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Research School Network: How can picture books help us to promote self-regulation and metacognition in the early years? Find out about two new picture books with Tania Choudhury, Evidence Lead in Education, and Julian Grenier, Director of ELRS


How can picture books help us to promote self-regulation and metacognition in the early years?

Find out about two new picture books with Tania Choudhury, Evidence Lead in Education, and Julian Grenier, Director of ELRS

Conker the Chameleon

Written by Hannah Peckman and illustrated by Stephanie Jayne. Review by Tania Choudhury

Hannah Peckham’s book is a delightful read. It offers just the right amount of humour with a moral behind each page. 

The premise of the story is that Conker is a chameleon who cannot change colour. This makes him different and consequently upsets him. He takes the reader on a journey about emotions and differences, before concluding that being different is not so bad after all. 


The colours and emotions are linked to Leah Kuypers’s Zones of Emotional Regulation (2011), which are widely used in schools. In Peckham’s own words, yellow represents fearfulness”, green is rather pleasant”, blue is for sadness” and red is angry, raging…uncomfortable emotions”. This book complements the teaching and learning of the zones for children developing their understanding of emotional regulation.

Interestingly, Peckham’s book not only supports readers to identify their emotional states, but also suggests ways in which they can move out of these zones and regulate themselves. The common theme throughout is to use talk. For instance, when Conker notices two chameleons arguing, he suggests that they talk to one another and listen instead. The reader can observe through the marvellous illustrations, the chameleons’ skin turning from red to green.

The story has a beautiful flow, with a constant rhyme and hints of alliteration – this makes an ideal storybook for helping children to develop their phonological awareness.

The illustrations are funny and offer a lot to discuss, and the formatting of the words across the page makes it easy for early readers to identify key words.

Whilst some of the aspects of the book are quite deep and complex, perhaps too lengthy for some learners, I would recommend that it is focused upon as a core book.

At Sheringham Nursery School, where I am the SENDCO, I will plan this book into our core book offer. This means that we will read the book over the course of a fortnight and plan a range of activities related to different themes featured in the book. We might focus on the rhyming aspect during a group time and create nonsense rhyming strings. On another day we might discuss the emotional states featured in the book such as feeling red, what that looks like in ourselves and how we can self-regulate in such scenarios. We may use an emotional dial to help children with limited language to understand and enjoy the book.

Drawing on discussions we’ve had with Kirsten Mould, we think of this approach as scaffolding up’. It’s about helping every child to access the concepts and skills in our curriculum, so that children with SEND are included and experience suitable breadth and depth in their learning. This is very different to differentiating down’ – limiting access to books and other opportunities to learn for children with SEND. You can read more about scaffolding in the EEF’s Guidance Report on Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools.

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The theme about being different is equally important to focus on to encourage children to understand the world around them. At the end of the story, there is a Self-care scavenger hunt’ and My ChaMEleon Tree’ which offers an opportunity for readers to map out what helps them in certain emotional states. Peckham has thought carefully about how this book can be used beyond a story time.

Overall, this book is a refreshing addition to the world of children’s literature, offering plenty of opportunities to support children’s learning around emotional literacy including self-regulation as well as celebrating individuality and fostering early reading. Although not essential, I would highly recommend that it is read alongside implementation of Kuyper’s Zones of Regulation to maximise its potential.



Written by David Cahn and illustrated by Molly Pukes. 

Review by Julian Grenier.

Cahn worked with a two-year old boy called Umar in a Leeds Children’s Centre. Umar’s fascination with keys, leading to moments of pure joy as well as frustration and anger, inspired this simple but effective story. The book ends with Umar slotting a key in a lock, turning it and opening a door all by himself. 

The children at Sheringham Nursery School enjoyed Cahn’s book. It gives a neat account of how a young child’s fascination can support their early learning, when parents, wider family, and nursery staff all work together. This made me think of a couple of possible spin-offs. 

One would be to encourage more DIY book-writing by early years staff, focused on the immediate interests of the children we work with. 

Another would be to share the story with parents. It shows how how something which might seem really annoying at first – a two-year old’s endless attempts to grab and use keys – can lead to signifiant steps in early learning. 

Research by David Whitebread and others into young children’s independent learning found that given the opportunity to make their own choices and decisions, the children were remarkably focused and organised and pursued their own plans and agendas with persistence and sometimes over surprisingly long periods of time.’

Whitebread and his colleagues also commented that there is an important distinction between praise (which produces teacher-pleasers) and encouragement (which gives information/​feedback and supports independence)’.

Both of these aspects of early learning are exemplified in Umar.

The book could also be used as a prompt for supporting children’s metacognitive thinking. Careful use of questions like what do you think Umar was thinking?’ or how do you think Umar learnt to use keys’ can encourage dialogue about thinking, learning and problem-solving. This in turn can help to develop metacognitive abilities in very young children. 

When we patiently help children to follow through on something they have chosen to do, we are supporting their developing self-regulation. To use the keys successfully, Umar has to inhibit his anger and frustration, which he manages to do most of the time. He has to screen out other distractions and just focus on what he is doing with the keys. He has to plan and carry out a sequence of actions. 

The EEF’s Early Years Toolkit comments that 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 five additional months’ progress. 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.’

So Umar’s fascination with keys is helping this determined two-year old to become an even more powerful learner. 

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