8 minutes

How co-regulation helps to build trust

Children are no strangers to experiencing strong emotions throughout their early years. Recognising and understanding the stressors they encounter is crucial in helping them develop the essential self-regulation skills needed to navigate the highs and lows of life.

Enter co-regulation, a fundamental practice in this developmental process. Children are inherently wired to seek and thrive in connections with others, making co-regulation a natural and essential part of their development. As practitioners and caregivers, our primary role is to delve beyond children’s surface behaviours to fully understand the stressors they face, providing loving support for their immediate and often urgent needs.

In this collaborative process, adults and children work together with a shared purpose; to navigate and resolve the upsets and stressors that will inevitably arise throughout the day. Moreover, co-regulation experiences have a profound impact on the developing mind. Day by day, they shape the architecture of the child’s brain, gradually paving the way toward capacity for self-regulation and laying the foundation for lifelong emotional wellbeing.

Validated Feelings

How does co-regulation build self-regulation? This is achieved through the warm, kind responses of focused and understanding adults, through their emotional availability, and how they respond to children’s emotional needs (swiftly, consistently and sensitively). Furthermore, co-regulation builds a firm foundation of mutual trust and security, which ultimately will nurture emotional intelligence.

As adults name, understand and validate children’s feelings, a secure emotional environment is created where children can experience and work through the more challenging and uncomfortable feelings. Such recognition and understanding allow children to be able to navigate their emotional world in a safe place. domains of stress.

Domains of Stress

There is so much to navigate when you are little! Each day many stressors may be encountered, and it is our responsibility as adults to identify these and help children deal with their often overwhelming feelings. To do this effectively and to co-regulate successfully, we need to understand the different areas of stress and how to support them.

There are five different domains:

1. Biological domain: Biological stress is always a central factor, even if it is not the primary factor. Stressors may include lack of sleep, hunger/thirst, feeling cold/hot, feeling unwell, noise, bright lighting, crowds, not enough exercise/movement, etc. Understanding a child’s biological stress is a key factor in co-regulation.

Actions to support biological stressors: Regular movement breaks; nutritious meals/snacks; opportunities to rest; physical exercise; hydration; predictable routine; one-to-one interaction; designated calm space; minimising loud noises; calming sensory toys; collaboration with families to understand any biological stressors at home.

2. Emotional domain: This includes the ability to experience and understand emotions, both positive (surprise, excitement, anticipation) and negative (disappointment, anxiety, worry, fear, embarrassment). Emotional stress may intensify stressors in other domains.

Actions to support emotional stressors: Acknowledge, label and support children’s feelings; where possible, encourage children to identify their own feelings and say how they are feeling; share books and talk about characters’ feelings; use picture cards or emojis to recognise and label different feelings; use puppets to help children understand different feelings and empathise.

3. Cognitive domain: Cognitive stress is caused by difficulty processing certain kinds of information, e.g., organising thoughts, learning something new, multitasking, being put on the spot, too many interruptions, confusion, poor working memory, boredom, etc. Children with cognitive stress can appear to be coping when they are not.

Actions to support cognitive stress: Predictability and consistency in routines; predictable transitions; visual timetables; clear instructions; simple visual aids where necessary that enhance understanding; opportunities for multisensory play; shared stories (where possible, encouraging children to retell those stories); small-group activities to encourage collaboration (without being put on the spot!); fun memory games; hands-on exploration; imaginary play.

4. Social Domain: Social stressors relate to a child’s difficulty reading social cues/navigating interactions, and understanding the effects of their behaviour on others, making it challenging to connect with others.

Actions to support social stress: Social stories; opportunities for role play; group games and activities; collaborative activities; shared reading; using props and puppets to emphasise feelings and interactions.

5. Prosocial domain: What might set a child on an ‘anti-social’ path? Often it is due to the overload of prosocial stress. This covers a wide range of stressors, including witnessing other people’s strong feelings, hearing a crying baby, illness in the family, waiting for a turn, giving a gift, sharing or even watching the news. Signs of prosocial stress, such as difficulties sharing toys or taking turns, can be linked to a child’s difficulty coping with other people’s stress.

Actions to support prosocial stress: Talk with children about emotions, acknowledging and labelling them; share stories about characters, talking about feelings, labelling and acknowledging; have quiet corners; encourage the child to understand what calms them in certain situations; collaborative activities that have a fun focus.


Co-regulation is not just about calming children in the moment but also creating a safe, loving and warm environment where they can build trust in the adults around them. Taking the time to reflect on your setting’s co-regulatory environment provides valuable insights into how the physical and emotional environment can support and build children’s emotional regulation:

  1. How effectively do we model and demonstrate emotional regulation in the learning environment?
  2. Are there clear and consistent routines in place that provide a sense of security for the children?
  3. How do we encourage and support children in identifying and expressing their emotions?
  4. Are there spaces and resources available for children to engage in calming activities?
  5. How well do we actively listen and respond to children’s concerns?
  6. How are conflicts/disagreements addressed, teaching children healthy ways to resolve these?
  7. How do we provide autonomy within appropriate boundaries, empowering a sense of control?
  8. What strategies are in place to involve families and caregivers in supporting co-regulation at home and in the learning environment?

Partnering for Co-Regulation

In an environment where co-regulation is strong, adults are seen as partners in children’s emotional and social journeys. Strategies support co-regulation both at home and in the setting, creating a unified approach to a child’s emotional development.

Above all, co-regulation is about connection and wellbeing. When settings prioritise building trust, maintaining predictability and offering emotional availability, they create a nurturing space where children can learn to navigate their emotional world safely.

CASE STUDY: co-regulation in action

Sam, aged almost four, had recently joined the setting and settled in well. However, over the past day or so, his usual exuberance was clearly depleted.

His teacher noticed that Sam had become more detached, often sitting alone and reluctant to join others. His teacher approached his mother to see if she could help. Sam’s mother explained that Sam was finding the new routine, different faces and choices of things to do a lot to take in. He also told his mum he did not like loud noises in the setting.

Sam’s teacher realised that Sam’s change in behaviour was linked to underlying stressors. His hesitance to engage in activities he had enjoyed was not due to a lack of interest but was a result of his internal struggles to cope.

He was given regular sensory breaks, where he could access a quiet corner with sensory items like soft cushions, textured objects and calming music. This provided Sam with a retreat when he perceived the noise was becoming overwhelming. His cognitive stress, where there were too many choices, was supported by his key person sitting with him first thing in the morning and supporting him in any choice he made.

Over the next few weeks, Sam slowly reconnected with his peers, tentatively engaging in activities and games with the tailored support provided by his teacher. Adults’ understanding and consideration of Sam’s stressors helped him feel heard and validated, ultimately leading to his gradual adjustment to the pre-school environment.

As published in Nursery World

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