Teaching self-regulation in early childhood
Beyond the Classroom

Teaching self-regulation in early childhood

Teaching self-regulation in early childhood

Emeritus Professor Marjory Ebbeck, University of South Australia, discusses how teaching self-regulation in early childhood is important for positive learning outcomes. 

We’ve all seen it before: a child screaming in a supermarket, their exasperated parent wrangling the trolley while, more often than not, judgemental shoppers pass by. It’s a not a great situation to be in, but it’s a common example of how a child’s emotions and lack of self- regulation can escalate at the most inopportune times.

Learning about self-regulation and being able to express feelings and behaviours in socially acceptable way, is a process that begins in childhood. Defined as the ability to control or direct one’s attention, thoughts, emotions and actions, it is considered by experts to be a marker for later life success.

For parents and teachers, an understanding of self-regulation will not only help to understand a child’s behaviour but also help to guide them.

The foundations of self-regulation begin early in life with self-regulatory behaviour evolving during toddlerhood, preschool, and primary school. During these years, children need to learn how to cope with their feelings, how manage their behaviour when they feel overwhelmed, how to focus their attention so that they can learn new things, and of course, how to get along with others and work towards achieving common goals.

Children differ in their ability to develop self-regulation, and this is influenced by the child’s temperament, home life and school environment. Yet, parent and teacher support can help moderate and strengthen a child’s growing sense of self-regulation.

In the early years, parental warmth, responsiveness, and positive relationships can help protect children from a range of environmental stressors at home, in school and the wider environment. Similarly, teachers have the opportunity to see children in a more objective space – at school – where they can identify any additional supports or needs. For example, there will be times when a child may need added support – it could be when there’s a new baby in the family, if there are difficulties at home, during crises like the dreadful bushfires seen in Australia in the past few years, and of course, the most current stressor – COVID. All these scenarios place strong emotional and physical demands on children of all ages, and all can delay development of self-regulation.

SO, WHY IS SELF-REGULATION IMPORTANT?

A child who lacks self-regulation may find it difficult to engage in learning tasks, be distracted easily and lack motivation. But as self-regulation emerges in a child’s skill set, they’re more able to learn effectively and can pursue activities with a sense of purpose and belonging. At the same time, their identity strengthens, and their sense of agency increases; for a child it’s now about I can do it! This sense of belief continues throughout secondary school, tertiary studies, and adult life and helps people to cope with adversities across life.

SO, WHAT CAN TEACHERS DO TO ENCOURAGE SELF-REGULATION?

Some of the key strategies that teachers can use to strengthen a child’s self-regulation include:

• Modelling respect for the rights of others, including children.

• Creating responsive, reciprocal relationships with children so that they feel secure to practice new skills and learn from their mistakes.

• Providing a class environment where diversity is respected and acknowledged.

• Developing positive, reciprocal relationships which engender communication.

• Using opportunities to strengthen relationships with children.

• Creating a calm, well-organised classroom environment.

• Allowing children to have choices, where possible.

• Creating consistent and predictable routines so that children know what to expect throughout the day.

Happier, more confident children who enjoy preschool and school make for far more engaged learners. When it comes to the crunch, children with high levels of self- regulation are less demanding of teacher time, can be deeply involved in learning, and will contribute to a positive and productive classroom climate.

This article was first published in Education Matters Primary Magazine, September 2022. To read the issue download it here. 

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