Helping my Daughter with Big Feelings

Learning about self-regulation has been a journey full of surprises (and gifts).

In light of my daughter, Sophia, starting grade 1 I have been challenged to dive deeper into what self-regulation means and ways to support Sophia.


Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work resonated with me from the moment I first discovered his writings. But one of the unexpected surprises was that somewhere along the path of both learning about self-regulation to teaching it to ECE students and supporting my daughters transition into grade 1, I realized that I was actually studying and learning about my own Self-Regulation in the process.

Another surprise along my learning journey was the (sometimes humbling) roller coaster ride of believing I knew quite lot about Self-Regulation, before coming to realize that my knowledge amounted to — at best — a droplet of water in the bucket of what there was to learn, know, and most importantly, strategies of supporting my daughter. Self-Reg was easy at first, then it became a bit overwhelming as I learned more and realized just how much there was to it to learn.

I wanted to revisit self-regulation because of a conversation I had with Sophia’s teacher a couple weeks back, she told me Sophia had been feeling overwhelmed and started to cry in class on several occasions [oh dear!]

“What have I done?” was my initial thought, as she continued talking I wondered how Sophia must of felt, was it her perfectionist nature that had driven her to feel paralyzed in class, or the expectations of having to get it right, what about all those times I encouraged to do well, was it too much? So much went on inside my head most importantly: what to do now– what strategies could she learn to use in the class to ‘calm down.’ The 15 minute conversation felt like an eternity of work that followed, I was left with so much introspection to do.

I started thinking about a child’s self-regulation journey- where does it originally begin? utero? infancy? childcare? kindergarten? Oh the questions, as a parent I will admit I did not learn about self-regulation at all during her Kindergarten program, it was something I came across in my own readings, as I prepared for teaching social-emotional development of toddlers in childcare, currently I am aware the Kindergarten curriculum is ‘painted’ with self-regulation information– just wonderful!


My Lesson: Dealing with BIG Feelings 

One of the lessons I’ve learned about self-regulation is being able to manage feelings so they don’t intrude heavily on relationships or day-to-day life. This might involve being able to resist ‘losing it’ in upsetting or frustrating situations, or being able to calm down when big feelings start to take over.

Self-regulation is NOT about ‘not feeling.’ Locking feelings away can cause as much trouble as any outburst. There is nothing wrong with having big feelings. All feelings are valid and it’s okay for children and adults alike to feel whatever they feel. What’s important is how those feelings are managed.

I want Sophia to feel nurtured towards being able to acknowledge and express what she’s feeling, without causing breakage to herself, friendships or academics.

When children are able to regulate their emotional responses, they become less vulnerable to the ongoing impact of stress. They are also more likely to have the emotional resources to maintain healthy friendships, and the capacity to focus and learn.

I have to admit as a parent, I was feeling so overwhelmed with the amount of pressure to ensure Sophia was achieving academically/or transitioning well into grade 1, that without even noticing I was modelling stress towards learning. Some of this modelling came in the form of simple questions like: “Tell me what activities you did today?”, “Were the activities easy or hard?”, or reminders: “It’s very important to listen?”, “Ask questions right away if you don’t understand?”, of course these questions/reminders whatever you choose to call them weren’t meant to hurt Sophia but I all I could think of was “I don’t want her to feel overwhelmed!” — well it was definitely ME who was feeling anxious, and hasn’t research found that the ability to self-regulate is a strong predictor of academic success.

So where do I go from here…

Dr. Stuart Shanker identifies the following as six critical elements required for “optimal self-regulation”:

  • when one is feeling calmly focused and alert, the ability to know that one is calm and alert
  • when one is stressed, the ability to recognize what is causing that stress
  • the ability to recognize stressors both within and outside the classroom
  • the desire to deal with those stressors
  • the ability to develop strategies for dealing with those stressors
  • the ability to recover efficiently and effectively from dealing with those stressors

Shanker, S. (2013a). Calm, alert and happy. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Available at:

Shanker, S.. (2013b). Calm, alert and learning: Classroom strategies for self- regulation. Toronto: Pearson Canada.


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