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Emotional regulation

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Last updated by Tara Fagan

Written by Tara Fagan, CORE Education, February 2011

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage and express emotions in a socially acceptable way. It is learning to control emotions to successfully interact with others. This includes the regulating of anger, frustration, fear and desire to a level that allows us to carry on interactions with those around us.

While this might seem acceptable to adults, for young children it means learning strategies to regulate emotions. As an adult, you probably do not throw yourself on the ground and scream if someone takes an item you have away – this is because you have learnt to regulate your emotions. However, young children need to learn how to manage their feelings and find alternative ways to express them, that is by learning to regulate their emotions. The ability for children to [1]regulate emotions contributes to their success in social interactions.

The development of emotional regulation

Developing in a framework of social interactions and relationships, emotions become regulated at a quick pace during early childhood[2]. Individual temperaments influence the degree to which emotional regulation develops[3], and babies are born with some ability for self-regulation.  

Parents and family contribute to the regulation of infants’ emotions, and an example of this is parents naming the child’s feelings and letting them know it is okay to feel these emotions. It is these caring and consistent relationships with adults that serve as the basis of developing self-regulation.

As children are introduced to peers and unfamiliar adults, a new set of socialisation skills and regulation develops[4], as children learn to not only control aspects of their own emotions but to read the emotions of others.

Play, particularly dramatic play, is another way in which children learn to regulate emotions as they ‘act out’ their experiences, thereby adding to their emotion bank.

The complexity of emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is complex and for most children living in supportive contexts “the growth of emotional regulation is associated with enhanced psychosocial wellbeing and socio-emotional competence"[5].

The regulation of emotions is connected to:

  • academic performance[6]
  • attention
  • learning[7]
  • the ability to interact with others successfully[8].

As teachers we need to ensure that not only are we demonstrating and modelling emotional regulation but we are also aware of its development so that we can promote it in our centres.

Reflective questions

  • What emotions can you think of that we regulate on a daily basis?
  • How can you help develop emotional regulation with the children you teach?




  • [1] Groves-Gillespie, N., & Seibel, N.L.  (2006).  Self-Regulation:  A cornerstone of early childhood development.  Beyond the Journal:  Young Children on the web, (July, 2006).
  • [2] Eisenberg, N. Spinrad, T.L., & Eggum, N.D.   (2010). Emotion-related self regulation and its relation to children's maladjustment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, April, 495-525
  • [3] Thomas A., & Chess S. (1983) Temperament and Development. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
  • [4] Cole,  P.M., Michel,  M.K., Teti, L.O. (1994).   The development of emotion regulation and dysregulation: a clinical perspective. In: Fox,  N.A., (Ed). The development of emotion regulation: biological and behavioral considerations. Serial no. 240. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 59:73-102
  • [5] Thompson, R.A. & Calkins, S.D. (1996).  The double-edged sword:  Emotion regulation in highrisk children.  Development and Psychopathology, 8, 163-182.
  • [6] Grazziano, P.A., Reavis, R.D., Keane, S.P. & Calkins, S.D. (2007).  The role of emotion regulation in children's early academic success.  Journal of School Pscychology (45), 3-19.
  • [7] Immordino-Yang, M.H.  & Damasio, A. (2007).  We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education." Mind, Brain and Education, 1(1): 3.
  • [8] Shonkoff, J., & Phillips, D. A (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.