A Unique Child

Self-regulation in EYFS – What does it mean in practice?

  • Self-regulation in EYFS – What does it mean in practice?

The revised Early Years Foundation Stage framework includes goals for developing self-regulation – but what does this mean in practice? Sue Cowley looks at a wider definition of self-regulation in EYFS and gives advice on how to help children manage their feelings and more… 

Self-regulation in EYFS has become a hot topic for many settings. This is especially since the revised EYFS Statutory Framework included it as a new Early Learning Goal.

The lockdowns and temporary closures of services such as soft play and toddler groups meant that we lost many of the usual opportunities for children to build self-regulation. 

When it comes to self-regulation in EYFS, we often think of it as being about teaching children to manage their emotions. Settings typically do lots of useful work on this. Children talk and think about their feelings, and discuss ways to manage them.

However, the term ‘self-regulation’ encompasses a much wider set of skills. This includes attentional control and metacognition (the ability to ‘think about thinking’). These are vital as children move through the education system. 

The new Early Learning Goals 

The new Early Learning Goals in the EYFS Statutory Framework cover:

  • understanding feelings
  • goal setting
  • impulse control
  • paying attention to the teacher
  • following instructions

Interestingly, the new Early Learning Goals emphasise the adult-focused aspects of self-regulation. These are the ones that make it easier for us to ‘manage’ children’s behaviours. 

Ideally, though, when we think about self-regulation in EYFS, we should focus on skills that are situated within the child. This is rather than goals relating specifically to classroom management.

In fact, there can be a conflict between behaviour systems and the development of self-regulation, especially where systems rely heavily on a behaviourist approach using lots of sanctions and rewards.

Ideally, we should focus on supporting children’s intrinsic urge to regulate their behaviours, rather than controlling these mostly with extrinsic motivators

Self-regulation in EYFS for positive outcomes 

Research shows that the ability to self-regulate is closely tied to positive long-term outcomes. The famous ‘marshmallow experiment’, which took place at Stanford University in the 1970s, explored whether children would immediately eat a first marshmallow, or whether they could wait for a second.

Follow-up studies showed that children who could wait for the second treat tended to have better outcomes in education, health and other areas of their lives. 

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) notes that research consistently links self-regulation with successful learning. It’s a high-impact strategy for very low cost.

Teachers will understand intuitively why this is – those children who can wait their turn, pay attention and manage their impulses will inevitably find it easier to do well in education. 

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to start school with lower levels of self-regulation than those from advantaged homes. This means that strategies for supporting self-regulation are likely to be particularly beneficial for your most disadvantaged children. 

Opportunities for agency and co-regulation 

Self-regulation requires us to give children agency, and to be comfortable with them taking calculated risks and making mistakes while learning.

Building self-regulation is not something that you can do for the children. Instead, you support them to develop these skills through a process called co-regulation.

The aim is not to remove challenges or dampen emotions but to increase children’s ability to handle them. 

The role of the adult is to create situations, activities and environments in which children face a level of challenge that they can cope with. Adults support and scaffold the approach to challenge alongside them. 

For instance, you may set up a balance beam and encourage children to ‘have a go’, walking alongside them so that they feel safe and can ask for support if they need it. They can gradually build up their confidence to balance by themselves.

You’ll notice how different the required level of support is for each child. Some are almost immediately confident to try, while others take time to build their nerve. 

Developing joint attentional control 

One area of self-regulation which can impact powerfully on outcomes is the skill of joint attentional control. This is where a group of children pay attention to something together.

This skill has been described as the ‘hallmark of the human condition’ (Smith and Ulvund, 2003). It involves coordinating our attention to objects and events with other people. For instance, shifting our gaze from a person to an object they are indicating, to find out more about it. 

Joint attention behaviours develop early. They’re critical for social and language development. This is because they help children look at things, think about and consider them, collectively.

They help children share interesting experiences with others, for a social purpose. In turn, they develop their vocabulary about the world. 

Supporting attention on the carpet 

Every time you talk to a group or class of children sitting on the carpet, you see how important attentional control is. Those children who focus on what you are saying, follow along with the book or join in with show-and-tell will learn more than those who struggle to do so. 

Support children to learn how to pay attention by using lots of eye contact. Look around the group to check who is focused. Make eye contact with individuals with a smile to say ‘well done’. Ensure that your facial expressions are big and bright, to model what ‘interest and attention’ looks like. 

Use a slightly slower pace than your natural speaking voice, with lots of tone, gestures and visuals to back up what you say. This supports children to be able to process the language you use.

Limit the amount of time that you ask children to pay direct attention – a rough rule of thumb for a maximum time limit is ‘their age plus two’. 

There is no value in extending carpet time to ‘get through’ material if children have stopped paying attention to it. It’s better to make a short, engaging carpet time a regular part of your routine. This supports children in building the habit of paying attention. 

‘Bucket time’ activities 

A great way to build attentional control is by using short, multi-sensory adult-initiated activities. These can happen with small groups of children, for instance older children in a mixed-age setting, or with a whole class.

Sharing attention as a group, by focusing on a single object or activity, supports the development of social communication. This is because children think and learn about it together. 

One useful approach to develop this, particularly for autistic children, is ‘bucket time’ activities. These were developed by Gina Davies, a speech and language therapist as part of her ‘Attention Autism’ approach. 

‘Bucket time’ activities involve shared attention on an object which is taken from a bucket, followed by sustained attention on a short attention-grabbing activity.

For instance, the activity might involve using a paint brush to mix two paints and create a new colour. Children then play a short game which requires turn-taking.  

These simple activities, when repeated regularly as part of your routines, will support all children to direct their attention, focus and concentrate – all key to successful learning. 

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer, who helps to run her local early years setting. Visit her website at suecowley.co.uk.