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Mental Health | Social Emotional Learning | April 30, 2024

Build Self-Regulation Strategies for Kids by Learning About the Brain

The brain’s threat response can lead to impulsive and challenging behaviors in children and, if unregulated, can result in cycle of conflict. Understanding this threat response is the first step in learning to calm it. This article offers simple ways to help children understand the threat response in their brains and simple strategies to manage it, resulting in improved self-regulation. 

The Prevalence of Behavior Challenges in Children 

Young children are getting a lot of attention these days and not all of it is positive. 

Many schools are overwhelmed by significant increases in behaviors such as biting, kicking, and hitting. Children are running from the classroom, from the school. Preschoolers are expelled at rapidly increasing rates, and many parents don’t know what to do. 

Even when there isn’t a clear behavior challenge such as biting or hitting, many children are anxious and withdrawn. They may struggle to share, take another’s perspective, cope with their feelings, or connect with others. 

This is understandable! We are living through an extremely challenging period in human history, and, in some ways, it is especially hard for children. If you are 3- to 8-years-old today, COVID stripped you of an especially critical developmental phase when you would normally have begun to expand your social and emotional world and practice essential skills, the same skills that are lagging in many children today. Self-regulation strategies for kids are lacking.

For a variety of reasons, the world can seem very out of control to both children and adults and this “out of control” feeling can lead to a constant sense of danger, of imminent threat. That threat response in the child’s brain can lead to impulsive behaviors, which can trigger the threat response in adults. 

Then there is conflict, everyone’s threat response is up, and the cycle continues.

But, as always, there is hope! 

In this post for parents, educators, counselors (anyone who lives or works with children) we will share simple ways to help children (and adults!) understand this threat response, the fight-flight-freeze response in the brain, which drives many of the behaviors that become major obstacles for children, teachers, parents—every human. 

We will then offer important co-regulation and self-regulation strategies for kids. These strategies can be used to help children connect with their brains and their bodies with kindness and compassion, as they learn to manage their own threat response. 

3 Main Steps to Manage the Threat Response 

When it comes to managing children’s threat response, the key is to identify and respond appropriately to the brain. We can begin with three simple steps to teach self-regulation strategies for kids and adults. 

Help Children Become BBFFs: Brain-Body Friends Forever 

Many adults seem comfortable helping children learn about their bodies and how they work. We help children understand that their bones support them, and their muscles help them walk, run, jump, or push the wheels on their wheelchair. We may help them feel their heartbeat on their necks or the inside of their wrists and teach that their heart pumps blood around their bodies. When it comes to educating kids about the insides of their body, though, we seem to stop at the collar bones! Why? 

We don’t appear to have language to talk with children about how their brains work, so we focus mainly on protecting the brain from physical harm—wear a helmet, get good sleep for your healthy brain, and so on. 

This is partly because it is only in the last three decades that neuroscientists have been able to see brain function with fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging). So, if we adults simply haven’t had the information to teach about brain function, how could teachers, parents, and others have been able share this info with children? 

Now we can! 

And, in my opinion, it is critical that we do. Why? Because if children can understand just a bit about how their brains work and how their brains interact with their bodies, they can think compassionately about their brains and connect the dots to their behaviors and feelings. They can more easily build mindfulness (the brain-body connection). This increases self-regulation skills for kids in powerful ways. Therefore, the first step in identifying and managing that threat response in their brain is for children to understand the connection between their brains and their bodies. 

Help Children Learn Real Words

Often when we talk with young children about anger or anxiety, we use terms such as “the worry monster” or encourage children to imagine that there is a dragon inside the brain or body that is making the child behave in dragon-like, monster-type, super scary ways. 

This is fine, and playful, and I appreciate this approach—we need children to be engaged to learn! However, over the course of a long career working with very young children, I have found that they are frequently 100 percent capable of using real words to understand important concepts, and I believe there is tremendous power and comfort in that understanding. We owe it to children and families to teach accurate words as they learn about their brains in the same way we teach “heart,” “veins,” “stomach,” and “lungs.”

So, let’s talk about the amygdala. The amygdala (uh-mig-duh-luh) is a small, yet mighty part of the alarm system in our brains and bodies. Among other responsibilities, the amygdala alerts humans (and many other animals) to danger and is essential for our survival. We don’t have to tell our amygdala to react. It acts automatically to connect to our central nervous system, activating a complex and extremely quick process where hormones (or fast messengers) such as cortisol and adrenalin trigger our bodies to be ready for something to happen, perceived as something dangerous.

Anxious children and/or those who have been impacted by trauma or chronic stress due to food insecurity, violence, intense bullying, and other adverse experiences may be constantly in this threat response mode even when there is no immediate danger. 

This can lead to what some adults describe as “0–60” behaviors. A child who is playing quietly and is then suddenly intensely angry at a playmate or a sibling is likely feeling threatened in some way even if there is no obvious or observable threat from the other child. 

The amygdala in threat response sees the child who took the toy as not just another child, not just a classmate in the block area, but rather a lion charging at the child. Perceiving a threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, “FIGHT back! Run! You are in danger!” In threat response mode the child hits, throws a block, runs away to hide from this danger under a table. 

In my clinical work with children, first at a community mental health center and now in private practice, I have had children as young as four years old explaining to their parents or teachers how their amygdala makes a mistake sometimes and leads to _______ . Insert challenging behavior: hitting their brother with a toy truck, running away in the parking lot, hiding in the back of the closet, not wanting to fly on the airplane, and so on. 

What is amazing about this is that children learn that there is a process driving their behaviors and once they understand this process, they can take actions towards positive change. We can playfully teach children the real words for parts of their brain and increase their understanding over time. 

Help Children Learn How to Co-regulate—then Self-Regulate

Co-regulation means practicing regulation skills with children, scaffolding their ability to regulate with you. It is ideal to practice these strategies when both you and children you live or work with are calm (not in threat response mode). Once children learn how to practice these skills effectively, they can gradually take these tools into other contexts/areas of life where they may feel threatened and will need to be able to regulate on their own. 

Try the following three core strategies focused on breath, muscles, and thoughts when supporting a child who is learning to calm the threat response in their brain and body.

Note: These skills do not have to be used in this exact order and children can be empowered to figure out what works best for them. For example, some children REALLY don’t like to be offered a breathing strategy until they have first gone into their muscles or their thoughts.  


Our breath is the only autonomic function in the body that we can control. And, for some children and adults, this makes it an extremely effective strategy for calming the threat response in the brain. Controlled breathing just means breathing with intention—tuning into the fact of breathing and focusing on breathing in a calm way. 

Ask children: Are we breathing or are we holding our breath? Then intentionally breathe together. This can be breathing around a certain shape on your palm, tracing the fingers on one hand and then the other, or simply breathing in to a certain count and slowly breathing out again. Try to help children focus on nothing else other than the act of their breathing in and out.


By helping children learn to tighten (or contract) muscles throughout their bodies and then intentionally releasing these muscles we help children learn to CHOOSE tightening rather than the reactive muscle tightening that can happen automatically in response to a perceived threat. This muscle practice can help children learn to regulate when they feel their muscles tightening to hit another child, kick, or prepare to run from the room. 

Ask children: Where do you feel tight in your body when you get angry, worried, ready to run or fight? Now try tightening those same muscles as much as possible on purpose, take a deep breath into those muscles, H-O-L-D…then gently release and let go. How does that feel?


Use the power of imagination to help children choose a thought that is calming and that creates a sense of safety. 

Ask children: Who is a person who helps you stay calm? Or, what is a place where you feel safe? Encourage the child to imagine being with that person or in that place. What would it feel like there? What would they see? This visual imagery can go a long way in refocusing the brain’s energy from reactivity in the amygdala to calm, goal-directed focus. 

Putting it All Together 

Understanding the brain’s threat response is a tool for kids (and adults) to calm it! Once children are aware of the threat response in their brain, that their brain and body communicate all the time, and that they have some power to control (or train) their own brains in certain ways, you have an excellent foundation for building self-regulation strategies for kids. 

Together, we can help all children become aware of basic brain function and we can build on this understanding to help children practice critical self-regulation skills, supporting their brain-body connection over time. Understanding the brain and practicing strategies for managing our threat response can result in powerful self-regulation strategies for kids. 

Author Bio:

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Anna Housley Juster, Ph.D., LICSW

Anna Housley Juster, Ph.D., LICSW, is a child and adolescent mental health clinician and early childhood education consultant. She began her career as a Head Start teacher and has over two decades of experience supporting children and families across a variety of contexts including schools, museums, libraries, and clinical mental health settings. During several years in children's media, she served as director of content for Sesame Street developing curriculum for the series, publishing,...

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