Co-regulation and developing self-regulation

Before we think, we feel



Recently researchers have begun to study the nature of an intense “co-regulation” interaction between infants and adults.  (Much of the research refers to mothers, but “co-regulation” takes place with fathers and other adults who spend time with an infant.)

Using EEG scans of an adult/infant pair during play and other activities, researchers have noted that brain-wave patterns of the infant synchronize with those of the adult.  In other words, the emotional state of the infant mimics that of the adult.  It can be said that the infant is learning emotions from the adult, much in the same way that infants learn language – through observation and imitation.  (To a lesser degree the infant’s emotional state influences the adults.  For example, many people find the sound of a baby crying to be very distressing.)

Eye contact is a major pathway for this influence, though sounds, touch, and probably pheromones play a role as well.

Emotions cause, and are caused by, brain hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol.  As the infant adjusts to the adult’s emotional state, she/he produces the same chemicals that are flooding the adult’s brain.  This interaction, and the resulting hormones, mold the infant’s plastic brain, making it susceptible to approaching life with anxiety or confidence, focus or distraction, anger or calm, impulsiveness or self-regulation.

(As the child matures and her/his brain develops, this co-regulation effect diminishes, but it never completely disappears.  Humans are social animals.  Understanding and responding to the emotional states of others is needed for the well-being and survival of both the individual and the group.  It is common for adults to be “infected” by the emotional state of those nearby.  Lovers gazing into each other’s eyes reinforce their bond.  Someone in a room full of anxious or angry people can easily become anxious or angry too, occasionally leading to mobs or mass hysteria.)



Group dynamics, and the resulting co-regulation effects, continue beyond infancy.  In the classroom students are affected by emotional signals from the teacher and their peers.  Keep in mind that it takes only one student having difficulty self-regulating to affect the learning and behaviour of the whole class. Investing time and effort into setting conditions that make it easier for each student to self-regulate will benefit every student in the class.

Some activities (such as reading) require students to be  calm and subdued.  Others (such as group problem-solving or drama) requires a more engaged active state.  Still others (such as a competitive activity such as sports) requires a great deal of energy.  Using the detachment suitable for reading would be completely ill-suited during a game of soccer.

A core task of every teacher is to help each child, and the class as a whole, self-regulate: to learn to assess the emotional state needed for an activity and to generate that state.

Requiring compliance to a rigid set of rules and behaviour inhibits the development of self-regulation, though it may well help promote repressive self-control.  Punishment, particularly if severe and repeated or erratic and arbitrary, often generates the stress/danger hormone cortisol leading to a level of anxiety that makes achieving self-regulation more difficult.

Interestingly, excessive praise can have a similar effect, causing the child to monitor the teacher’s emotional state more closely than her/his own.  Successful self-regulation depends awareness of your internal emotional state; if you a constantly trying to please someone else, you have less ability to pay attention to how you feel.