Children who can manage their emotions and rise to the challenges they encounter are far more likely to succeed, says Sue Cowley…
Self-regulation is a ‘hot topic’ at the moment, with both the DfE and Ofsted referring to it in recent publications. There are good reasons for this: in numerous studies, self-regulation has been shown as strongly linked to academic success, and also to positive outcomes for children more generally.
The Education Endowment Foundation states that “[t]he development of self-regulation and executive function is consistently linked with successful learning, including prereading skills, early mathematics and problem solving”.
It also notes that improving self-regulation is “likely to have a lasting positive impact on later learning at school” and also that it has “a positive impact on wider outcomes such as behaviour and persistence”.
But what exactly is self-regulation, and how can we support children to develop it? In essence, self-regulation is a set of skills involved in the way that children learn to control and manage their behaviours, in the widest sense.
It’s about children managing their emotional responses, but also their levels of focus, dealing with the challenges that life throws at them, becoming more able to empathise with others, thinking laterally to find solutions, and so on.
Where metacognition describes the process of thinking about our thinking and our learning, self-regulation describes the process of becoming aware of our own impulses, reactions and behaviours, and becoming more able to harness, control and direct them as needed.
Although self-regulation is essentially about a set of behaviours, the behaviours involved feed directly into the way we learn.
Probably the best-known study of self-regulation/delayed gratification (the ability to control your impulses to gain a longer-term reward) is the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’ at Stanford University in the 1960s.
In this experiment, young children were given one marshmallow, but told that if they could wait 15 minutes without eating it, they would receive a second.
Those who could wait for the second marshmallow were much more likely to succeed at school and have better long-term outcomes in other areas of their lives.
More-recent follow-ups to this famous study have shown that children’s perception of how trustworthy the adult is (ie how likely they are to receive the promised reward) is a key factor in how they perform in the test.
Other similar studies have shown cultural and societal elements to the way children respond. Research has also shown that self-regulation is mitigated by home background,
with children from advantaged backgrounds more likely to come into settings able to self-regulate.
There are a number of factors that predict the development of self-regulation in young children. The first is a strong attachment to primary carers, with what is sometimes referred to as “unconditional positive regard” from the adults in their lives.
In other words, carers who are emotionally available to the child and who do not give or withdraw their love depending on the child’s behaviours.
This helps children feel safe to face challenges, take risks and make mistakes, because they still feel loved no matter what.
Another key factor is carers giving children a strong sense of agency – the feeling that they have direct control over their world. This in turn supports them in becoming active agents around their behaviours.
In addition, children who are offered high levels of physical and intellectual challenge are likely to become more self-regulated. Where children are constantly over-helped, this can lead to them being less likely to develop independence and resilience.
It’s hard for parents and practitioners to see children ‘fail’ but it’s essential to allow them to do so, in a managed way.
It’s useful to understand that the definition coming from the DfE, in the new Early Learning Goals, doesn’t align with what we know about self-regulation in its fullest sense.
The new goals define self-regulation as children being able to “show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others”, “being able to wait”, “control their immediate impulses”, “give focused attention to what the teacher says” and “follow instructions”.
While these are all aspects of self-regulation, the focus from the DfE is on what the children can do for the teacher rather than what they can do for themselves.
There is no mention in the new ELGs of the importance of taking and managing risks, dealing with challenges, becoming independent and resilient, thinking laterally, and so on. Practitioners should consider how to help their children develop all aspects of self-regulation.
The first step in children learning to regulate is what we refer to as ‘co-regulation’ – the child is not yet able to fully self-regulate, so practitioners scaffold and
support them in gradually developing regulation.
This can be something as simple as talking calmly to a child who is upset, to soothe them, or saying “you can do it” to a child who is about to give up when faced by a challenge.
One important way in which settings is through the use of routines. Routines create a clear structure for the children to follow, scaffolding their learning and giving them a feeling of security.
Within that routine, practitioners can create spaces for children to gain independence and to become more responsible for their own decision making. For instance, asking children to make a choice of milk or water when they put their name up on a board to self-register.
When you are thinking about helping your children learn to self-regulate, consider the needs of individual children.
While some children will need more support in developing their ability to maintain focus and resist distractions, others will struggle with the idea of waiting and being patient, or in empathising with their peers.
It’s useful to consider ‘next steps’ for individual children when it comes to self-regulation. Reflect on your own part in this as well – consider whether you might be tempted to over-help, and how you can step back and allow your children to make mistakes and cope with failure.
In the wise words of Julie Fisher, consider whether you are “interacting or interfering” in your relationships with your children.
Sue’s latest book is Learning Behaviours: A Practical Guide to Self-Regulation in the Early Years, published by John Catt. Find out more at suecowley.co.uk.