Reciprocal Regulation: A Recipe for Success When Working with Children

“Self-regulation” and “mindfulness” are trending terms. But do we really understand what these terms mean and the various components involved? Let’s take a further look into these concepts along with a new one—reciprocal regulation.

What Is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation consists of multisensory integration, emotional regulation, and executive functioning. It is one’s awareness and ability to control and adapt those functions.

You cannot address self-regulation without incorporating sensory processing and integration. Our senses are our first point of contact with the surrounding world. A child presenting with hyperactivity, emotional dysregulation, or lack of engagement may be responding to aspects of their environment.

Working through a child’s sensory system can address underlying neurological reactions. Some children will challenge the need to address the sensory system and see it as separate from the concept of self-regulation, but not addressing “sensory” could compromise any intervention plan.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a conduit for self-regulation. Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”1

When being mindful, we must be fully aware, in the present moment, of our body and all sensations and emotions in that moment.

Try it now. Take a second and assess how the temperature in the room feels against your skin. Do you hear anything? What do you smell? How do you feel?

Being mindful does not necessarily mean meditating. Being mindful is simply being a witness to our own experience. Hence, it is important for us, as the teachers for our children, to become mindful of our own self-regulation.

Mindfulness allows the adult to become more aware of the child’s needs and what works for them. It allows children to see things from another person’s view. Rather than comparing themselves to others, the child learns to appreciate their differences, enhancing empathy and compassion. Research studies exploring mindfulness programs and children find significant improved attention, decreased anxiety, and better problem-solving skills.2

What Is Reciprocal Regulation?

We are influenced by others’ behaviors and learn how to control our behavior through such engagement.3 I identify this process as Reciprocal Regulation.4

In actuality, whenever we are trying to teach a child to have “self-control” and improve their behavior, the ultimate goal is for the child to gain appropriate responses and the strategies needed to participate successfully in their daily life. In the process, the caregiver also receives improved self-regulation as a result. When the child calms, so do we. If the child is upset, and hyper-aroused, we also become anxious and agitated.

Our arousal also affects how the child presents. To this end, if we appear unhappy and lack patience, the child may also feel discomfort or be uncertain of what to expect. We must be mindful of our arousal and reactions to help children be more mindful of their own reactions. Start by simply taking a breath—even during the most chaotic moments.

Where Should We Start?

When addressing self-regulation, mindfulness, and reciprocal regulation, there are a few simple techniques we can use:

  • Stop, feel, think! Take a moment, even if it’s just for a second, and stop and check in to see how you are feeling and what is occurring around you.
  • Become aware of your senses. Identify if you have any sensory needs (for example, are you hungry, thirsty, or cold? Is the room you are in currently too brightly lit?).
  • Model these behaviors for the children you are working with. Teach their parents to be mindful and address their own self-regulation to be aware of reciprocal regulation.

Remember, it starts with us. Oftentimes, we place the majority of the pressure on the child and we may want them to do a better job at “calming down.” However, it is important to first address our own regulation. We must be more mindful and practice the teachings we present.

  1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. London: Reed Business Information, Ltd.
  2. Dunning, D. L., Griffiths, K., Kuyken, W., Crane, C., Foulkes, L., Parker, J., & Dalgleish, T. (2018). Research review: The effects of mindfulness‐based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents – a meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
  3. Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50: 248-287.
  4. Gibbs, V. (2017). Self-Regulation and Mindfulness: Over 82 Exercises & Worksheets for Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, & Autism Spectrum Disorder. Eau Claire, WI: Pesi Publishing & Media.