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Self-regulation: Using children’s literature to support self-control


The first year I stepped into my own kindergarten classroom I was filled with enthusiasm and unbridled motivation to give my incoming students the best educational experience I could provide. I meticulously set up a classroom that reflected my emerging philosophies as an early childhood educator. The summer before I worked tirelessly planning for my first year. I had so many ideas and it was all-consuming. One July morning I had an idea for themed daily schedule cards. I spent the next two weeks creating 20 different hand drawn cards for my daily schedule. I was so proud of my work and excited to be able to use them in my classroom.

When the academic year began, my room looked wonderful. My shelves were organized and the displays were ready for children’s work. I stocked my classroom library and bought new manipulatives. Everything was colored coded, clearly labeled, and child friendly. I had studied the curriculum and devised clever lesson plans and activities. I was confident that the children would be the recipients of academic knowledge that would set them up for a lifelong love of learning and thirst for knowledge.

When my students arrived and I suddenly had 20 different personalities in my classroom, everything changed. While my schedule cards were certainly noticed and enjoyed, they did not control my room. Although I had prepared myself for assessing the children in their letter and numeral recognition and their use of a conventional pencil grip, the reality was far different. I had to deal with their social-emotional readiness for school. My carefully constructed lessons were constantly interrupted with problem-solving moments encompassing a range of issues from anger and frustration management, to non-compliance with rules, and an inability to delay gratification. It didn’t take long for me to realize that teaching kindergarten was as much about supporting students’ social-emotional growth as it was about advancing them academically.

Learning does not occur in a bubble and by its very nature is a social and interpersonal process. From child care settings to institutions of higher learning, individuals learn through social interactions and with the guidance of adults. Social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences. The theory asserts that people learn by observing the actions and consequences of others. Young children are in a constant process of developing their social inventory. As a result, educators need to plan and implement curriculum hand in hand with modeling desired academic and social-emotional behaviors.

In many ways intellectual growth is easy to assess and support. This is what we are trained for as educators. It is our job to work with children who have varying cognitive abilities. We challenge their strengths and support academic areas that require additional assistance, but success in school encompasses much more than the ability to understand academic concepts. “School success requires that children are capable of understanding other people’s feelings and viewpoints, cooperating with adults and peers, exercising emotional and behavioral self-control, and resolving disagreements constructively” (Thompson 2002).


Incorporating social competencies into the curriculum—Being responsive
One classroom model that strives to bring social and academic learning together is Its guiding principles are:
The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.
How children learn is as important as what they learn: Process and content go hand in hand.
The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.
To be successful academically and socially, children need a set of social skills: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
Knowing the children we teach—individually, culturally, and developmentally—is as important as knowing the content we teach.
Knowing the families of the children we teach and working with them as partners is essential to children’s education.
How the adults at school work together is as important as their individual competence: Lasting change begins with the adult community.

A study of this approach, conducted from 2001 to 2004 in six schools (three that used the approach and three that did not) found that it produced better social and academic outcomes for children (Rimm-Kaufman 2006). What does this mean for us as educators? We cannot be shortsighted in a belief that children need to learn only the curriculum points adults explicitly teach them.

In addition, responsive does not necessarily mean having patience. In Dan Gartrell contends that rather than hold patience in highest regard, a responsive teacher allows understanding of what is developmentally appropriate. “If I rely on patience, there is a danger of it running out, resulting in inappropriate teacher behaviors. If I rely on understanding, and this understanding is based on sound developmental theory, it will never run out” (2004). It is with an eye for understanding that the responsive teacher establishes a responsive classroom and can support students’ social-emotional growth.

Young children possess a tunnel vision that is innately tied to their immediate wants and needs. Each child comes to the classroom with varying degrees of social competencies. Some are better at sharing; some are more adept at regulating and controlling their anger and impulses. If there is one guarantee for educators, it is that each year will be different and children will all be trying to make sense of social competencies. This is one reason why coming to school for the first time can be so challenging for children. Life quickly becomes more complicated when you are suddenly a part of a larger community.


What is self-regulation and why it is important?
When people learn that I am a kindergarten teacher, I often hear, “Boy, you must have a lot of patience. What is it like?” While I consider myself a patient person, I wouldn’t say that patience is the driving mechanism for my teaching. There are many days when I do not feel particularly patient, but I know I have to employ my internal mechanism of control that will allow me to engage in mindful, intentional, and thoughtful behaviors as I interact with my students.

As an adult, I have learned that the ability to self-regulate is an important life skill that allows me to function productively and appropriately. The key word here is learned. We are not born with the ability to self-regulate. I had to build my strength in this area by testing my hypotheses for appropriate social interactions. I had to experience, and still am experiencing, a lifetime of situational exercises that have built and developed my self-regulation skills.

Understanding and taking control of one’s thinking and feelings does not come easily to young children, but “if children do not systematically engage in self-regulatory behaviors at a young age, the corresponding brain areas may not develop to their full potential” (Bodrova and Leong 2008).

Teaching 5-year-olds has been described as “like trying to keep crickets in a basket: when you open the lid to put in a few more crickets, the others jump out” (Bodrova and Leong 2008). The image of a classroom of crickets is funny and also an incredibly accurate metaphor for teaching a group of children who are learning how to self-regulate.

Knowing the regulatory reality of a 5-year-old, an educator must mindfully work to develop students’ self-regulatory skills along with the three R’s. It’s important to “teach self-regulation to all children, not just those thought to have problems” (Bodrova and Leong 2008). At some point all children will exhibit some degree of internal conflict in the area of self-regulation. Children need to be taught how to “remember on purpose” and to minimize their “reactive behaviors (Bodrova and Leong 2008).

At its core, social-emotional self-regulation revolves around being able to control emotions, and “being able to internalize standards of behavior and apply these standards without being reminded” (Bodrova and Leong 2003). Most early childhood educators would agree that their day is spent offering multiple reminders about everything from classroom conduct to letter-sound correspondence.

Reminders are a necessary, invaluable tool for both teachers and students. Reminders are how we learn, and they serve as a barometer for teachers revealing when internalization of knowledge and skills has occurred. It is the sign we look for as educators and parents. When Joey catches his words, holding his important thought until Nicole has finished talking, he is telling us that he has not only heard the reminders but is conducting himself with a more mature social competency.

A child’s poor self-regulation affects and often disrupts an entire class. “Teachers rate ‘difficulty following directions’ as their number one concern about children, indicating that more than half of their students experience this difficulty” (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, and Cox 2001). The ability to follow directions involves the ability to listen, to make meaning of a direction, and then to determine the necessary internal mechanisms required to follow through with compliance. In other words, individuals need to call upon their self-regulation skills critically.

The skill of following directions is what we ask of children every day in a variety of forms both academically and socially. An inability to follow directions stops the momentum of a classroom dead in its tracks. Knowing that young children are primarily concerned with having their immediate needs met, educators need to be prepared for the barrage of roadblocks that pop up during the day.

Another—and authentic—symptom of underdeveloped self-regulation is interrupting. In addressing this behavior, the teacher strives to teach children to actively participate in monitoring their behavior. For the child who is constantly interrupting their classmates and teachers, we need to look at the behavior as an underdeveloped skill and not a problem.

Children’s book author and elementary school guidance counselor Julia Cook has said, “In order to teach a child, you must enter their view of the world.” This simple statement rings true. Instead of mustering up more patience to tolerate the child who interrupts, let’s step into their mind and think about how we can advance their growth.

To refine the skill of waiting until someone finishes, children will need to insert a self-imposed moment between their feelings or desires and their reactions and interactions. This strategy requires multiple opportunities for children to rehearse and control the careful placement of their thoughtful moments. In addition to talking about and modeling this strategy, educators need look no further than to children’s literature to help support and enhance their teaching of this essential social competency.


The power of reading aloud
Teaching in an early childhood setting is one of the most rewarding and the most challenging of environments. One realization I have made in my years of teaching is that no matter the challenges of the day, I can count on a read-aloud activity to calm, center, and engage my students. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite times of the day in part because most young children love listening to stories. I get a great deal of satisfaction from read-aloud time, and I try to be thoughtful about the literature I present in my classroom.

Educators can use cherished read-aloud time to introduce and discuss concepts of character education and social-emotional growth. With an enormous reserve of quality children’s literature available, we need to identify those books that support the areas of our students’ social-emotional needs. Use of these books is ideally a fluid process depending on the individual needs of one’s classroom.


Growing through character growth
As a first step, we need to develop critical criteria for determining which books can best guide children toward an emotional attachment to good examples. In other words, which books will help our students grow?

According to the authors of educators should look for books in which the main character grows. “As your child becomes involved with the protagonist, he vicariously shares in that character’s development” (Kilpatrick et al. 1994). Whether subtle or explicit, character growth serves as an essential springboard for discussing and exploring social growth with young children. Without some degree of movement and growth in the book character, children will not be able to empathize and transfer social-emotional growth to themselves.

Moving children toward empathetic understanding is a tall order. Young children view the world through their own wants and needs. It is their nature to “see things from their own perspective, and it takes quite a bit of doing to get them to see things from the point of view of others” (Kilpatrick et al. 1994). While their ability to empathize is underdeveloped, young children naturally experiment with identifying with the models they encounter. These character identifications are embedded in daily exposure. Identifications range from a child imitating a teacher’s behavior-management strategies at home with siblings to a child taking on a superhero persona in his daily interactions with peers.

Children’s personal inquiries revolve around questions of “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in to the larger classroom community?” Their sense of self is not fully developed and they are influenced by examples in their world. “It is not a question of a child will find someone to identify with; the only question is with (Kilpatrick et al. 1994). Our job as educators is to provide children with as many good examples of social growth as possible.

Books provide a variety of examples and identifications for children and afford educators a method for activating children’s emotions without engaging in a teacher-student homily about social values. Children enjoy listening to stories and don’t think about the pretense of character growth and subsequent learning that occurs. The very act of actively listening to a story pulls children in to a fictional or sometimes nonfictional world and, in turn, affords them an opportunity to “become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others, sharing not only adventures, but values too” (Hall 2000).

Through stories, children can vicariously try out new experiences and test new identifications, with no negative consequences in their real lives. This is an important distinction to recognize. “As neutralizers in character discussions, books are a step removed from the child. They are not threatening and do not carry the sting of personal accusation” (Hall 2000).

David Shannon’s is a good example of a book that sets out to teach young children that there are consequences for our actions. What really draws young children to this book is how Shannon captures the spirit of a young child caught in a desire to do something without understanding the consequences.

I have heard some adults criticize for teaching their children bad behaviors. I disagree and argue that the book is excellent for teaching social growth, as long as it is not read in isolation and tossed away. Half the learning in a children’s book comes from the discussion that ensues during and after a reading. When I read this book to my kindergarteners, they delight and identify with David’s naughty behavior. The children are always ready to offer astute comments about why David is not doing the right thing. The book offers educators and children an opportunity to identify and emphasize positive character traits and good choices.

In the context of a storybook narrative, children can freely reflect on the moral actions of book characters. By doing this, they can sharpen their awareness of social-emotional issues and adopt strategies for “dealing with moral issues prior to and during encounters with them” (Hall 2000).

Connecting with characters can also be accomplished through more fantastical stories with equal impact on social competencies. What educators need to look for is whether the problems presented in stories have implications for potential real life situations. If so, even if masked with imaginary or animal characters, the stories will provide connections for children to unearth. Story characters can display a wide range of emotions in books. Some of these emotions are not considered appropriate for young children to openly display. Exposing children to these characters and situations provides an outlet and point of view on common situations and feelings that children will encounter. For children’s literature to use in teaching self-regulation, see “Books that work” on pages 31-34.


Self-regulation—Making those important choices
Life is filled with complex social interactions. With every social moment, there are choices that we must make. Most of these choices are simple and easily automated, especially for adults. As young children build their social inventory, they make choices with a greater ease and autonomy. For example, initially a young child’s breakfast might consist of what the adult presents, such as a bowl of Cheerios.® A few years later when presented with that same cereal, a child might look up and say, “I want pancakes.” As they mature children are better able to communicate their wants and needs and most important, their personal preferences. This is an exciting moment for both parents and children. Children begin to realize they have control over their choices and parents are faced with the reality of their child’s growing maturity.

As children encounter this new sense of control, they are also quickly confronted with disequilibrium between what they want and what they want to express, and the realities of social and situational boundaries. Perhaps after asserting a desire for pancakes, the child is told that pancakes are not an option that morning, or that pancakes will have to wait until the following morning. Children quickly discover that just because they express their wants, it doesn’t mean that they will get it.

“Often, young children are easily upset when their needs or wishes are not met immediately” (Eckman 1998). They are confronted with the fact that what they want will require a delay. The willingness to delay immediate gratification is at the heart of self-control. Being asked to delay gratification can cause a wave of emotions in young children and once again require them to regulate their feelings.

Children are constantly experiencing real life situations in which their conceptions of self-control are tested and broadened, leading to a growing confidence in the choices they make. Internalizing qualities of self-regulation is tricky for young children simply because they do not have the emotional or experiential reserve of background knowledge to critically reflect on moral dilemmas as they arise in their day-to-day interactions. “Children who do not make choices for their own behavior, but instead rely on other children, parents, teachers, or adults to make choices for them, do not learn self-control” (Eckman 1998).

An essential component of a child’s developing self-regulatory capacity is the ability to strengthen and then rely on internal controls. These controls ultimately reside within each child. Adult prompting and guidance is essential for setting the stage for young children so they learn to refine their internal controls. In essence self-regulation is about making thoughtful choices. Hand in hand with making choices is a responsibility one feels toward the choices to be made.

Developing self-control is not an easy task for young children. As children become increasingly aware of their power to regulate their choices and actions, they begin to realize that they possess the capacity to take responsibility for the choices they make. In other words, their input matters and is essential to the choices they make in relation to social situations they encounter. As children broaden their experiences they will continue to add to their reserve of social knowledge and be able to apply prior experiences to new encounters.

Educators need to recognize the developmentally appropriate realities of children’s social competencies and support them in the classroom. “It is important to select age-appropriate goals for children,” (Eckman 1998) who are learning how to self-regulate. Age-appropriate goals might focus on controlling anger and frustration appropriately, complying with rules, and delaying gratification.


An intentional method of supporting self-regulation
Themes of self-regulation are woven into the classroom curriculum and daily social interactions of the young children in our classrooms. Children are in a continual process of forming their identities, differentiating between right and wrong, and experiencing how their actions affect others. They are developing their self-identities and learning how to regulate their emotions and actions with a greater maturity. Children are in search of a sense of belonging.

Through the events in stories children can practice their conceptions of self-control, experiencing their childhood through the lens of development and growth. Children’s literature has the power to reach young audiences with a gentle hand, giving children the space and safety for testing their understandings.

Literature is a powerful teaching tool that provides educators with an intentional method of supporting self-regulation in young children. Child-centered book discussions are a vital part children’s emerging literacy knowledge and their self-regulatory capacity. Educators are in a unique position to present their students with natural teachable moments that are embedded in some of their favorite stories.

We have the rapt audience, so let us capitalize on their attention that we know can be challenging to command, and naturally weave teachable moments and social-emotional competency into their daily school experiences. School is more than acquisition of cognitive knowledge but a tapestry of experiences and growth that children will only be able to weave with nimble minds and social competency.