned that day was the beginning of a transformational journey both personally and professionally.  I have discovered that it wasn’t control that I needed–it was connection. Hi!  I’m Jenny Spencer and I’m thrilled to be a part of this book study!  I am sharing from one of my favorite books with you today: “Managing Emotional Mayhem The Five Steps for Self-Regulation” by Dr. Becky A. Bailey…

Self-Regulation: The #1 Skill for Success in School and Life!

Over the years I have been faced with some very challenging behaviors so I understand how hard it can be.  My hope is that this post will inspire you and that you will learn some new skills that can transform your experience with even the most difficult child.  Move with me beyond what is comfortable to what is best practice in the field of early childhood.

I wanted pink!

Imagine that you are in a classroom of 3-5 year-olds. It is snack time and you are passing out straws.  You hand a blue straw to Billy, a white one to Alyson and a yellow one to Mary. All of a sudden, Mary bursts into tears and whines, “I wanted pink!” For many early childhood educators, Mary’s cry for a pink straw triggers eye rolling, frustration and annoyance.  With a room full of children still waiting on their straws, you quickly snap back, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

What do you think about Mary’s reaction to receiving the yellow straw? Do you think she is picky? Do you think she is spoiled? Are you willing to consider something different? What if I told you Mary is not picky or spoiled?  Rather, Mary IS missing an essential life skill called SELF-REGULATION!

In today’s post, I’m going to share with you some information from Dr. Becky Bailey’s book “Managing Emotional Mayhem” that will help you begin to see behaviors like Mary’s as an opportunity to teach!  

Awareness Is Key

In order to help children regulate their behavior, we must first understand our own.  Becoming aware of how our feelings were handled, by our family of origin, gives us insight to how we currently deal with the children in our care.  Were your feelings used as teaching tools for self-regulation and problem solving? Were your feelings ignored or dismissed? Did your parents save or punish you for your upset? To gain clarity on how your feelings were handled, watch this hilarious Conscious Discipline Video: How to Go Conscious Not Crazy With Our Kids!

Let’s go back to Mary and the straw. After watching the video, you now know that saying, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” can be dismissive or punitive. What would this scenario look like if we used it as an opportunity to teach?

Active Calming

The first step in any discipline encounter is for the adult to breathe. Breathing disengages the stress response. By choosing to actively calm, you have a better chance of staying in the “thinking part” of your brain. This is where all of your brilliance and problem solving skills reside.

Think for a minute what behaviors really get your goose.  Perhaps whining, tattling, complaining, laziness, disrespect, not listening, irresponsibility, and silliness will get you started.  We refer to these as ourtriggers or hot spots.  Becoming aware of these triggers help you begin to manage them.  Mary isn’t making you mad, she is triggering your anger.  When you notice that you have been triggered, follow the steps in the picture below to help you get your power back by actively calming yourself.

Self-Regulation: The #1 Skill for Success in School and Life!

You could compare Active Calming to being like a Paramedic.  Imagine that you are at the scene of an accident and the paramedic comes running up to the scene all out of breath.  He begins yelling at you and saying, “What were you thinking?”  “Why weren’t you wearing your helmet?”  Perhaps he wonders, “Hmmm let me see if I can remember how to stop the bleeding.”  That wouldn’t be very helpful would it?  You want a paramedic that comes to the scene calm and ready to help.  This person has practiced the skills and has all the tools needed to be ready and available.  The same is true for teachers and parents.  We must practice the skills for Active Calming on a regular basis.  This ensures that when a conflict happens you will “arrive at the scene” ready to help.

Helping Children with DNA

Now that you have self-regulated, you are ready to coach Mary. Dr. Bailey gives us the DNA Process to bridge the gap between problems and solutions.


Describe and mirror (demonstrate) the emotional signals the child’s body and face are providing.  Always begin with the word your.

“Your arm went like this_________.” Demonstrate

“Your eyes are like this __________.” Demonstrate

As you demonstrate, the child will usually bring their gaze toward you. When they do, take a deep calming breath and soften your face.


Name the feeling you believe is being communicated.  ALL behavior is communication! Always say, “You seem ___.” Dr. Bailey suggests starting off by filling the blank with one of four primary feelings:  Happy, Sad, Angry, or Scared. “You seem angry.”


End the process by acknowledging the child’s positive intent and/or desire. Acknowledging the child’s most heartfelt wishes shows you understand.

“You wanted the pink straw.”

Does that mean you give her the pink straw?  Absolutely not!  By going through this process with her you help her become aware.  You help her notice her body signals and help yourself stay in the present moment.  This helps you access the higher centers of the brain and see the upset from the child’s point of view.

Choosing to respond to the behavior of children out of the higher centers of your brain rather than reacting out of the lower centers is self-discipline.  This helps you connect with the child in the moments of upset and teaches new skills.  Empowering yourself so you can empower children…now that’s true power, that’s Conscious Discipline®!

About Jenny Spencer
Self-Regulation: The #1 Skill for Success in School and Life! by Jenny Spencer
 Jenny was an early childhood special education teacher in the public school for 18 years and left the classroom just over a year ago to focus more on her own family and to begin the process of developing her business as a Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor.  I have met Jenny personally (we live in the same town) and can tell you that she is incredibly passionate about the work she does in early childhood education and I appreciate her so much for taking the time to share with us today!
Connect with JennyIgnite Learning
Please take the time to connect with Jenny over at her blog – Ignite Learning: Bright Ideas for Parents and Teachers
And You Can Read More!
The Five Steps for Self-Regulation by Jenny Spencer was published just yesterday as a continuation of this discussion!

Learn more about Dr. Bailey and Conscious Discipline by going to the website: Conscious Discipline® is a classroom management system that integrates social-emotional learning using everyday events to teach life skills. Most importantly, Conscience Discipline teaches adult’s new skills first so they can coach children effectively.

These Books and more by Dr. Becky Bailey are Available on Amazon!

Be sure to check out the other posts in our Summer Book Blog Study! See the Linky Below!!

By |2014-07-11T06:00:35+00:00July 11th, 2014|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Karen July 11, 2014 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    The “pink straw” scenario often defines much of our day. By the third hour, I am at the “You get what you get” stage. Thank you so much for reminding me to breathe, and really help the child to learn from the situation. Like self-reliance, self regulation is a vital skill that lays the groundwork for future success in school and life. I can’t wait to try out the DNA method. Thank you!

  2. Joy Lindgren July 11, 2014 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    Words of wisdom- thank you! I teach 3 year olds and this happens OFTEN in my classroom. I look forward to learning more. The video opened my eyes to things I see daily whether it’s at the playground with my children, at school, or in my own home. I hope to grow and continue to learn from you- thank you!

  3. Scott July 12, 2014 at 12:37 am - Reply

    I need to practice this more. I’ve done it, but not consistently. I’m committing to do a better job of helping kids become self-regulators rather than try to “regulate” and control things myself. Thanks for a great post and stimulating lots of thinking.

  4. Mindy July 12, 2014 at 12:48 am - Reply

    I’m a brand new teacher but have had some experience as an aide and a summer school teacher. In both of my experiences, I was in PPCD, Preschool Program for children with Disabilities. One child in particular was a 3 year old little girl with severe behavior. The moment you told her no she would scream on top of her lungs so loudly, she could be heard a mile or two away, for a minimum of an hour. In addition to that, she would act like a cat–hiss, “claw” (without intent to harm), meow, etc… She would also curl up in a way and start breathing heavily to spit on the ground and blow her snot everywhere. She was most definitely a handful–there were days in the beginning she would throw these fits multiple times a day. I’m a firm believer in addressing the child’s behavior in such a way that they learn how to control themselves. With her, the more you talked the more she held a grudge or continued her fit. I would leave her be for a period of time, come back to her and offer her a tissue. When she would eventually take the tissues, I explained to her that the tissue is there for her to blow her nose, wipe her tears and face, then throw it all away and come back. At first she didn’t understand, but within a month she began getting up and getting the tissue by herself. Once she’d rejoin the class I always smiled at her and made sure she was included in the activity ASAP. By the end of the year, she came in late so it was only about 5 months, she would have maybe one fit a week, max time from beginning to end was 5 mins. She had learned how to calm herself down, fix herself back up, and come back without any fear. I truly love that little girl.

    The tissue thing is something I do now with all of my kids, no matter the disability. It works pretty well…many people are shocked to see it for the first time.

    Now, I currently have a little man whose behavior was supposedly unmanageable, this deemed by the child intake center and his mother. Turns out the child is bright, needs to be kept busy, and when he starts getting wound up all I have to do is squat, put my hands on his shoulders or arms very lightly, ask him to look at me, and when he does I explain what we’re doing/will be doing, and that afterwards he can do this or that (sometimes I offer a break after we’re done with the activity, but isn’t always necessary). By simply taking 30 seconds, max, to explain what’s going on to him–he’s fine! He ALWAYS replies with, “OK”. Sometimes in a normal tone, sometimes with his tears he had begun to work up. He is not the kid on paper, and his parents will be receiving training now. He’s a complete doll, too!

    These two scenarios are just pieces of my daily activities when it comes to my kiddos. Sometimes we forget these children’s age, and some people even forget that these are little human beings who have feelings, personalities, and EVERYONE is entitled to a bad day here and there. Don’t ever forget that…no one is perfect, especially a child who’s still learning self-regulation skills.

  5. Amanda Mason July 12, 2014 at 1:04 am - Reply

    This is such an excellent post and resource! Thank you!!

  6. Jocelyn July 12, 2014 at 7:02 am - Reply

    This was particularly interesting to me. We have many scenarios like this in our classroom. Unfortunately, I tend to fall in to the “You get what you get and you don’t get upset” response because at that moment, it is a quick and easy fix. I will now try to slow myself down and breathe, then focus on what the child is saying and acknowledge their feelings.

  7. Mary Iffert July 12, 2014 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Self regulation is so important in any child’s life. It becomes one of the standards for appropriate social interaction skills. When practiced in a classroom, children learn to share and respect the rights of others. They also learn to respect their own emotions as they practice recognizing the emotion and how it feels. Thanks for sharing a really useful tool in helping little ones manage their behavior.

  8. Vanessa @Pre-K Pages July 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful strategies with our book study followers! I have been a fan of Dr. Bailey’s for more than a decade and have successfully used her ideas in my own classroom. Conscious Discipline makes teaching and learning possible!

  9. Stephanie @ Twodaloo July 13, 2014 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Oooh, this is GREAT stuff! I can use this both at home with my own twins and in the classroom. Can’t wait to read more!

  10. Todd July 13, 2014 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    In regards to the “pink straw” scenario, I understand the DNA part but after you acknowledge the child’s feelings, the post doesn’t give the child an explanation for WHY they can’t have the link straw. Did I miss that part?

    • Deb July 15, 2014 at 7:00 am - Reply

      I’d also like to know if you just drop it at that or do you tell the child now that he/she is calm why he/she cannot have the pink straw?

      • Jenny July 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm

        Hi Deb and Todd! You ask a very good question. Conscious Discipline helps us begin to see behavior differently. It helps you put some distance between you and the child’s behavior.

        When a child is whining about wanting the pink straw they are actually in an emotional state. The need of the emotional state is connection. When you state the feeling, you are connecting with the child AND helping them connect with themselves.

        You are raising their emotional intelligence. So, you describe their actions, name the feeling, and acknowledge their desire and then move on. You do not need to go back and explain yourself. This helps adults take an assertive approach to behavior management and teaches the child the limit as well as an appropriate way to regulate her upset.

        A big part of this journey is knowing that the child is able to handle their upset. We refer to that as wishing the child well. When you wish them well, you will feel less of a need to explain why she doesn’t get the straw. Although the feelings may feel overwhelming at the moment, they will subside, and she can handle it. Remember, it’s not about the straw. 🙂 I hope that helps give you some clarity–not muddy the waters even more. 🙂

      • Maggie July 31, 2014 at 5:27 am

        Hi! I am learning more and more about conscious discipline as it is part of our pre k curriculum. I have been practicing the DNA approach, but I can tell you my biggest challenge in doing this consistently is what to do with the rest of my class while I’m helping this one child. I know this works and helps the student, but it is time consuming, so I find myself being tempted to rush through it (which makes it insincere and defeats the whole purpose), or being forced away before we are finished by some other need in the classroom. I do have an assistant, but we are still outnumbered! Do you have any suggestions for me? I teach 3 year olds/PPCD inclusion at a Head Start center.

  11. dubai nursery July 14, 2014 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Thanks a lot for sharing this facts . They were very useful . Thank you so very much

  12. andrea July 14, 2014 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    hi everybody!
    i am from Argentina, i apologize becasuse of my poor English, but i ve found the book study and i ve started to read it, and it is great!
    we dont have that kind of things here!
    the DNA seems useful and very parctical. i am a teacher, i have three and four years old kids, and we live the same situations in my country! i think that emotions are the key to, and first of all: modeling, and taking control of our emotions. the first one that need to stop, breathe and be calm is the teacher!!! sometimes i feel that is impossible…. like today… and i started to read things and investigate…. and i arrived here!!
    thanks and a im going to read more!

  13. Jenny July 15, 2014 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    I agree, there seems to be a step missing after the acknowledgment. It seems as though the adult is saying, “I understand you wanted the pick straw” (but too bad, you got a different one!) I think there has to be a process where you offer the child a more acceptable solution for the future, such as, “When you are feeling disappointed, you can… (trade with a friend, ask for a hug, use “feeling words, ” or whatever solution practices you are trying to teach in your classroom.) While ideally the teacher would jump in before the situation escalated, I feel as though there is still a teachable moment AFTER the child has calmed down.

    • Jenny July 17, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

      You are right on! Often after the acknowledgement we will go back to offer two positive choices. That helps you continue to connect with the child and teach more skills.
      Sometimes, adults feel the need to explain the limits we set. We want to help the child “happy up.” Many of us have a very difficult time seeing children upset and allowing them to be with it. When we set the limit, it is most helpful to let the child be with their feelings. We have to believe they can handle it and so can we.

  14. Claudia July 16, 2014 at 8:10 am - Reply

    Thank you, thank you! That video was an eye opener . I’ve been there and done that , specially with my own kids.
    Loved everybody’s input, I’m learning something new every time I log in

  15. Emily Simpson July 16, 2014 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the wonderful, informative post. I have “Pink Straw Princess” in my classroom of 3’s and 4’s; this child cries every single time she doesn’t get a desired result, whether it’s a pink straw, a particular card in a “matching” game, or just “I don’t like it (about nothing in particular).” How (or when) do you decide that there may be more of an issue than just self-regulation? Thank you!

    • Jenny July 17, 2014 at 11:12 am - Reply

      All behavior is communication. Typically, when a child has the type of behavior you mentioned above, they are looking for connection.
      Once you have set clear limits with her and helped her handle her upset, you can connect with her through offering two positive choices.
      Many times, when a child displays behavior like you described, she has learned that if she fusses enough, someone will give in and give her what she wants. We have to offer her lots of supp0rt and the DNA process as she experiences these difficult feelings…but assurance that she CAN handle it. Lots and lots of breathing will help.
      When you have set the clear limits, then you are ready for choices like this: “You may have pink or blue. Oh! You chose pink. Way to go!” OR “You may sit beside Jenny or sit beside Randy. What’s your choice?”
      In a situation like wanting a particular card in the memory game you would say…
      “Breathe with me. (breathe). You feel frustrated. You wanted the red card. You may take your turn now, or you may take your turn after Jenny. Which one do you choose?”
      I hope this is helpful! I have a post over on Prek and K Sharing as well as my blog that explains more about Two Positive Choices. Check it out:

  16. Sanam Shirzad @ Learn To Play Toys July 18, 2014 at 12:52 am - Reply

    Thank you Jenny for your post. As you indicated the key to controlling a challenging behavior is US and how we react to the situation. Active calming is a very good advice. It will take some practice for everyone to stay calm in tense situations. The final part that I loved most is the “acknowledgement”. It’s easy for parents and teachers to forget the child’s feelings and try to control the situation based on their own understanding. Acknowledging the child’s wish makes her feel that we care and that’s very important. I wish you could continue the article and expand on more solutions for challenging behaviors.

  17. Mary Catherine @Fun-A-Day! July 19, 2014 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    I love the point that we, as teachers (and parents), need to identify our own emotions too. Self-regulation is definitely a tool we all need, and having a grasp of ourselves makes us better teachers. Thanks for all of the tips that I can use with my elementary-aged kiddo AND with my preschool students.

  18. Tracy July 22, 2014 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    I read this:

    At home, we teach the tucker turtle PATHS method, but solution has always evaded me. When I get to step 5 solve in the above article, I’m unsure what to do. Where can I find details on Step 5? My son is doing great with breathing and calming himself. He instructs himself to do it. I need to take him to the next level. Thanks for your help!

    • Jenny July 24, 2014 at 11:06 pm - Reply

      Hi Tracy! I am so happy you found the article helpful. In the “I solve” step you have a few options.
      1. Sometimes it involves some problem solving on the adult’s part. For example if you child is having meltdowns at bedtime every night, you may need to rewind that routine and get some perspective. You might look at an earlier bedtime, could he be hungry, or does he need some visuals at bedtime to help make it more predictable and calming for him. Perhaps he needs more connecting activities to help him at bedtime be able to relax and feel content.
      2. Sometimes the problem solving involves a family meeting where you all sit down and discuss this problem and possible solutions. For example if there is lots of chaos when it is time to leave for school and the children are fighting, you can problem solve some ideas for how to work through that and smooth out that routine with some new strategies.
      3. There was some information about the Time Machine in the post as well. What this structure does, is give adults and children the language for conflict resolution. Once everyone has calmed down, you can sort of rewind and go back and teach them a missing skill and some appropriate language to use in place of calling each other names.
      4. Sometimes the solution is just to choose again. For example, you said it is time to get dressed for school and he is right in the middle of a cartoon and doesn’t want to stop. He throws a fit, so you go through the five steps. You get to step 5 and the solution is to choose again. It would sound something like this: “You were hoping to watch more cartoons before school. It is time to get dressed. You may start with your shirt or shorts. What do you choose.”
      5. Sometimes the solution is simply to accept and manage your feelings. “You were hoping to play outside. It’s rainy today so we will play inside.” You acknowledge the feeling and then sometimes they choose to “hang out” with that feeling for a bit until it passes. Dr. Bailey describes emotions like weather patterns. You can’t stop the weather and sometimes you just have to wait till it passes.
      6. Perhaps the solution is to teach a new skill. Maybe your child is upset because you won’t let him play on your iPhone. Your rule is that he must ask permission and he forgot. You would simply remind him of the limit and then teach him the proper way to get it when its time. “You wanted the phone. You may not play on my phone without asking. When you want my phone say, “Mommy, can I play on your phone?” Sometimes, I will then practice those words with the child and role play it so they are set up for success the next time. You are teaching him what TO DO rather than punishing him for forgetting or missing a skill.
      7. Sometimes you really need to work on your relations with a child or their relationship with other children. The most disconnected child is the most disruptive. So that is when I would build in lots of activities that encourage eye contact, appropriate touch, presence, and playfulness. An example would be Ring Around the Rosy.

      Hope you find this helpful! Stay tuned. More information will be coming on the blog that you will find helpful! I wish you and your son well! Jenny

  19. Aly B. July 23, 2014 at 9:49 am - Reply

    We love this post so much we would like to feature it on our website! We create music CDs based on the latest research in social & Emotional development and our CD titled I CAN SETTLE DOWN fits right into the theme of this blog post! Looking for permission to repost!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. July 27, 2014 at 8:28 am - Reply

      Hi Aly, We follow standard blogging practice which includes the use of one photo and a brief summary of the post then link back to the original post. You are welcome to use this as your guide.

  20. katelyn July 24, 2014 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    Hi. I love what you have to say and I agree fully. I’m wondering if I can have permission to share the video you used on my own site as it relates to a recent article I wrote.
    Thank you,

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. July 24, 2014 at 10:02 pm - Reply

      I am sure you can without a problem Katelyn:)

    • Jenny July 24, 2014 at 11:07 pm - Reply

      Sure! Please just give a link or credit for the source. Thanks a bunch! 🙂 Jenny

  21. Lynn August 4, 2014 at 11:03 am - Reply

    I must regulate my self before I can regulate the kids! Great reminder to keep myself in check. I had a tough pre-k last year. Instead of focusing on the connection, I got lost in the control. Thank you for helping me be a better teacher.

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