Self-regulation strategies

Children’s self-regulation skills (sometimes referred to as executive function, or learning capability) reflect their ability to manage their own behaviour or learning. In the early years, efforts to improve self-regulation often seek to improve levels of self-control and reduce impulsivity. Activities typically include supporting children in articulating their plans and learning strategies and reviewing what they have done. A number of approaches use stories or characters to help children remember different learning strategies. It is often easier to observe children’s current self-regulation capabilities when they are playing or interacting with a peer. Self-regulation strategies can overlap with Social and emotional learning strategies and behaviour interventions.

How effective is it?

The development of self-regulation and executive function is consistently linked with successful learning, including pre-reading skills, early mathematics and problem solving. Strategies that seek to improve learning by increasing self-regulation have an average impact of seven additional months’ progress. A number of studies also suggest that improving the self-regulation skills of children in the early years is likely to have a lasting positive impact on later learning at school, and also have a positive impact on wider outcomes such as behaviour and persistence.

There are some indications that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to begin nursery or reception with weaker self-regulation skills than their peers. As a result, embedding self-regulation strategies into early years teaching is likely to be particularly beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

More evaluation is needed to identify specific programmes or curricula that are effective in improving self-regulation for young children. However, the small number of studies that have been conducted in early years settings, and existing evidence from older age groups, suggests that promising approaches are likely to balance explicit instruction with providing scaffolded opportunities for children to practice new skills. For example, early years practitioners might talk to children about how to follow a “Plan, Do, Review” approach for a simple building activity.

How secure is the evidence?

Though promising, the evidence related to self-regulation strategies in the early years is currently limited. Specifically, though several studies have established the link between self-regulation and success in learning, fewer have assessed the educational impact (for example on early mathematics or literacy skills) of approaches that sought to improve self-regulation. In addition, though many interventions include components that seek to improve self-management and self-regulation, it has not been possible to isolate the improvement attributable to these elements.

Much of the evidence in existing syntheses of research relates to older children in primary and secondary school (age 5 and older). The evidence is strongest for immediate impact on behavioural outcomes (such as on interaction or persistence). Overall, self-regulation is clearly a promising area, but one that would benefit from more rigorous evaluation in early years settings to identify how to achieve short and longer term benefits.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

What are the costs?

The overall costs are estimated as very low. There are few, if any, direct financial costs associated with this approach. However, high-quality professional development is likely to enhance the benefits on learning. Additional resources such as books for discussion may also be required.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Self-regulation strategies have high potential, but may require careful implementation. Have you set aside time for professional development prior to putting a new strategy in place?

  2. How do you assess children’s current executive function, for example when they are playing or interacting with their peers?

  3. How will you monitor the impact of self-regulation strategies?