November 21, 2020

Helping Kids Cope in Tough Times

Wise words from Una Malcolm, teacher with the Ontario College of Teachers who runs Bright Light Learners. Read more about how camps build self-regulation skills HERE.

Current research indicates that “kids who can cope with changes to their environment and can manage cognitive flexibility and self-regulate are overwhelmingly kids who are more able to do well in school, at home, with friends, parents, or families,” say Una Malcolm, a teacher with the Ontario College of Teachers who runs Bright Light Learners. “Self-regulation skills are hugely predictive of mental health, achievement, and success.”

Social environments like camp can be critical for supporting the development of self-regulation in children. It “puts kids in [situations] where they need to navigate these issues,”, she says. “They’re having to manage conflict with peers, adapt to change, [and] exhibit cognitive flexibility when they change their schedule.” In a structured environment like camp, “with gentle coaching with peers, teachers, counsellors … kids [learn] to respond in an appropriate way.”

This might include learning to let someone speak first, recalling attention to a task when distractions are present, and learning to control one’s emotions in an overwhelming situation. Malcolm emphasizes that “the very nature of a social environment like camp [presents] opportunities for kids to develop and practice self-regulation skills.”

In these environments, children learn on their own how to cope with upsetting changes to their routine (e.g., a conflict with a peer or getting a question wrong on a test). When exposed to these challenges, they begin to learn strategies for self-regulation that help them manage emotions and remain focused on their duties.

The child internalizes these regulating strategies until they become habit. At that point, they might even begin to instruct their peers in self-regulation. However, it’s important to keep in mind that children can’t develop self-regulation habits overnight. It’s a slow and long process, but with exposure and support, these habits will develop over time.

“[Self-regulation skills] allow us to maintain healthy relationships and as human beings, healthy relationships are a huge part of living,” Malcolm explains. “Self-regulation is essential to being human.”

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