Building Staff Co-Regulation to Support Healthy Relationships in Youth: A Guide for Practitioners

Publication Date: March 2, 2021
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  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. What key elements of co-regulation strategies can program facilitators apply to support youth self-regulation development?
  2. What capacity building supports (such as training, coaching, observational tools, and measures) do program facilitators need to integrate co-regulation in their practice?
  3. Are co-regulation strategies feasible to implement in youth HMRE programs?

Youth need support to process emotions, cope with stress, and for self-regulation—managing thoughts and feelings to achieve goals and make healthy decisions in the moment and for the future. This guide begins by explaining how self-regulation underlies success in many areas of life and why adolescence is a crucial time for caring adults—like HMRE and other youth-serving practitioners—to offer self-regulation support. We introduce the concept of co-regulation, a process through which adults create safe spaces and nurturing relationships as the context for coaching the use of self-regulation skills that promote youths’ healthy development. The guide explains how integrating co-regulation approaches into youth service delivery may improve program implementation and youth outcomes. At the end of the document, you will find information from the SARHM project on specific strategies and resources you can use to improve co-regulation in your program.

ACF sponsored the Self-Regulation Training Approaches and Resources to Improve Staff Capacity for Implementing Healthy Marriage Programs for Youth (SARHM) project to bring more focus to self-regulation development in programs for youth. Specifically, SARHM’s aim was to build on developmental psychology and prevention research on the adult role in youth self-regulation development to create resources for educators in Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) programs for youth (defined as ages 14 to 24).


SARHM is a formative research project to develop and test the integration of co-regulation approaches in two youth-serving HMRE programs. It is funded by the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) and overseen by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE). SARHM focused on youth and young adults aged 14 to 24 because this is a time of rapid brain change and development. It also is a time of many transitions, risks, and opportunities. Adult support is critical for helping young people make healthy decisions, engage in prosocial behaviors, and prepare for the future. However, there are few resources to guide youth-serving practitioners in supporting youth self-regulation development, and even fewer to help program directors and supervisors to lead staff toward integrating a co-regulation framework.

By systematically embedding a co-regulation framework across services and teaching staff to provide co-regulation support, programs may enhance participant engagement and self-regulation while also improving implementation and youth outcomes. This guide serves as a starting point for supervisors who want to more intentionally integrate co-regulation into program delivery. It inspires staff to explore the science of co-regulation, examine current practices, and identify opportunities to apply strategies and approaches through a step-by-step model of integration.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Self-regulation is fundamental to healthy relationships and is therefore a key target for youth-focused relationship education.
  • Youth experience critical brain development that is enhanced by adult co-regulation support. Co-regulation is the supportive process between caring adults and youth that fosters self-regulation. Co-regulation includes developing and maintaining warm relationships, collaborating with youth to co-create supportive environments, and coaching and modeling the use of skills that promote self-regulation.
  • Integrating a co-regulation framework and teaching program staff to provide co-regulation support may improve youth and program outcomes.
  • The SARHM project provides examples of how programs can adopt a co-regulation framework. Programs can follow the SARHM approach if they: (1) review OPRE’s Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress Series and resources; (2) examine current practices for opportunities to enhance relationships, environments, and skills coaching; and (3) collaborate with frontline staff to test and refine co-regulation strategies for use in workshops and the workplace.


The SARHM project occurred in three phases:

  • Phase 1 — We conducted a review of the scientific literature and youth-serving HMRE programs and curricula. Informed by the review, we developed an initial menu of co-regulation strategies and capacity building resources.
  • Phase 2 — We partnered with two youth-serving HMRE programs: a program serving a population in suburban high schools and a community-based organization serving young adults who were formerly in foster care. Each site selected strategies that best fit their organizational culture and context. We worked with these partners and consulted with experts to further develop the training, strategies, capacity building supports, and design of the pilot for each site.
  • Phase 3 — We conducted formative rapid cycle evaluations (RCE) to pilot test and further refine co-regulation strategies and capacity building resources. During the RCEs, we collected data from administrators, program facilitators, trained observers, and youth about the implementation of co-regulation strategies. Together with the sites, we conducted a total of three learning cycles per site in which we analyzed feedback, refined the strategies, and tested them again. We then analyzed data from surveys, focus groups, site visits, and observations to assess the feasibility and acceptability of integrating co-regulation into pre-existing youth HMRE programs.


Next steps for developing and testing co-regulation strategies include:

  • Formative research and development. This includes: (1) additional development and refinement of strategies in different settings and with diverse populations; (2) more descriptive research on program dynamics relating to educator-youth relationships, peer interactions and norms, and adult self-regulation; and (3) a greater emphasis on coaching, training, and technical assistance for youth-serving programs.
  • Efficacy testing and effectiveness evaluation. Once strategies and implementation supports are refined, their efficacy can be tested. Efficacy tests should focus on implementation indicators such as engagement and program completion and program outcomes including self-regulation, relationship skills, and well-being.


Frei, A., Herman-Stahl, M., & Baumgartner, S. (2021). Building Staff Co-Regulation to Support Healthy Relationships in Youth: A Guide for Practitioners, OPRE Report #2021-10. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


The act of managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed behavior.
The supportive process between an adult and a young person that promotes self-regulation. Co-regulation integrates three key types of support: (1) providing warm, responsive relationships; (2) helping youth find and create supportive environments; and (3) coaching and modeling self-regulation skills.
Self-Regulation Training Approaches and Resources to Improve Staff Capacity for Implementing Healthy Marriage Programs for Youth
Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education