A child’s ability to self-regulate – their awareness of their own mental processes and how they control their actions – is a good predictor of future success, research shows. Here, cognitive psychologist David Whitebread tells Chris Parr how teachers can develop these skills in early years and primary
All of us have been in situations where we’ve had to bite our tongue. These occurrences can be seemingly trivial – perhaps someone took the last chocolate biscuit from the plate in the staffroom even though you hadn’t had one (and they’d had two already). They can also be extremely challenging – having to deal with very hurtful provocations from a student or colleague.
Whatever the context, emotional self-regulation is something that, as adults, we are expected to have mastered. And we’re supposed to have become experts in the broader aspects of self-regulation, too: to have an awareness of all our mental processes and how they can control us.
It would be unreasonable, however, to expect the same from children.
“We know that when people are quite young, they are not aware of what is going on in their mental processes and they are not able to control them,” explains Professor David Whitebread, a developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist at the University of Cambridge, and an expert on self-regulation. “The interesting question is: how does this develop?”
It’s a particularly important question for those who teach in primary schools, and in Early Years Foundation Stage, in particular. In the existing EYFS framework, managing feelings and behaviour, and being self-aware, are part of the assessment; and in the proposed new Early Years Learning Goals, there is a dedicated section for self-regulation.
Whitebread says it is no surprise that self-regulation is prioritised at this stage of education. “It turns out to be very significant predictor of performance later in life,” he explains.
He points to research by Megan McClelland, director of the Centre for Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University, which shows that early self-regulation ability is more significant than early reading levels or early numeracy as an indicator of educational attainment – right through to higher education.
“She used an existing longitudinal dataset with children who, at the age of 4, had been measured in terms of their ability to control their attention and persist on a task – one of the early signs of a child becoming more self-regulating,” explains Whitebread. “They had also had their reading and basic maths level measured at the age of about 7, and then they had been followed all the way through until they were 25 years old.”
When these participants were aged 21, researchers measured their literacy and numeracy. The study also logged who had completed college when the participants were aged 25. “What McClelland found was that reading and numeracy at 7 years old did correlate with the outcomes at 21 and 25…[but] that is not what was causing [the outcomes]. What was causing it was early self-regulation ability.”
This is, no doubt, part of the reason why self-regulation is becoming more prominent in government thinking. And there is another reason, too: the evidence suggests that such skills are not innate; they can be learned.
“The exciting thing from an educational perspective is that, although some children seem to be born with the ability – have a metacognitive disposition towards self-regulation – it is teachable,” Whitebread says. “Once you understand how it works, there are some fairly simple directions for teachers about the kind of things they can do that really seem to help [develop these skills].”
He gives the example of his Children Articulate Thinking project, in which groups of three Year 1 children were given a problem to solve. While there was no correct answer to the task – it was open-ended – they were required to talk about their decision-making process.
“The groups each had one child assessed by the teacher as being a good self-regulator, one weak in self-regulation and one somewhere in the middle,” Whitebread explains. “In one school, there was a golden picture frame, and at the end of each week the children would usually vote on which of their classmates’ pictures deserved to go in it. For the project, the teacher brought in five well-known works of art instead – like the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, one by William Hogarth – and they had to decide which one went in the frame.”
It turns out that the children went for Hogarth (“because it had a dog in it, and they liked that”), but the point was that they had to discuss their reasoning with each other.
“They had to listen to one another, and they had rules for talking – like having to say why they agreed or disagreed with other people’s opinions, rather than just disagreeing.”
During the study, the children with perceived weaker self-regulation made greater gains than the other children.
“We had fabulous results from that project over the course of a year,” Whitebread says. “The sad thing was that we had control schools, too, where they were not given the interventions, and in these schools, the children actually got worse at self-regulating.
“But the children in the project made fantastic progress, and by the end of the year, the weak children in the intervention classes were at the same level as the able self-regulators in the control class – and that was just by getting them to have to think about what they think, and why they think it.”
Another famous intervention is the “Batman effect” research. For this project, researchers asked a group of four- and six-year-olds to complete a dull, 10-minute computer-based task: pressing the spacebar every time they saw a picture of cheese on the screen, as opposed to a picture of a cat.
The children were told that the task was important, but that they could take a break whenever they wanted to go and play on a nearby tablet. Some completed the task as themselves, while others were told to imagine that they were Batman (or another character of their choice) – and were given a cape to wear. Unsurprisingly, the six-year-olds spent more time on task than the four-year-olds. However, across both age groups, those in the Batman group spent the most time on the task.
“[What] really seems to support self-regulation is imaginative play, and the Batman study shows how this works,” Whitebread says. “When children engage in imaginative play, they seem to be able to achieve at a higher level than when they are not.” This, he says, is of key importance – particularly since imaginative play can sometimes be dismissed by adults.
“The notion that when children are engaged in playing mums and dads, or pretending to be doctors or teachers, that they are just playing and it has no useful purpose is completely wrong. It has been demonstrated over and over again that children are able to do things in imaginative play situations that they can’t do when they are not. They achieve at a higher level, and we know now that it supports their development in these really important self-regulation activities.”
The literature on self-regulation contains numerous interventions that teachers could employ, but, ultimately, the most important thing a teacher can do about self-regulation is to be aware of how much of a difference they can make, according to Whitebread.
“I have done half a dozen studies on this over the years, and in every case the children who started off as the weakest self-regulators gained the most during the interventions,” he concludes. “And that is really good news from an educational point of view – it means that children are not stuck. It isn’t like the old-fashioned view of intelligence: you know, that you are either bright or you are not. Yes, you may not have an initial disposition and ability to be metacognitively able in this regard, but you can definitely learn to do it.”
Chris Parr is a freelance writer
This article originally appeared in the 3 May 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...self-regulation”