top of page

Co-Regulation and Social Work

Self-regulation definition, co-regulation definition, how to foster co-regulation, caregiver self-regulation, level of co-regulation, support for various age groups: infants to young adults, practice approach for social workers

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material


Young person or young people: children, youth and young adults

Caregivers: parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors

What is self-regulation? Why is it important?

Self-regulation is the act of managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed action. The development of self-regulation begins at birth and continues into young adulthood and beyond (Pahigiannis, Rosanbalm & Murray, 2019). Multiple layers of factors contribute to self-regulation from biological predisposition to caregiver support and environmental context. While biology sets the state for self-regulation, more complex skills and motivation for self-regulation develop through interaction with caregivers and the broader environment from birth through young adulthood (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017b).

In comparison to children with poor self-regulation skills, children who have learned to regulate their inner states and to control their behavior reveal more social skills, better school performance, higher reasoning capacities, and better health as adults (Bechtel-Kuehne, Strodthoff, & Paune, 2016).In a similar vein Rosanbalm & Murray (2017a) suggest self-regulation has a foundational role in promoting wellbeing across the lifespan, including educational achievement and physical, emotional, social and economic health.Referring to adolescents and young adults, Murray and Rosanbalm (2017) suggest supporting self-regulation development in youth is an investment in society, as stronger self-regulation predicts higher income, better financial planning, fewer risk behaviors like substance use and violence, and decreased health costs.

What is co-regulation?

Co-regulation is the warm, responsive interactions and support, structure, coaching and modelling provided by caregivers to foster self-regulation development in children (Pahigiannis, Rosanbalm & Murray, 2019). Co-regulation will look different at different ages as child capacity for self-regulation grows but remains a critical resource across development (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017a).

How do caregivers co-regulate young people’s behaviour?

Effective co-regulation by a supportive caregiver (e.g. parent, teacher, coach and other mentor) will promote self-efficacy and allow children, youth and young adults (referred to as ‘young people’) to feel secure enough to practice new skills and learn from mistakes. There are three broad categories of support that caregivers can provide that will help young people develop and expand self-regulatory skills as they grow:

  1. Provide a warm, responsive relationship by displaying care and affection, recognizing and responding to cues that signal needs and wants, and providing caring support in times of stress.

  2. Create a structured environment that is physically and emotionally safe for young people to explore and learn at their level of development without serious risk to wellbeing, e.g. provide consistent, predictable routines and expectations, clear goals for behaviour regulation, and well-defined logical consequences for negative behaviours.

  3. Teach skills and then provide supports for self-regulation in the moment, i.e. through modelling, instruction, opportunities for practice, prompts for skill enactment, and reinforcement of each step towards successful use of skills (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017a).

What about caregivers’ own self-regulation?

Caregiver capacity of co-regulation will depend, in large part, on that caregiver’s own self-regulation skills. Caregiver self-regulation during a stressful interaction with a young person is no easy task and caregivers may need support, practice and coaching to build coping and calm-down skills. Adults who are overly stressed may have a harder time calming a young child and may increase a child’s agitation. Successful co-regulation with young people requires caregivers to:

  • Pay attention to their own feelings and reactions during stressful interactions with a young person.

  • Pay attention to their own thoughts and beliefs about the behaviours of others.

  • Use strategies to self-calm and respond effectively and compassionately, e.g. deep breaths, self-talk. A calm response keeps the young person’s feelings from escalating and models regulation skills.

Caregivers who focus on improving their own coping and calm-down skills will build their own self-regulation, provide a more calming influence on children in their care, and be better able to teach these same skills to children as they grow (Rosanbalm & Murry, 2017a & 2017b).Caregivers with sound, personal self-regulation skills will exhibit positive control approaches (e.g. teaching and encouraging appropriate behaviours) as opposed to negative control approaches (criticism, harshness, and physical interventions).The latter have a negative impact on young people’s self-regulation development (Bechtel-Kuehne, Strodthoff, & Paune, 2016).

How much co-regulation is needed?

Capacity for self-regulation develops over time, from infancy through young adulthood and beyond.Consequently, the amount of co-regulation a young person needs will vary as they grow.The graph presents a theoretical model of the balance of a young person’s capacity for self-regulation and the need for adult support.Depending on developmental stage, environmental circumstances and individual differences, young people have the capacity to fill their self-regulation bucket to varying levels.Caregivers need to provide co-regulation to fill the remainder of that bucket.There are two clear developmental periods where young people’s abilities to self-regulate increases dramatically, corresponding to changes in brain development: early childhood and early adolescence.Support in these developmental windows may be particularly well-timed to smooth life transitions, first into school and then into adulthood (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017a).

Do all young people require the same level of co-regulation support?

While the need for co-regulation support varies across the lifespan, there can also be individual differences in a young person’s self-regulation capacity and need for co-regulation support. These differences may be based on internal factors such as biology, temperament, and/or skill development. They may also result from environmental factors including experiences of stress and adversity (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017a). These situations are likely to require additional self-regulation by caregivers. For example children with a “difficult temperament” (i.e. negative emotionality, less positivity, higher irritability and activity) have been found to influence parenting practices—leading to more negative caregiver control behaviours (Bechtel-Kuehne, Strodthoff, & Paune, 2016).

Co-regulation support by developmental age group

While co-reguation approaches change across young people’s development, maintaining a warm, caring relationship remains central. For young children, adults manage all aspects. For young adults, supporting skill enactment may be the only focus (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017a).

Silkenbeumer, Schiller, Holodynski and Kastner (2016) examine the use of co-regulation in emotionally challenging situations with pre-schoolers. They suggest caregivers use one or more of four types of regulation strategies:

  1. distraction, which shift the focus to a new target and thus trigger a new line of consecutive mental processes eventually resulting in a different emotion. For example, a child who sees a plate of biscuits and wants to take one can be distracted by an attractive toy.

  2. reappraisal, tailored towards taking a fresh look at the same target, e.g. telling the child the biscuits are not as yummy as they look.

  3. soothing, directly addressing the intensity of experience, e.g. hugging the child and comforting the child.

  4. response modulation, either inhibiting the impulse or transforming it to a socially acceptable form, e.g. telling the child to politely ask the other child whether it would like to share.

Initially caregivers adopt all four strategies but as children get older, more prompts are offered to children to guide them towards self-regulation. Eventually meta-cognitive prompts predominate. The authors suggest caregivers move through the following levels to enabling to children to regulate their emotions in increasingly self-regulated ways:

Level 1 (adopted emotion regulation and emotion talk): Initially, a caregiver adopts all four regulation strategies without involving the child in any way. Thus, caregivers decide whether and how an emotion needs to be regulated and offer help in emotion regulation. For example, the child could be distracted, soothed or inhibited from responding.

Level 2 (co-regulation through specific prompts): Co-regulation is characterized by providing the child with specific prompts that she or he can apply for regulating her or his emotion without further assistance. For example, caregivers might instruct the child to defocus the emotion-eliciting event (i.e. distraction), to take a deep breath (i.e. soothing), to follow a specific rule (i.e. response modulation) or caregivers might provide the child with an alternative look at the situation (i.e. reappraisal). This level helps the child to establish a basic repertoire of effective behavioral routines to regulate emotions.

Level 3 (co-regulation through meta-cognitive prompts): Caregivers use metacognitive prompts to transfer further parts of a reflective emotion regulation to the child. Increasingly the child is more and more involved in the process. For instance, the child is prompted either to generate alternative appraisals (e.g. “Did it really happen this way?”), or offered distractive, soothing or behavioral responses (e.g. “What could you do now?”, “How could you distract/sooth yourself?”), or to choose from a set of alternative appraisals or responses and execute the self-chosen alternative (e.g. “What would you like to do instead: go outside, paint a picture or play with the others over there?”). This level of co-regulation helps a child to actively explore and evaluate alternative regulation strategies and to choose and execute a specific strategy from a set of alternatives.

Frequency of co-regulation use across developmental periods

Despite the ongoing need for co-regulation support across development from birth through young adulthood, the proportion of self-regulation interventions that target co-regulation as a mechanism of change declines dramatically across this age range. Research suggests the number of interventions employing a co-regulation component across the age groups are

  • infant/toddler – all,

  • preschool-age – more than half,

  • elementary school age – one-third,

  • middle school – 20%,

  • high school – 5%,

  • young adulthood – 0%.

This data indicates a missed opportunity to support youth and young adults as they enter more complex environments. Furthermore, research shows significant benefit from targeting caregivers such as parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors in interventions that support co-regulation (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017a).

Practice Approach

It appears social workers have a number of areas in which they can intervene to assist in the development of self-regulation in young people. When intervening the following would be worthwhile keeping in mind:

  • Be aware of the types of co-regulation needed for each age group.

  • Be aware of the data indicating the co-regulation is often not taught to the elementary school age groups nor those older.

  • Where necessary, include addressing caregivers’ lack of self-regulation in any support offered around building co-regulation skills.

  • The strategies suggested in various parenting skill programs with caregivers may be relevant. (See for some of these skills.

  • Utilise the material on the website, from where much of the above material, and what follows, has been sourced.

Pahigiannis, Rosanbalm and Murray (2019) list six general tips for social workers to use with families to enhance co-regulation skills in your people. They also provide a list of web-based resources (included with their reference in the References/Supporting Material section).

1. Establish a strong relationship with each family.

  • Take time to understand the family’s culture and the caregivers’ goals for the child and incorporate their values and preferences into your work with them.

  • Listen openly to the caregivers’ concerns, and work collaboratively to address them. Start with the caregivers’ needs and ideas, and together identify approaches to address their concerns.

  • Empower caregivers and help build their sense of competence by identifying their strengths, recognizing their efforts, and providing encouragement.

2. Help caregivers build their own self-regulation capacity.

  • Help caregivers understandthat strengthening their own self-regulation skills will have positive benefits on their children’s self-regulation development. Share with them the benefits of mindfulness practices for their own well-being as well as the caregiver-child relationship.

  • Work with caregivers to identify sources of stress and ways to lessen the impact of stress on themselves and their children as much as possible. Talk through life’s day-to-day challenges and help them come up with solutions to reduce the stressors when possible. Connect them with local services and supports as needed.

  • Coach caregivers on how to identify and manage their own emotions during stressful situations. For example, they might take their own “time out” to calm down or talk with a friend about solutions before acting to address a problem. This will enable them to respond to their children in a more positive and thoughtful way and will model self-regulation strategies.

  • Pay attention to the possibility of underlying mental health issues, such as depression or substance misuse, which are common responses to ongoing stress and adversity. Provide emotional support for the caregivers and connect them with mental health resources and local services when needed.

  • Address possible risk factors and build protective factors for child maltreatment or neglect. Understand the various factors that may increase the chances for child abuse and neglect and promote protective factors. If you have specific concerns, use available tools to prevent or respond if necessary.

3. Support and strengthen the caregiver-child relationship.

  • Help caregivers understandthat having a warm and responsive relationship with their child is the most important part of the child’s environment that shapes brain development and is the cornerstone of effective co-regulation.

  • Help caregivers appreciate their child’s unique personality, and assist them in identifying, understanding, and responding to their child’s cues and behaviors. The Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (SEFEL) guide can help caregivers learn what to expect and how to understand behaviors in children from birth to age 2 (see tip sheet resource 1 in references below). The Temperament Assessment Tool may help the social worker and caregiver support the child’s unique traits (See tip sheet resources 2a & 2b in references below).

  • Guide caregivers in providing warm and responsive care using daily caregiving routines, such as feeding, changing nappies, and bathing. Predictable and sensitive care will help establish trust and a positive connection between the caregiver and child.

  • Engage caregivers in playful interactions with their children using simple materials in the home and during normal daily routines. Model warm and responsive play when you interact with their child.

4. Help caregivers cultivate calm and structured home environments.

  • Help parents and caregivers understand how a child’s environment and experiences can influence behavior. When children experience more stress than they can handle, this may lead to “acting out” behaviors, signalling that they feel overwhelmed and need support. Parents and caregivers can prevent some problem behaviors by buffering key stressors through warm, responsive relationships and consistent, positive routines and structure.

  • Work with caregivers to establish family rituals and routines that facilitate positive interactions with the child. Help the caregivers understand how routines and structure help children feel calm and safe and can provide a sense of security during stressful moments.

  • Support basic parenting skills development to enhance the safety and wellbeing of the child and to boost the caregivers’ self-confidence. The 7-step format for coaching caregivers in a way that is supportive and non-critical.

The Project SafeCare 7 Step Format

  1. Describe the target behaviour or skill:

  2. Explain the rationale for teaching the skill:

  3. Model each behaviour (demonstrate desired behaviours):

  4. Ask the parent to practise the behaviour:

  5. Provide positive feedback (point out positive aspects of performance):

  6. Provide constructive feedback (point out aspects of performance needing improvement:

  7. Preview parent’s performance:

  • Coach the caregivers in positive, responsive parenting. Encourage and reinforce caregivers’ sensitivity and responsiveness to their child’s behavior, and model positive behavior management in your interactions with the child.

5. Help caregivers learn how to respond with both warmth and structure during stressful moments.

  • Help caregivers practice positive discipline and maintain a warm relationship while setting limits. For children of all ages, caregivers should remain calm during stressful moments and while enforcing rules. For children who are preschool-aged and older, brief and logical consequences will help encourage positive behavior, especially when this is done in the context of a positive relationship with the child. Providing consistent structure and calmness will help children continuously improve their self-regulation abilities.

  • ·Help caregivers work with their children during calm moments to develop self-regulation skills that they can use when they experience upsetting situations. For example, the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (SEFEL) initiative provides activities, scripted stories and a caregiver’s guide that can help a child learn positive behaviors and how to react calmly when upset. (See tip sheet resource 3 in references below)

  • Provide tools caregivers can use to address challenging behaviors in preschool-aged children. These teaching tools and behavior management tools provide ready-to-use ideas and materials to help young children with challenging behavior.

6. Support positive family relationships and community connections.

  • Model respect and compassion in your relationships with the children, the caregivers, and with other adults. Help the caregivers understand that their relationships with other individuals provide an example that will influence how children learn to interact with others.

  • If there are multiple children in the family, help the caregivers identify strategies to support positive sibling relationships. For example, spending quality one-on-one time with each child for even 15 minutes a day can reduce sibling competition for attention. Caregivers can also mediate sibling conflicts to help the children understand each other’s perspectives and learn social problem-solving skills.

  • Consider group sessions that bring together mothers, fathers, co-parents, or other caregivers to encourage families to connect as a community. Use these sessions to help all caregivers understand the importance of their relationships with the child and to share co-regulation approaches.

  • Take advantage of opportunities to support relationship-building with others in the community. Socializing with other families can strengthen relationships within and between families. For pre-schoolers, play groups or outings can support development of relationships with peers and other adults. Group activities can also help caregivers establish supportive relationships with other parents and caregivers.

  • Help caregivers talk to their preschool aged and older children about how to be a good friend to their peers. For one example, see the “I Can Be a Super Friend” story from SEFEL’s Scripted Stories for Social Situations available at

References/Supplementary material

Bechtel-Kuehne, S., Strodthoff, C. A., & Pauen, S. (2016). Co- and self-regulation in the caregiver dyad: Parental expectations, children’s compliance, and parental practices during early years. Journal of Self-Regulation and Regulation, 2, 32-56. doi: 10.11588/josar.2016.2.34352. Retrieved from

Murray, D.W. & Rosanbalm, K. (2017). Promoting self-regulation in adolescents and young adults: A practice brief. OPRE Report # 2015-82. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Pahigiannis, K., Rosanbalm, K. and Murray, D. W. (2019). Supporting the development of self-regulation in young children: Tips for practitioners working with families in home settings. OPRE Brief #2019-30. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Additional web-based resources:

Rosanbalm, K. D., & Murray, D. W. (2017a). Caregiver co-regulation across development: A practice brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017b). Promoting self-regulation in early childhood: A practice brief. OPRE Brief #2017-79. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Silkenbeumer, J., Schiller, E-M., Holodynski, M., & Kartner, J.(2016). The role of co-regulation for the development of social-emotional competence.Journal of Self-Regulation and Regulation, 2, 17-32. doi: 10.11588/josar.2016.2.3435.Retrieved from

bottom of page