"When emotional regulation difficulties are present, everyday demands can create changeable stress and anxiety levels in children and influence how they behave and respond to their environment."

Emotional regulation skills are now considered crucial to the foundations of achild's healthy dispositions and lifelong learning skills.Paediatric occupational therapist Claire Joyce shares seven of the best waysto support children who are struggling with emotional regulation." />

By Claire Joyce on 13 Mar, 2023

According to research, children who have the ability to regulate their emotions effectively in their early years tend to be more motivated to learn, have a positive attitude towards school, participate well in the classroom, and feel happier in their school environment.1,2

As emotional regulation is essential for school readiness, academic achievement, and mental health, children in their early years must be supported in developing the skills to effectively manage their emotions so they can fully participate in their home, community and school environments.  

At what age do children develop emotional regulation skills?

Like many elements of development and learning, children do not develop regulation skills by themselves. Self-regulation is a developmental process that starts from birth and continues right through to adulthood. It is a process that grows out of attuned relationships where the caregiver and child are closely attentive to each other and engage in sensitive and responsive exchanges. This can be called "co-regulation” and is a prerequisite for “self-regulation”.  

During the preschool years, children experience rapid growth in the areas of their brains associated with self-regulation.  Children as young as three years old can be seen to start using their self-regulatory skills. At this young age, children need considerable repetition, prompting and opportunities to play so they can continue to learn and practice these emerging skills daily. When self-regulation skills are modelled and practised in early childhood, these skills will continue to develop right through adulthood.   

How can emotional regulation impact a child, and what causes emotional regulation difficulties?  

When emotional regulation difficulties are present, everyday demands (major and minor) can create changeable stress and anxiety levels in children and influence how they behave and respond to their environment. Emotional regulation difficulties can subsequently affect how the child behaves, interacts, attends to a task, and regulates emotions within their environment.  

Evidence suggests that emotional regulation difficulties may be linked to family genetics, pregnancy/ birth complications, or environmental factors.3 However, potential childhood trauma, attachment difficulties, neurodiversity and learning difficulties should also be considered.  

7 of the best ways to support children who are struggling with emotional regulation difficulties


A child needs to feel safe in their environment to maintain an “optimal state of arousal” to participate in meaningful social interactions and learning. When a child is feeling distressed, it is critical that the child has an opportunity to “borrow” their caregiver’s regulated nervous system.  Through connection and nurturing, a caregiver can support a child back into a sense of feeling safe and calm.   

It is important to remember that a dysregulated caregiver cannot regulate a child, so the caregiver needs to be aware of their own emotional regulation before attempting to co-regulate. 


There is a strong correlation between cognitive development and movement. Hence, children need physical activity as a means of regulating their bodies and developing higher-order brain functions. These higher-level brain functions are responsible for speech and language, emotional regulation, and executive functioning development. 

Sensory Processing 

Emotional regulation difficulties tend to coexist with sensory processing difficulties. Allowing children to explore and activate their senses through play can enhance their ability to process sensory information and make sense of it, which will support their social and emotional skill development. 

Healthy Diet 

A healthy diet is essential for good gut health and is fundamental to all aspects of our health. Gut health is not only linked to good physical health but also to good mental health. 

Quality and quantity of sleep 

Most children need at least 8-14 hours of sleep over their 24-hour day (depending on the child’s age). During sleep, the body works to support healthy brain function and physical health.  Furthermore, sleep quality can play a critical role in how a child behaves and regulates.  For example, children who wiggle in their sleep, toss and turn, grind their teeth, wet the bed, or sleep with their mouths opened may be at more risk of experiencing emotional regulation difficulties due to disturbed sleep. If your child is experiencing disturbed sleep, speaking to your doctor or visiting an ENT to discuss potential “disordered breathing” while your child is sleeping is recommended. 


Most children thrive on routine, so making their day predictable and giving them enough notice before events can help to reduce overstimulation and emotional regulation difficulties. 

Role playing 

Role playing is an excellent activity to play with a child experiencing emotional regulation difficulties. Role-playing will give the caregiver the opportunity to address possible scenarios that may be causing upset or frustration for the child.  In addition, the caregiver can model strategies to support the child through future challenges they might experience. 

Story books that explain emotions 

A visual story book that explains feelings can be a very helpful tool when teaching children about emotions. Most children usually love to read or look through story books, so a book can offer the perfect opportunity for joint attention between the caregiver and child to teach emotions informally. 


1 Birch S, Ladd G. The teacher-child relationship and children's early school adjustment Journal of School Psychology.1997;35(1):61-79. 

2 Blair C. School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of children's functioning at school entry. American Psychologist. 2002;57 (2):111-127. 

3 Dunn J, Brown J. Affect expression in the family, children's understanding of emotions, and their interactions with others. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 1994;40 (1):120-137.

Graziano PA, Reavis RD, Keane SP, Calkins SD. The Role of Emotional Regulation and Children's Early Academic Success. J Sch Psychol. 2007 Feb 1:45 (1): 3-19.

Silvers, J. A.. & Moreira, J. F. G. (2019). Capacity and tendency: A neuroscientific framework for the study of emotion regulation. Neuroscience Letters, 693, 35-39.

About Claire Joyce

Claire is a paediatric occupational therapist and mother who is passionate about working with children who experience emotional regulation challenges. Over the past few years, she has contributed expert advice and thoughts to CELA's Amplify and Rattler publications. 

Claire recently told us about a new set of books she has written, which explain emotions and provide practical regulation tools and we thought you might like to hear about them. How Does Your Body Feel? is a box set comprising four short children’s books that explain each of the four main emotions: calm, sad, angry and anxious.  

The stories within the books are written in rhyme and are filled with evidence-based occupational therapy strategies and cognitive and mindset interventions used by therapists and teachers worldwide. The books also align with the current curriculums taught within early education and care services and schools across Australia.  

You can find out more via Claire's website www.learningthroughplay.com.au



CELA professional development relating to this topic


About Claire

Claire Joyce is a paediatric occupational therapist working in Sydney and the author of the newly released box set titled "How Does Your Body Feel?".

The How Does Your Body Feel? series has been endorsed by the well-known Australian parenting author, educator and speaker Maggie Dent.

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