Education Endowment Foundation:Self-Regulation and Executive Function

Self-Regulation and Executive Function

Approaches and practices to support self-regulation and executive function in the early years.

Approaches to support self-regulation and executive function


Information on how to make use of the Evidence Store is provided in the How-to Guide. There is also a Methodological Summary of how the evidence was summarised and how we plan to improve it. The Evidence Store is a living resource with additional evidence, written examples, and videos to be added in the future.

The Evidence Store’s recommended approaches can be applied across different contexts for teaching and learning in the early years (see pedagogical continuum here) and educators should reflect on how they can use the approaches and practices both during adult-initiated and child-initiated opportunities.

  • Evidence shows that educators can implement approaches that benefit young children’s self-regulation and/​or executive function. The EEF’s Early Years Toolkit finds that self-regulation approaches may also be effective in promoting successful learning.
  • While there is evidence that implementing these approaches could have a positive impact on children’s self-regulation and/​or executive function outcomes, there are still some questions that are unanswered and so more research is needed.
  • In the evidence, educators use different approaches to support self-regulation and executive function. Some require proactive and explicit teachingFormal educator-directed approaches in which educators explicitly support children to develop specific ideas and skills. and modelling; others may arise from educators’ observations of children’s activities in the moment and others require educators to intentionally structure experiences for children to facilitate development during play, enabling them to practise and try out different strategies.

Self-regulation involves a complex range of skills and abilities that enable children to monitor their emotions and thoughts and choose how to adapt their behaviour in different circumstances. It also includes working towards a goal, which may be self-chosen or guided by a suggestion or request from an adult. Very young children begin to develop their self-regulation, in part, through close support and co-regulation from the adults around them. Through teaching, modelling, and practise, children gain an increased capacity to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Self-regulation supports children’s executive function. Executive function refers to a set of skills that are often used together. These require teaching and modelling, practice, and repetition to develop. Executive function can help children resist their impulsesThis is often referred to as inhibitory control. This can include cognitive and behavioural elements, such as ignoring distractions, or resisting the urge to snatch a toy. It can also include resisting the impulse to continue counting when all objects in a set have already been counted. and control how they direct their attentionThis is often referred to as cognitive flexibility.. Executive function also helps children to hold information in mind so they can apply itThis is often referred to as working memory, such as remembering the rules of a game while they play.

Self-regulation and executive function are closely interrelated. They are typically applied together to help children gain greater control over their thoughts, actions, and emotional responses. Children’s ability to apply these skills can be influenced by their early experiences, their current state of wellbeing (including their emotional state), and levels of motivation. Supporting the development of these skills may mean children are more likely to do better later in school.

Developing self-regulation and executive function are recognised as crucial parts of children’s development across many areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (EYFS). Self-regulation forms part of a child’s personal, social, and emotional development’ (PSED) in the EYFS. The characteristics of effective teaching and learning’ in the EYFS describes some of the behaviours educators may observe as children develop self-regulation and executive function.

The approaches for teaching self-regulation and executive function are complementary to some approaches within the PSED theme. You will find this theme both within the PSED section of the Evidence Store and accessible as a standalone resource. Do consider exploring the approaches here and within the PSED theme.

A child’s ability to regulate their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and their executive function is supported by responsive interactions with others. Caregivers, such as parents and educators, play a large role in providing these crucial, regulation-supporting interactions, but siblings and peers can provide them too. When adults create consistent, predictable routines, they develop an emotionally safe environment. This helps children feel secure, know what to expect, and makes the development of regulation skills more manageable.

There are believed to be five domains of self-regulation: emotional, cognitiveRelated to the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning., prosocial, social, and biological. The approaches and practices summarised here highlight different ways educators can support the development of self-regulation and executive function during interactions with children spanning the emotional, cognitiveRelated to the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning., prosocial, and social domains. Educators can support and promote the development of self-regulation and executive function across different teaching and learning contexts, including child-led play, where support is more responsive to the needs of the child in the moment (see Pedagogical Continuum). For example, an educator can:

  • deliver an adult-led session using action rhymes to explicitly teach and practise executive function, for example, by changing the speed or actions being used or missing out words (e.g. heads, shoulders, knees and toes’);
  • prompt and support children to use calming techniques while guiding children’s play, in response to emotional distress; or
  • co-ordinate and signpost peers to follow through on a shared plan for their independent play.

Co-regulation occurs when a child receives warm, responsive support from an adult to bridge the gap between the child’s current and their potential capacity to regulate in a particular task or situation. Soothing, calming, and supportive interactions with trusted adults play a crucial role in enabling children to regulate and develop their self-regulation skills. Adults help to develop children’s awareness and understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and actions to underpin their ability to regulate them. An adult’s own level of self-regulation, emotional availability, and capacity for regulation in the moment can play a part in the success of co-regulation and coachingCoaching typically involves an expert coach providing peer support and assistance on a one-to-one, regular, and sustained basis. self-regulation.

The level of the support required by the adult during co-regulation depends on:

  • the child’s developmental stage and level of self-regulatory skills;
  • their experience with the task or situation; and
  • their emotional and cognitiveRelated to the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning. state in that moment.

An adult’s role in co-regulation is larger when enabling children who typically have limited or lower self-regulation skills — such as babies and toddlers — to manage a situation or task. For example, the adult observes a toddler hitting out towards another child who has tried to take the toy they are playing with. The adult responds to both children by engaging them at their level, empathising and articulating what has just happened. The adult sensitively offers the children reassurance and a hug. The adult then uses the moment to expand the children’s knowledge of self-regulation strategies, for example, by suggesting they take a deep breath to calm down, then modelling how to gesture stop’ to another child or asking and waiting for a turn. Finally, the adult finds another toy so both children have enough resources to play with.

Adult support can reduce in intensity as children’s experience of self-regulation in different contexts increases. For example, the adult provides reassurance when a child is frustrated that another child is riding the bike they wanted first. They empathise with the child’s feelings and remind them of a strategy they can apply to help them regulate. After taking a few deep breaths, the child asks for a sand timer to make sure they have a fair turn.

You can see from the examples above that there are broadly two components to the interaction:

  • responding by acknowledging the situation and providing emotional support if needed; and
  • expanding the interaction to include an opportunity to develop self-regulation skills by either modelling the application of a strategy or suggesting the child could apply one.

It is important to plan adult-led opportunities to teach self-regulation strategies to supplement the opportunities that arise during guided or child-led play and responsive co-regulation. This enables children to develop a repertoire of strategies to draw on.

To teach self-regulation and executive function, gradual adjustments to the intensity of adult scaffolding over time enables children to develop greater responsibility for applying strategies to regulate themselves. This does not mean children will stop requiring co-regulation over time, just that the intensity and type of support offered by adults may fluctuate in response to the child’s needs.

Even children who appear to frequently use self-regulation strategies may require more intensive co-regulation with an educator in some instances — for example, if they are tired or upset. Similarly, the educator’s level of self-regulation may also fluctuate throughout the day and over time influencing their capacity for co-regulation with a child. An educator’s knowledge of the child’s existing skills, the current context, and their wellbeing are valuable to effectively tailor the intensity of the support offered.

More information about how educators can implement high quality, responsive, learning-focused interactions with children across all areas of learning will be available shortly in an additional guide. It will offer strategies for integrating the approaches and practices summarised in the Evidence Store into interactions with children and how to reduce the level of adult support to promote children’s independence.

During planned opportunities and responsive interactions with children there are five key approaches that educators can use to develop the self-regulation or executive function of children.

  1. Creating and navigating challenge:
    creating developmentally appropriate challenges for children to develop and practise their skills in different contexts.
  2. Teaching self-monitoring and self-awareness:
    helping children to develop an awareness of their own thoughts and emotions, including how their feelings can influence their actions and vice versa.
  3. Creating a community of collaborative learners:
    facilitating collaborative groups of learners where adults and children cooperate and work towards shared goals.
  4. Promoting physical activity: educators proactively and regularly organise opportunities for children to engage in physical activity.
  5. Promoting talk about learning:
    encouraging talk that enables children to plan, monitor, and reflect on their thinking and learning, including how they plan to approach or adapt an activity and evaluating this afterwards.

The page for each approach has two sections. The first is called​‘What does the evidence say?’ In this section, we share key messages about the approach from the research. The second section is called​‘Approach in action.’ This section provides practical examples of how the approach could be implemented in settings. It draws on the experience and expertise of educators.

In addition to the above approaches, the evidence also revealed broader strategies that support children’s self-regulation and/​or executive function. These include:

  • self-regulation curricula;
  • professional development for educators; and
  • music activities.

Self-regulation curricula

Settings in England base their curriculum on the Early Years Foundation Stage framework. Some settings may also use another curriculum programme to complement the EYFS, which may focus on self-regulation and executive function through a planned and sustained set of activities and instruction. There is mixed evidence on this kind of curriculum: some studies found that these curricula can support children’s self-regulation, executive function, and academic skills; however, other studies found no impact. Some studies found a positive impact of self-regulation curricula on children from lower-income families, however, the research does not say whether they benefit more, less, or the same as their more affluent peers.

One programme, Tools of the Mind, has been studied more than others. The developers designed a curriculum that promotes the use of role-play and encourages children to plan and reflect on their play and learning. There is some evidence that this curriculum may have a positive effect on children’s self-regulation, executive function, and attainmentThe academic standard that pupils reach in, for example, assessments and exams. but more research is needed to be confident of this effect.

Professional development for educators

Some of the studies that look at the impact of educators’ practice on children’s self-regulation and executive function involve the educator receiving professional development or training. Evidence looking at children’s self-regulation outcomes is limited but there is some evidence that professional development focusing on self-regulation and executive function can improve children’s executive function. This included training and mentoring educators to create a calm, organised learning environment and to promote socio-emotional development. There is also broader evidence that general professional development for educators can improve outcomes for children in the early years. You can read more in our Guide to Effective Professional Development in the Early Years to consider key features of professional development that are associated with improved outcomes for children.

Music activities

There is a small amount of evidence that shows that music activities can support children’s self-regulation and executive function. The most effective music activities included movement, took place in small groups, or were done regularly and over several weeks and months.

The self-regulation strategies’ strand of the EEF Early Years Toolkit summarises the best available evidence from 15 self-regulation studies. These studies show that self-regulation strategies can have a positive impact equating to three months’ progress on children’s learning and may be a cost-effective approach for raising attainmentThe academic standard that pupils reach in, for example, assessments and exams.. However, the evidence base is limited in the early years.

This booklet, Supporting Children’s Self-Regulation, is part of the Early Years Library developed by the Early Intervention Foundation and PEDAL — the Play in Education, Development and Learning centre at the University of Cambridge. It provides suggestions for educators to support self-regulation in early years.

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has a useful Guide to Executive Function, including the research behind the development of executive function and activities across different age ranges to support children’s executive function development.

Evidence summary

Overarching summary of the evidence for self-regulation and executive functionUploaded:  • 139.2 KB - pdf
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