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Teaching self-regulation

March 18, 2022, 14:39 GMT+1
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  • Pupils need to be allowed to make mistakes if they are to develop and learn effectively, says Sue Cowley
Teaching self-regulation

When you consider all the things you would like pupils to learn while they are in your school, it is probably not just subject knowledge and skills that come to mind; we also want to support children to develop in the widest sense while they are in our care.

Some key attributes we might want to help children develop would include empathy, resilience, flexible thinking, the ability to focus and to be active lifelong learners.

All these varied attributes form part of a set of behavioural skills which are collectively referred to as ‘self-regulation’. 

Self-regulation contributes to children becoming successful in all subject areas, because these skills help pupils regulate their emotions, manage their own behaviour and think about how to learn.

Research consistently demonstrates that self-regulation plays a vital role in children’s long-term outcomes, with well researched links to academic performance, benefits to health, social cohesion, and financial security. 

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation describes a set of executive (or brain) functions, which support us in being aware of and controlling our own behaviours.

The executive functions involved include working memory, mental flexibility and impulse control. These work together to act as a kind of ‘air traffic control system’ for our behaviours. They help us to think about, plan for and manage the diverse situations in which we find ourselves.

The Department for Education has included new early learning goals in this area in the revised EYFS Statutory Framework.

The DfE focus is on aspects of self-regulation such as following instructions, and attentional control. However, there are a surprisingly wide-ranging set of skills that actually comprise the overall concept.

Some self-regulation skills are emotional ones – being able to calm ourselves, cope with strong feelings and empathise with other people.

Some are cognitive – being able to direct our attention, work out how to approach tasks, maintain attention, deal with challenge and handle failure. And then there are behavioural skills such as being able to manage our impulses and understand how to avoid/resolve conflicts.

Early childhood

Self-regulation develops over the course of childhood and indeed into later life – most of us can probably think of examples of times when we are unable to self-regulate, even as adults.

Newborn babies do not regulate their impulses at all – the urge to cry when they are hungry or in pain is a survival mechanism.

As children get older, most of them gradually learn the impulse control required to be successful in education and to fit into society.

A key factor for the early development of self-regulation is secure attachments to caregivers. The caregivers need to be responsive to the child’s needs, and to consistently send the message that they have ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the child.

In other words, the caregiver’s love will not be withheld or given dependent on the child’s behaviour – they will love the child no matter what.

Clearly, this link with secure attachments means that you might see weaker self-regulation skills in looked after children, and in those who have had adverse childhood experiences.

You might have noticed how some children really struggle with transitions, for instance having difficulty separating from parents or carers at morning drop-off time in Reception.

The role of the key person in the EYFS is vital here, alongside a focus on nurture, mental health and wellbeing, and the prime area of personal, social and emotional development.

From co-regulation to self-regulation

The younger children are, the more they need support in learning self-regulation skills.

This is why co-regulation is so important, particularly for the youngest children (although this technique can and should be used for all children in the primary age group).

Co-regulation is the process of an adult offering coaxing, comfort, motivation, physical and emotional scaffolds and so on.

For instance, it might be about talking gently to a child if they are becoming upset, using your words and tone to help them calm down.

It could be about giving a child physical support to help them handle an activity they find challenging, such as climbing or balancing.

Self-regulation, agency and metacognition

One of the key factors supporting the development of self-regulation is for children to be given agency to make choices and to take decisions.

Children need to feel like they can have a direct impact on their world, by choosing how they respond and react in different scenarios.

For self-regulation to develop fully, children need to believe that they can be ‘active agents’ within their homes, schools and communities, rather than feeling helpless to effect change.

The development of agency can be incorporated in various ways into your daily school life, such as giving children a chance to make choices during the morning routine.

For instance, you could develop agency by giving children a choice of starter activities, a chance to make a decision about how some school funds are spent, volunteer tasks to choose and complete, and so on.

We tend to think of ‘disadvantaged homes’ as those where children do not get sufficient parental input. However, where parents or carers have a habit of over helping their child, and trying to shield them from all upsets or difficulties, this can also lead to poor regulation.

You could encourage parents and carers to support your work on developing self-regulation skills by holding a workshop to talk about how it develops. 

School behaviour policies

One of the key features of self-regulation is the ability to manage oneself – the belief that we have a choice in how we behave and how we react to what happens to us.

The clue is in the world ‘self’. We cannot force children to self-regulate; we can however support the development of associated skills.

This means that it is worth reflecting on your approaches to behaviour, and whether they lean heavily on external systems to encourage compliance.

Where the system is meant to ‘do the work’, rather than the child, this can be counter-productive in supporting the development of self-regulation. 

For instance, research has shown that the overuse of rewards, or of public systems of approval and disapproval, such as weather or star charts, can be counterproductive for intrinsic motivation.

Public systems can also cause a feeling of shame, which in turn damages the feeling of ‘unconditional positive regard’ that is so central to developing self-regulation. 

Ideally, for self-regulation to develop fully, the child needs to be given opportunities to gradually learn to control their impulses, rather than moving straight to a consequence every time.

We need to become comfortable with children ‘failing’ at behaviour, and then working to improve, just as we encourage children to failing as a ‘first attempt in learning’ in subject-based work.

Children have it within their own powers to regulate their impulses. Just like any skill, it will take them time to master. But once they have got the hang of it, they will be set for success in the future.

Sue Cowley is a teacher, author, teacher trainer and presenter, who has taught in all phases of education: