Self-regulatory skills can be defined as the ability of children to manage their own behaviour and aspects of their learning. In the early years, efforts to develop self-regulation often seek to improve levels of self-control and reduce impulsivity. These skills are also sometimes described as executive function capability.
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.
This evidence summary focuses on the impact of self-regulation on cognitive outcomes. Self-regulation is, however, important for other outcomes such as self-care and behaviour.
The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0 includes self-regulation in the Principle of ‘Secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships’ where educators are responsive to developing strong, safe relationships with children, which includes providing emotional support and helping them to develop self-regulation skills. Self-regulation strategies are reflected in Outcome 3: ‘Children have a strong sense of wellbeing’ and Outcome 4: ‘Children are confident and involved learners’.
Self-regulation strategies have a positive impact (+ three months), on average, and may be a cost-effective approach for improving learning outcomes.
Helping young children to talk and think about their own actions and behaviours is likely to help them with not just their learning and social interactions in early years settings but may have a lasting positive impact on later learning at school.
Successful approaches include structured programs as well as more general approaches to develop self-regulation skills.
Staff are likely to benefit from training or professional development to use programs and approaches successfully.
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 three additional months’ progress. However, this is based on very limited evidence in the early years, with a small number of studies having assessed the educational impact (e.g. on early literacy or numeracy) of approaches that sought to improve self-regulation.
A number of studies 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.
The studies that have been conducted in the early years, 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 childhood educators might talk to children about how to follow a “Plan, Do, Review” approach for a simple building activity.
However, the small number of studies mean that more evaluation is needed to identify specific programs or approaches that have a positive impact on academic outcomes through improving self-regulation for young children.
While this evidence review focuses on self-regulation strategies that aim to improve cognitive outcomes, there is a wider evidence base on self-regulation strategies that measure self-regulation as an outcome. These studies typically have a higher impact due to the closeness of the intervention to the outcome.
There are few relevant Australasian self-regulated learning program trials, and most that have been conducted are with older children without control groups. There has been one Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) of a program designed to improve self-regulated learning amongst preschool-aged children by researchers from Wollongong. They tested the efficacy of a children’s picture book that required children to control their thinking to help the main character of the story overcome a series of obstacles, which aimed to promote executive function capacities. Compared with students exposed to passive and active reading activities, the embedded executive function group showed gains in some executive function tasks such as working memory and attention, although several of the hypothesised gains in executive function were not found to be significant. This study did not examine academic learning outcomes beyond these aspects of executive function. Further randomised controlled studies are needed to gauge the impact of self-regulated learning strategies on learning outcomes in early childhood education.
The Toolkit evidence summary is normally able to examine whether certain intervention characteristics or contexts are associated with higher or lower impacts. The small number of studies in this topic area mean that it is not possible to do this analysis securely.
Self-regulation strategies show a positive impact across areas of early learning and development, including early literacy and numeracy.
There are some indications that children experiencing disadvantage are more likely to begin early childhood education with weaker self-regulation skills than their more affluent peers. As a result, embedding self-regulation strategies into the early years is likely to be particularly beneficial for children experiencing disadvantage.
Self-regulation strategies have potential to support young children’s development and learning, but may require careful implementation. Some key components for successful strategies might include:
- Assessing children’s current capabilities in managing their own behaviour, for example when they are playing or interacting with their peers.
- Balancing explicit teaching with scaffolded opportunities for children to practice and explore new skills.
- Monitoring the impact of developing children’s self-regulation strategies.
In order to ensure approaches are effective, it is important to set aside time for professional development prior to putting new strategies in place.
Overall, the median costs of implementing self-regulation strategies are estimated as very low. The costs mostly arise from professional development training for staff, which is most commonly an up-front cost for embedding the approach across a setting. Whilst the median cost estimate for self-regulation strategies is very low, the range in cost of professional development training, and the option to purchase additional materials and provide ongoing training and support, means that costs can range from very low to low.
These cost estimates assume that settings are already paying for staff salaries, materials and equipment for teaching, and facilities. These are all pre-requisite costs of implementing self-regulation strategies, without which the cost is likely to be higher.
Implementing self-regulation strategies will also require a small amount of staff time, compared with other approaches, as staff need to develop their own understanding of self-regulatory processes to model effective use of these strategies and skills to children.
The security of the evidence around self-regulation strategies in the early years is rated as very low. Only 15 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Early Childhood Education Toolkit. A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
Although there are relatively few studies, the effects are relatively consistent and there is less unexplained variation between the results included in the topic than with other topic areas of the Toolkit.
Overall, self-regulation is a promising area, but one that would benefit from more rigorous evaluation in early years settings to identify how to achieve benefit for young children’s learning.
Low security of evidence is not the same as evidence of no impact. Many approaches may have low evidence, not because they are ineffective but because high quality research has not yet taken place.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.