• Self-regulation encourages children to control emotion and impulses to keep them from wigging out. (AAP)Source: AAP
Unsure whether his five year-old son’s propensity to lose his cool is just a phase, or something to worry about, Ian Rose signs him up for a course in self-regulation. Now, if he can just get him into the car...
Ian Rose

21 Mar 2016 - 9:44 AM  UPDATED 21 Mar 2016 - 2:15 PM

He’s been outside enjoying his favourite game - shouting at his scarecrow - for the past twenty minutes. I told him ten minutes ago we’d be leaving in five, but he pretended not to hear me.

“Come on, mate. We don’t want to be late for your self-regulation session, do we?”

I try to make this sound an exciting prospect, but he’s not about to fall for it.

“No. I don’t want to go!”

“But...” (trying to resist the bribery-with-a-treat option, best kept in the back pocket for now) “that nice lady, Jodie, will be waiting for us. You remember how nice she is?”

He considers this for a moment.

“You’re stupid, daddy,” he points out, before returning his attentions to the scarecrow.

The boy is proving a handful.

Affectionate and adorable when things are going his way, he is too often transformed into a vortex of rage and wailing despair when some onerous duty - say, eating a meal, brushing teeth, putting shoes on or leaving the house for kindergarten - comes along to kill his delicate five- year-old’s vibe.

So we’re trying out this self-regulation course at the local community health centre. Self-regulation is a facet of what neuroscientists term “executive function”, the ability to control emotional and cognitive impulses, to order thoughts and generally keep from wigging out. Handy stuff.

Affectionate and adorable when things are going his way, he is too often transformed into a vortex of rage and wailing despair.

Studies have indicated that young children with good levels of self-regulation are more likely to develop into healthy, happy and academically successful adults than their more impulsive peers. “The Marshmallow Test”, based on the work of Walter Mischel at Stanford University and focusing on delayed gratification, is one famous example.

A number of approaches that have been adopted to develop self-regulation in young children, with snappy names like the Alert Program and How Does My Engine Run, have been getting some positive outcomes, so we figured we’d give this one a shot. It’s free and gives me an hour’s break on a Tuesday afternoon from the battleground of parenting.

At the health centre, the boy listens to a story that maps out various emotional “zones” and attaches them to a particular colour. (Back at home, he apologised for calling me stupid, and agreed to come along to the session, on the promise that we’d drop by the op-shop afterwards, to buy the scarecrow a new beanie.)

There are four of these zones - blue for bored, listeless or sad; green for good-to-go, ready-to-learn; yellow for frustrated, fearful or just plain silly (a particular favourite of the boy’s and, yes, mine); red for the traditional extremes of fury and anguish.

There’s an obstacle course of soft-play cells for the boy to negotiate, with various picture-cards to collect along the way. These show individual faces that might be frowning, yawning, beaming or screwed up in violent anger, and, once he completes the course, he has to stick them into the blue, green, yellow or red zones that have been set up on the wall.

From the sidelines, our friendly and engaging occupational therapist, Jodie, offers encouragement.

“Hey, do you really think that girl with the cross face belongs in the blue zone? Is she looking tired?”

By the second time around, he’s pretty much nailed it. Then we have a chat about what we might say to someone who was, for instance, in the yellow zone, and what we might do to get ourselves out of the red zone, because, hey, the red zone is not a fun place to be, now, is it?

During this discussion, he throws me the occasional sidelong “what the hell am I doing here, old man?” glance from beneath his fringe, but generally plays ball. But when asked to take another turn around the obstacle course, he scatters picture-cards in his wake and sticks those he keeps into the wrong zones, just for kicks, sniggering all the way.

This kind of anti-authoritarian, subversive streak is something I really don’t want regulated out of him. 

I realise that this kind of anti-authoritarian, subversive streak is something I really don’t want regulated out of him. Punk rock, and all that. So I’m happy that Jodie doesn’t call him on it.

The session is drawing to a close. We get some homework - a few activities to reinforce the boy’s awareness of those emotional zones, as a tool to self-reflect when things are getting out of hand. I make a promise not to leave them festering in his bag all week, that I’ll actually take them out and do them with him. This promise I will fail to keep.

“Now go one more round of the course, or play a different game?” asks bubbly Jodie, “What would you like to do?”

The boy’s response is even, free from any note of resentful whinge.

“I want to go to the op-shop.”

Self-regulation. The kid’s getting there. And maybe, judging by my own successful avoidance of the red zone for the remains of the day, so am I.


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