Co-Regulation in Practice: Strategies for Practitioners Who Serve Youth Aged 14-24

Publication Date: August 27, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

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 practices?
  3. Are co-regulation strategies feasible to implement in youth HMRE programs?

Youth need support to process emotions, cope with stress, and develop self-regulation—the act of managing thoughts and feelings to achieve goals and make healthy decisions in the moment and for the future. It is important for adults—including youth-serving practitioners—to provide that support during adolescence through a process called co-regulation. Co-regulation occurs when adults create safe spaces and nurturing relationships as the context for coaching the use of self-regulation skills in youth.

This Co-Regulation in Practice Series begins with background on self-regulation in adolescence and recommends integrating a co-regulation framework into youth-serving programs. The series contains step-by-step instructions to implement six evidence-informed and theory-based co-regulation strategies. Practitioners can intentionally layer these strategies onto pre-existing youth programs to support self-regulation without changing their current curriculum. Each strategy can be tailored to a workshop or one-on-one youth service setting and/or can be used among co-workers to foster co-regulation in the workplace. Though not yet evaluated for efficacy, the pilot of these strategies showed promise that integrating co-regulation approaches into youth service delivery may improve program implementation and youth outcomes.

The series was developed through the Self-Regulation Training Approaches and Resources to Improve Staff Capacity for Implementing Healthy Marriage Programs for Youth (SARHM) project, part of Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF’s) efforts 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 regarding 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).

Purpose

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 lead staff toward integrating a co-regulation framework.

By integrating a co-regulation framework across services and teaching staff to provide co-regulation support through concrete, measurable strategies, programs may enhance staff experience and performance as well as participant engagement and self-regulation. Together, these enhancements show promise for improving implementation and youth outcomes. This series includes six modules—also available as individual pdfs—to equip youth-serving practitioners to support self-regulation in their relationships with co-workers and with youth, through the practice of co-regulation. 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.

This series can be used in tandem with other products, like Building Staff Co-Regulation to Support Healthy Relationships in Youth: A Guide for Practitioners and Measuring Co-Regulation: A Draft Tool for Observing Educators in Youth-Serving Programs, to support integration of co-regulation as a foundational program framework through staff professional development, observation measures, and more.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Self-regulation is fundamental to healthy relationships and is therefore a key target for youth-serving programs.
  • Youth experience critical brain development during adolescence 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.
  • Each of the six modules in this guide fosters at least one domain of co-regulation. Programs can use several strategies in combination as a way to integrate a co-regulation framework into service delivery.
    • Welcoming (PDF): The welcoming strategy brings youth-serving practitioners back to simple, yet meaningful ways to build authentic relationships with youth through warm, responsive engagement practices that communicate caring and help youth feel known.
    • Positive Praise (PDF): This module explains how to use two praise strategies—2-Part Verbal Praise and 4-Part Written Praise—to build warm, authentic relationships with participants or co-workers and to foster a supportive environment in programs.
    • Breath to Focus (PDF): Research has shown the positive impact deep breathing has on the body’s ability to deal with stress. This strategy explains how to use slow, deep breaths to not only improve physical health, but also help youth manage intense feelings and stress, focus their attention where it is needed, and communicate more effectively with others. Adults need to practice slow breathing to manage stress, reduce reactivity, or persist during challenging tasks as well, especially when coaching youth.
    • Group Agreement (PDF): Without compromising the buy-in and engagement of youth, this collective group agreement approach replaces top-down class rules, provides structure, and builds predictability. Structure allows practitioners, and the youth they work with, to feel safe. When people feel safe, they are free to be themselves, are open to learning, and can establish connections that reduce isolation and bring about a sense of belonging.
    • Rest and Return (PDF): Rest and Return is a strategy for taking a mental, and if possible, physical break to refuel, rest, or refocus. It is a healthy behavioral coping strategy that incorporates a commitment to re-engage after tending to one’s emotional or physical needs.
    • Take Note (PDF): The Take Note strategy is about pausing to breathe, notice feelings or sensations in the body, and connect to the present moment. Often referred to as being mindful, this kind of strategy shows promising benefits such as reduced anxiety, depression, and stress; increased focus; improved self-awareness and acceptance; and decision-making that honors both emotion and reason.

Methods

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 its 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.

Recommendations

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.

Citation

Frei, A., and Herman-Stahl, M. (2021). Co-Regulation in Practice Series. OPRE Brief #2021-91, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Glossary

Self-regulation:
The act of managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed behavior.
Co-regulation:
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.
SARHM:
Self-Regulation Training Approaches and Resources to Improve Staff Capacity for Implementing Healthy Marriage Programs for Youth
HMRE:
Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education