Self-regulation is the Greatest Gift We Can Give to Children

Over one hundred years ago, the young child’s emerging self-discipline was seen by Montessori as one of the positive outcomes of her pedagogy, which advocates respect for the child, freedom with responsibility in an environment prepared to meet the child’s needs, as well as support from a trusting and sensitive adult who cherishes the child’s capacity for self-construction. Using today’s language of child development and our knowledge of neuroscience, Mine Conkbayir explains the gradual process of the child’s growing capacity for self-discipline – today commonly referred to as self-regulation. Conkbayir also explains very clearly how self-regulation supports the child personal, social and emotional development.

Whilst the terms used to describe the process may seem very different, the meanings are very similar. It is important that we tease out the commonalities and recognise the differences, as we come to appreciate the genius of Montessori’s intuitive understanding of children and make current connections with Conkbayir’s five steps to supporting the child’s ability to develop self-regulation. It is important because these links provide the foundation of healthy emotional development as the child’s personal and social skills unfold in front of our eyes. It is also important because the current mandatory requirements of the EYFS paint a confused picture of the relationship between self-regulation and school readiness.

As Conkbayir explains ( accessed 2/1/21)

“Where a child repeatedly experiences hostile responses from their primary caregivers, where they are not given the time, space and words to label and talk through their feelings, they consequently communicate their feelings of fear, anxiety, embarrassment and frustration in ways which do them more harm than good.  This is where aggressive and defensive behaviour manifests because the child does not know how to operate from their upstairs, rational brain, and instead operates from their downstairs, reactive brain.  This results in the child failing to thrive emotionally, socially, cognitively and academically. Not just in childhood but with serious implications throughout their life trajectory. Co-regulating these uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions from the beginning, can give the child a healthy and robust foundation from which to navigate their way through life”.                                            

By referring to co-regulation, Conkbayir places significant importance on the adult who gives children time, space and the language to express their feelings.  In other words, the adult needs to know what is or is not a reasonable behavioural expectation from any individual child in their care.  The child’s personality, culture and experiences also contribute to their capacity to control their responses to social and learning situations. In chapter 25 in The Absorbent Mind Montessori describes the child’s gradually evolving capacity to follow social convention and manage their behaviour.  For me, there is a close link between the level of obedience and the child’s capacity for self-discipline/self-regulation.  Montessori (1949/1988: 231) explains that as adults we often link obedience to dominating the child’s will by substituting our will for theirs and this results in the child’s obedience. In other words: the children do what we ask them to do.  Montessori believed passionately that “Under proper conditions, the will is a force which impels activities beneficial to life …. will lead them to make progress and to develop their powers.” She explains further that “children choose their work* spontaneously, and by repeating the work they have chosen, they develop an awareness of their actions.  That which at first was but a vital impulse (horme) has become a deliberate act.” 

And this is where Conkbayir’s co-regulation comes to play an important role – young children need adults to help their emerging capacity for self-regulation, or self-discipline as Montessori puts it.  Montessori explains very clearly why the toddler is unable to do what we ask – they are nor developmentally really (Conkbayir uses our current knowledge of the brain to explain why the child is not capable of following our request, unless they themselves wish to do what we ask for).  Gradually, the child’s capacity to do what is best not only for themselves but also for the group emerges – Montessori (1949/1988:239) calls this “sense of social solidarity. … The power to obey is the last phase in the development of the will, which in its turn has made obedience possible.” 

The connection between Conkbayir’s work and Montessori’s writing is in the child’s capacity to control one’s will.  Montessori tells us “Much of this method rests on that.  There is, on the one hand, freedom to choose and to be diligent, and on the other hand there is inhibition.  Children under these conditions use their will power, both for the purpose of action and of restraint of action” 

Montessori believed that for children to achieve this capacity – to use their will power constructively – they need freedom of movement, choice, speech, to repeat and also not to do – these conditions provide the child with time and space. Conkbayir adds that the child needs the language to express their feelings and this is where the co-construction of co-regulation comes to play such an important role in the process of self-regulation. The adult must not only prepare the environment, they must also verbalise, explain and provide sensitive emotional support for the child as their self-regulation gradually emerges.  A sense of social solidarity emerges as the child’s capacity to control the will grows. They come to understand that certain behaviours are necessary not only for their own well-being but also for the wellbeing of the whole group and this is where there are strong connections with Montessori’s definition of “normalisation”.

To find out more about Conkbayir’s current guidance of co-regulation and its relevance to Montessori practice, join us on Tuesday 19 January for our first Challenging Practice webinar of 2021. Register here.

Barbara Isaacs, January 2021


Conkbayir, M.

Montessori M. (1949/1988) The Absorbent Mind Oxford: ABC Clio Press

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