My children need help to manage their emotions and behaviours from time to time! In fact, so do I, whether it be a gentle reminder to breathe and be kind to myself or maybe someone telling me to stop what I’m doing because it’s not working! Self-regulation is required to learn tasks, communicate with others, cope with challenges, and function effectively in life. It means that you can control your thoughts, emotions and behaviours to best fit a situation.
There are many strategies that have been developed to teach kids to self-regulate. However; there is one over-arching strategy, which most care-givers naturally provide, but actually requires a lot of skill and awareness to be truly effective. Enter the gentle art of ‘Scaffolding’!
Dr Rouse, Clinical Psychologist at the Child Mind institute, New York, suggests ‘the key to learning self-regulation is to coach kids through their situations and provide a supportive framework, a process known as ‘scaffolding’. (4)
Scaffolding is assisting your child in an actual real life situations to control their impulses, so they can make helpful responses. It refers to everyday ‘calm’ situations , where you can support your child by modelling and talking through strategies. It also refers to your assistance in the actual ‘heat of the moment’ (e.g. helping your child to stop, breathe deeply, start again when calm etc).
Self-Awareness and Being Present to “Coach’ Your Child:
The most important requirement to coaching your child, is a commitment to self-awareness – to being aware of your own thoughts and emotional states. This means you are treading the same path as your child and can walk beside them in support. It enables you to be genuine. It enables you to be fully present for your child in the moment. This provides the best foundation for connecting with and supporting your child.
Initially this may mean just sitting and waiting to allow your child time to calm down sufficiently, ensuring your child knows you are there alongside. Other times it is appropriate to offer verbal cues – maybe a reminder to breathe. Sometimes physical assistance is required – perhaps removing to a safe place, or just gentle patting, hugs etc. It really depends on your child, of course, as to what their needs are at this point.
All of these responses require you to be present with yourself and with your child. Being centred and fully present means you can hold a safe space and respond to your child in the most relevant way. It is a solid foundation to provide scaffolding to your child.
The Main Processes of Scaffolding:
- Modelling – As referred to above, this pertains to everyday situations where your children can see you ‘practising what you preach’ – regulating and controlling yourself as you face everyday challenges. It can be helpful to occasionally talk through what is going on for you, so it is ‘normalised’ for your children. Being transparent and thinking out loud when you are struggling greatly assists your kids in figuring out their struggles too.
- Using cues – These are individualised promptings as the stressful situation is occurring, so your child is supported through the mental process of regulating. Examples of verbal cues would be: reminding your child to stop, breathe, count backwards, tap on their body etc.
- Removing support as relevant – When your child internalises the ability to self-regulate in a certain area, it is important that they are able to recognise their independence and practise these skills by themselves, so removing your support gradually is necessary. Praising their independent effort of self-regulating reinforces their new and developing skill.
The first step to controlling and regulating your own behaviour is being able to stop yourself. This becomes easier when you are aware of what is happening in your body and mind at the time. Frequent discussions with your children (usually easier in neutral, happy moments through the day) about what we notice in our body during and just before those times we can’t regulate ourselves, leads to greater awareness.
Feeling tight in the chest, nausea, heart racing etc are examples of what we may notice when we are struggling to control our impulses. Being able to identify these feelings in our body, and also being able to identify our emotions are both key to self-awareness and being able to self-regulate.
So, once there is an awareness of these bodily sensations, we can practise stopping. Often it will be a vocalised, ‘Stop!’ by yourself, the care-giver, to direct your child. Then, depending on your child, you can assist them to take a few deep breaths, maybe count backwards from 10 , until a state of relative calm is reached.
From here it is possible to think more clearly and reframe thoughts. e.g . Instead of ‘I can’t do this!’, we can use ‘This is hard, but I can do it if I slow down and keep on going’ or ‘I can do it another time when I am calm and ready’. The subsequent behaviour can then follow through in a more appropriate way. The overall goal is to stop, then remove the emotional charge so that rational thought processes can occur.
Scott Bezsylko, Executive Director of Winston Prep School, New York, explains, “We approach self-regulation skills in the same way we approach other skills, academic or social: isolate that skill and provide practice. When you think of it as a skill to be taught — rather than, say, just bad behavior — it changes the tone and content of the feedback you give kids. ”
I love this perspective! It shifts the focus from struggling with negative behaviour to that of helping create new skills together. Who wants to struggle?! Resistance gives assistance, and we don’t want that!
This subtle shift from ‘you have a problem’ to ’empowering our kids with skills’ is the essence of scaffolding.
- Scaffolding is helping your child to regulate their behavioural impulses, as they occur. It is coaching them to problem solve in the moment. It is not a quick fix, but a way of supporting your child in the long term to manage and develop their self-regulation.
- Being able to recognise emotions, thought processes, and bodily sensations as they occur is the first step to stopping and being calm.
- Stopping and being calm – removing the emotional charge – is the goal. This enables rational thought to take place.
- The process of Scaffolding requires a commitment to your own self-awareness and also the ability to be present with your child.
- It is, at its essence, a way of empowering kids with skills to deal with life’s challenges.
My newfound understanding is that scaffolding provides a gentle and respectful lense to understand human development and behaviour. I’m less likely to take my kids’ outbursts so personally now that I understand that self-regulation is really a complex skill to be learned and practised. It kind of puts a slight distance between me and the behaviour, which is pretty helpful! Well, that’s my take on this strategy!
I know scaffolding is a practice that many of you would do naturally anyway. Me too!
Do you have any further ideas about scaffolding? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Feel free to comment. I really would love to hear from you!
Thanks for reading !
Lyndal Jane x