Helping Your Child Learn Self Regulation: The “3 R’s”

IMG_boysinarow What is regulation? Regulation refers to the integration of the various functions of the body and mind in order to achieve a sense of wellbeing. Regulatory processes are organized into rhythms. The body has many rhythms that are repeated over and over again mostly out of our awareness, creating micro patterns that then coordinate to create macro patterns, that help to organize and integrate our human body and mind. For example, we don’t usually pay attention to our heart rate or respiratory rate unless something is going wrong, such as the rapid heart rate associated with anxiety or panic. But our sense of well being emerges from among other things the signals these rhythms send us. An example of the coordination of these rhythms is the coordination of respiratory rate with walking. If walking at a comfortable pace, many people tend to take two strides for one inhalation and between two and three strides for one exhalation. Walking is a self-regulating activity, as well as dancing and drumming, and many other repetitive rhythmic patterned activities. In fact, music and dance often provide refined regulatory procedures that make one feel good – calm (“music soothes the savage beast”) or invigorated.

A child develops regulatory capacity through a process of mutual regulation with a caregiver, beginning in infancy (Tronick, 2007). This helps to explain why regulatory activities done with another person are often even more effective than done alone, for example, taking walk with another person (or a dog). Even having a conversation with another person involves rich processes of turn taking that create coordinated rhythms between the two people and also within each individual. The capacities for mutual regulation are developed over time, and some children develop them more easily and earlier than others. That is because some children are born with better functioning capacities for self-regulation and coordinating with others than other children, and because some caregiving environments are better “regulators” for children than others. Mutual regulation is intimately tied to self-regulation, so that if someone is not good at mutual regulation, he is also not so good at self-regulation.

In order to better understand regulatory processes, it is important to understand something about brain development. No one describes the connection between brain development and stress regulation than Bruce Perry. Perry explains, 1. The brain develops sequentially from the brainstem to the cortex; in the first year of life, the cerebral cortex is not yet “on line”, and the lower and mid brain are what the infant makes use of to make sense of his world. 2. The brain is use dependent – “use it or lose it”, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” 3. The stress response systems originate in the lower parts of the brain and help regulate and organize higher parts of the brain – or if poorly organized or poorly regulated themselves, they dysregulate or disorganize higher parts of the brain.

Interventions that support regulation can target various parts of the brain. Thinking through a challenge (“Use your words!”) targets the cerebral cortex that is involved in functions of language and thinking. Thinking things through or “understanding” is highly regulating. However, if an individual is stressed, or if certain of his thinking functions are not well developed due to an inherited learning challenge or immaturity, intervening at these higher-level brain functions will be insufficient.

In fact, all of us from time to time need more basic regulatory means than “thinking things through”, at least to settle ourselves enough to actually do the thinking. We benefit from building up our stress regulatory system in the lower part of our brain. How do you do that? We do that through – Rhythmic, repetitive, patterned activity.  3 R’s – rhythm, repetition, relaxation. Walking; dancing; meditation; rhythmic music; drumming.  Although dancing and making or listening to rhythmic music is highly regulating, most of us do not have the habit of doing this regularly. However, taking a walk is easy to do. It may have the added advantage of taking you physically away from a stressful situation.

There is another set of 3 R’s – routine, ritual, rendering (articulating). Daily routines and rituals (the parents’ best friends); rendering means articulating transitions – creating multiple steps to organize the transitional space (first we get out of bed, then we go to the bathroom, then we brush out teeth, then we wash our face, then ….). For more information on routines, follow the tag “routines” on the blog.


Tronick E (2007). The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Children, Norton.

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