Why we mustn’t ignore self-regulation

Learning self-regulation is crucial – so why won’t it be assessed at the early years foundation stage?

We can't ignore self-regulation

It’s said to be a significant predictor of success in later life, but self-regulation – the ability to recognise and regulate what you are doing and feeling – is tough. While some children are born with a better chance of being better at it, all of them learn to self-regulate gradually as they develop.

It’s part of the reason why children have massive tantrums, say inappropriate things and cry easily at seemingly minor issues; it’s because they have not yet learned to regulate their emotions.

In the education setting, a lack of self-regulation can be problematic. If behaviour systems are strict for very young children, they may be punished for something that is completely out of their control. Likewise, if young children are expected to complete long tasks or follow complex instructions, problems are likely to follow. And yet, despite a wealth of research in this area, we are increasingly seeing a desire to move key stage 1 into the early years foundation stage, much to the dismay of the EYFS community.

Since the ill-conceived Bold Beginnings report from Ofsted, the early years community has fought against attempts to formalise EYFS and bring KS1 methods of teaching into the setting. In doing so, they have referred people to the research around aspects of development such as self-regulation. They have stressed that, developmentally, much of what some wish children at this age stage to do is beyond their capability. But, sadly, they have largely been ignored.

The complexity in all of this is that you can teach self-regulation. And, when it is taught, says David Whitebread, developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist at the University of Cambridge, it produces extremely positive results.

If that’s the case, the solution seems obvious: just teach it. However, like so much in life, it’s not that simple.

The development of self-regulation, specifically in the early years, is not just about teaching it: there are also biological factors relating to child development to take into consideration.

It depends on what teaching methods are used, too. Advocates of a more structured EYFS environment often seem to miss the key part of self-regulation research: play, especially imaginative play, is essential.

“It has been demonstrated over and over again that children are able to do things in imaginative play situations which 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,” says Whitebread.

EYFS teachers know this. They know that self-regulation is crucial for learning. They know some children can develop it more easily than others. They also know it can be taught, which is why they build provision rich in play opportunities to ensure it is developed, enabling children to go on and be successful at school.

There’s plenty of evidence, but it doesn’t suit some, which is why, despite its importance, self-regulation has been dropped from the proposed tablet-based baseline test. Early years experts told government that assessments of self-regulation were a more accurate predictor of children’s future outcomes than tests of early language, literacy and numeracy at age 4. But because it’s a teacher observation and can’t be tested – or perhaps trusted – it had to go. If a tablet-based baseline isn’t any good for self-regulation assessment, one has to question whether it’s actually fit for purpose.

When will we stop being so dismissive of early-years practitioners? They are providing the foundation for every other educational phase to build on. They may talk about play but their work is deadly serious. We ignore them at our peril.


This article originally appeared in the 3 May 2019 issue under the headline “If we ignore self-regulation, we’re playing with children’s futures”