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Keep calm – let’s talk about self-regulation

What is self-regulation?

The subject of self-regulation is complex, but, in simple terms, it could be described as the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviours and attention, in a socially acceptable way. Self-regulation skills enable us to plan, think, problem solve, interact with others, monitor and control our own behaviour, adjusting the ways in which we behave according to where we are.

Why this sudden interest in self-regulation?

The Department for Education (DfE) is piloting proposed changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in England. Under the proposed changes, the seven areas of learning and development will remain the same but early learning goals (ELGs) will change.  Proposed changes to the prime area of learning of Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) mean that the current ELGs of ‘making relationships’, ‘self-confidence and self-awareness’, and ‘managing feelings and behaviour’ will change to ‘self-regulation’, ‘managing self’, and ‘building relationships.’

The DfE has released a pilot version of the 'Statutory framework for the early year’s foundation stage' which details all the proposed changes. The proposed changes are not yet final and if they go ahead they will not come into force until 2021. PACEY will, of course, keep you informed and provide support and resources nearer the time.

Whilst it is important to be aware of the changes to the EYFS, it is equally important to recognise that knowing about and understanding self-regulation is useful now. It can help us develop our practice and reflect on the way we work with children and support them every day.

We are not born with self-regulation skills

Though we’re not born with them, babies have the ability to learn self-regulation skills. In their earliest years, babies and young children benefit most from tuned-in adults who can help soothe them when they are feeling hungry, tired, thirsty, lonely and afraid, etc. Parents and carers handling babies in a caring and sensitive way are helping to build important brain connections for self-regulation and resilience in their new-born’s brains. 

We can support babies and young children in many ways. If babies are fed, changed and cuddled in a kind and timely way, they are learning that they are meaningful, that they can rely on others and that their distress can be eased. This helps form the positive foundations of self-regulation. 

As toddlers, young children become more mobile, investigating and sometimes asserting their independence. Though they want to be off exploring their environment, they will also keep returning to their familiar adult(s) for a quick, reassuring cuddle.

Two-year-olds can easily become frustrated. They may not yet have enough language to express their opinions but still want to assert their independence. They can have some overwhelming feelings and they need our support and empathy to understand what these feelings are and to help them manage them.

Adults can help children to feel emotionally and physical safe. We need to share our calmness and model coping strategies, not add fuel to their fiery feelings. We can help children at this age learn about their feelings and emotions and how to express them verbally rather than physically. It is important to stick to any ‘rules’ and be consistent at this stage of development.

Over time, with our nurturing, understanding, help and support, young children will gain more understanding, skills and control. This enables them to take over the reins and to self soothe when they are upset or calm down when they are over-excited.

We use self-regulation skills every day!

As children get older their emotional behaviour, communication skills, patience and independence skills mature. They will have learned what they like and dislike, and hopefully some strategies to help them to stay calm and cope. These skills will also help them to interact with others, build friendships, share ideas and experiences with other children and adults.

Children may find that there are different expectations of their behaviour at home from those in childcare. To further complicate matters, in childcare there may be a rule that we walk indoors but they can move quicker, run and climb whilst playing outside. The rules and expectations may change again if walking by a busy road on the school run. Children need their adults to be consistent applying the ‘rules’ and with help, understanding and guidance when things go wrong or they find something frustrating or difficult.

All of this building and development combines to improve a child’s executive functioning and working memory. Supporting a child to develop their self-regulation helps build the skills that we need as we grow – for instance, to get out of bed, have a shower, get dressed, have breakfast and plan what we need for the day ahead. School children may have to hold a set of instructions in their head whilst settling down to a task. They also use impulse control skills to ward off distractions such as the urge to do something they would rather be doing!

About the author

Sue has more information in her book ‘Self-Regulation Skills in Young Children; Theory and Practical Activities for Practitioners and Parents’ which is due for publication in April 2020 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers UK.

Follow Sue on Twitter here
Join Sue's Early Childhood Consultant Facebook group here     

Resources from PACEY

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