Executive Functions: Self-regulation and Emotion

Executive Functions: Self-Regulation and Emotion

“My kid can’t control his emotions! He gets so upset about everything or overreacts to minor incidents. I don’t know why he is like that.”

Executive Functions involve so many aspects of our lives. Our job as human beings is to monitor our state of arousal and ensure that it is at the appropriate level for the task at hand. Such self-regulatory functions, such as set-shifting, transitions, organization in time and space, initiation of task and emotional regulation, are some of the big areas of our lives that fall under the umbrella of executive functions.

Of course all aspects of executive functions and self-regulation are important when an individual needs to attend to a task. However, regulation of emotion is most likely the most all-encompassing and intertwined of the executive functions.

I am currently reading a book entitled “Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation” by Stuart Shanker. In this book, the author discusses the six critical elements to optimal self-regulation:

  1. When feeling calmly focused and alert, the ability to know that one is calm and alert.
  2. When one is stressed, the ability to recognize what is causing that stress.
  3. The ability to recognize stressors both within and outside the classroom
  4. The desire to deal with those stressors
  5. The ability to develop strategies for dealing with those stressors.
  6. The ability to recover efficiently and effectively from dealing with stressors.


Shanker discusses the Five-Domain Model of Self-Regulation. One of these domains is The Emotional Domain.

Emotion regulation is as much about up-regulating positive emotions as it is about down-regulating negative ones.

Shanker brings up research done by Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence and Social Emotional Learning. Goleman’s model identifies four main elements of emotional intelligence:

  •  Self-awareness – the ability to identify one’s own emotions
  • Self-management – the ability to modulate one’s emotions
  • Social awareness – the ability to understand others’ emotions
  • Relationship management – the ability to co-regulate and manage interpersonal conflicts.

Greenspan’s Theory of Emotional Development is cited as stating that a child’s knowledge that they have the tool that can help them stay calm instills upon them the confidence that can help them deal with potential disruptive emotions. Greenspan’s research has some implications for the classroom and for parents that are very helpful.

For Teachers:

  •  Be conscious of your emotions and attempts to self-regulate throughout the day.
  • Acquaint yourself with the many resources on emotional self-regulation (age-appropriate)
  • Look for ways throughout the day to encourage the development of self-regulation
  • Consider and be sensitive to how your students’ cultural and/or social backgrounds may affect their awareness of emotions
  • If possible, introduce yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, or meditation
  • Help your students learn to express how they are feeling verbally so they will be less likely to act out physically.
  • Model self-regulation when faced with frustrating situations in your classroom.
  • Involve families in the students’ attempt to self-regulate by discussing the benefits of their child spending more time being physically active and reading and less time watching television and playing video games.

For Parents:

  •  Provide as predictable a routine as possible
  • Let their child take responsibility for tasks, and for monitoring their own success at completing each task
  • Help relieve the child’s stress by making them aware of upcoming transitions
  • Model self-regulation in their own behaviour

Of course, stressed time and time again by researchers is the idea that children (and all individuals working on healthy emotional well-being) should monitor their state of emotion. Several suggestions were made including cognitive behavioural therapy, keeping a journal of feelings with regard to certain times of day, situations and interactions or engaging in a variety of activities that develop self-awareness.

Happy regulating!


2 thoughts on “Executive Functions: Self-regulation and Emotion

  1. Thank you for sharing those tips!

  2. Pingback: What ARE Executive Functions? | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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