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Research School Network: Self regulation in the Early Years Foundation Stage Dr Polly Crowther, one of our Evidence Leads in Education, considers this essential but unfamiliar area of early years practice

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Self regulation in the Early Years Foundation Stage

Dr Polly Crowther, one of our Evidence Leads in Education, considers this essential but unfamiliar area of early years practice

by East London Research School
on the

What is self regulation?

Metacognition and self-regulation are buzzwords in pedagogy. Self regulation’ is a term from developmental psychology and cognitive sciences. Like all such terms, it comes with a safety warning. It can easily become misinterpreted as we move away from the research. It might feel like something we need to prove we do, rather than meaningfully understand.

The EEF guidance report Metacognition and self-regulated learning explains that:

Self-regulation is about the extent to which learners... are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn. It describes how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning and develop strategies to enhance their learning and to improve.

Here, self-regulated learning covers three components:

  • cognition
  • metacognition
  • motivation.

In Early Years self-regulation’ also refers to emotion regulation and children’s ability to manage their own behaviour (Baker et al, forthcoming). It may encompass executive functions: working memory, impulse control and attention (Zosh, 2017). The EEF Early Years Toolkit recognises the specific use of self-regulation’ in Early Years (EEF 2018)

These semantic considerations are important for approaching pedagogic research. Self-regulation means different things in different contexts.

Why does self regulation matter in the Early Years?

Self regulation has specific meaning in EYFS because impulse control and emotion regulation are critical to early child development. They feature in the revised Development Matters guidance, recognising their importance to early child development. Emotion regulation develops rapidly in the early years, when children progress from reactive, co-regulated behaviour to more advanced self regulation (Montroy et al, 2016).

Evidence suggests early self-regulation development is an indicator for children’s later success. The findings of the Stanford marshmallow studies remain influential and replicated: early self regulation correlates with later outcomes (Mischel et al, 1970; Montroy et al, 2016).

How can we support self regulation in the Early Years?


Developing self regulation is a core part of quality practice. It does not require interventions or major change. The guidance report makes seven general recommendations for metacognition and self regulation. I am going to explore what this can look like in the early years:

1. Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge

These concepts need to be understood in the specific context of early education. The EEF Early Years toolkit provides guidance (EEF, 2018). This can be complemented by excellent reviews by Baker et al (forthcoming) and Zosh et al (2017). There is strong evidence for the value of play-based pedagogies for self-regulation (Zosh et al, 2017; Lester & Russell, 2010; Baker et al, forthcoming).

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2. . Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning

The plan-do-review’ approach to play is powerful. It benefits communication and language as well as self-regulation. It allows us to link play and self-regulation in explicit ways. We can scaffold this approach with visual cues, careful adult interactions and photos or videos to support reflection.

We can teach impulse control and emotion regulation techniques explicitly. For example, I borrow one of Daniel Tiger’s songs:

When you feel so mad that you wanna roar, take a deep breath and count to four. 1, 2, 3, 4.”

This memorable rhyme helps my children with a strategy for stressful situations.

3. Model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills

In a recent discussion with Dr Sara Baker, Reader at the PEDAL Centre at Cambridge University, she challenged me to think of self-regulation on my own terms: when you know a brownie is a bad idea, but you need to actually stop yourself from eating it. (A perfect example for me!)

This personal understanding supports effective modelling. I teach my children the Count to four” song, and use it myself. On a wet play Friday I might be a little frazzled. I tell the children: I’m feeling stressed right now. What can I do to calm myself down?” The children remind me of the song and support me to sing it. It’s a co-regulation tactic they now get to practise on me. I have seen many versions of this same approach in different settings.

4. Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition

Learning through play provides abundant opportunities to develop self-regulation. This is partly because of its potential for iterative appropriate challenge. Children’s agency in setting challenge is likely to provide additional motivation to overcome it. Motivation is linked to effective self-regulation development (Baker et al, forthcoming). When children are challenged they must stop and think, change approach and try again: all self-regulatory techniques.

We can leverage the early learning environment for suitable challenge, setting out resources in a way that encourages decision-making. Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches leverage the environment to develop executive function in thoughtful ways. It is not always a case of doing something new, but refining our practice.

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5. Promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom

High quality adult interactions are a consistent indicator of outcomes in early years settings. Sustained Shared Thinking (SST) is when two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity or extend a narrative” (Sylva et al, 2004).

This is especially powerful for developing metacognitive and self-regulatory skills. It allows children to listen to adults’ thought processes and develop ways of understanding and narrating their own thinking.

SST is difficult to achieve and is a skill professionals master over the course of their careers. We can scaffold it using specific types of questioning and interaction. Recapping, summarising and asking open-ended questions like I wonder what would happen if…” are useful. The EEF Early Years Toolkit provides further resources in its Communication and Language’ section.

6. Explicitly teach pupils how to organise and effectively manage their learning independently

The greatest experts on developing independent learning skills are in early years. Young children move from being wholly dependent on others to independent beings. They learn to express preferences and achieve their own goals. The expertise of early educators in breaking down tasks into toddler-manageable components helps to develop self regulation. Narrating children’s challenges – I can see your zip is not moving. What can we do to fix that?” – allows them to focus on and overcome the barrier, rather than solving it for them.

Cat thinking

Strong early years practice can be leveraged to explicitly teach children how to manage their learning. For example:

  • Teaching independent access to the learning environment;
  • Plan-do-review approaches to play;
  • Thinking out loud during direct instruction in maths and literacy;
  • Verbal feedback.

7. Schools should support teachers to develop knowledge of these approaches and expect them to be applied appropriately

In the early years self-regulation should not be an extra task’. It should be built into quality teaching (EEF, 2020). That is not as simple as it sounds. These are technical skills that take time to learn, practice and master. It is critical that schools and settings provide the time and culture to do so. Granular focus on specific components of practice are likely to be more effective than wholesale change.

The EEF guidance report and Early Years Toolkit provide useful starting points. Resources for practitioners are linked below. The Research Schools Network can support schools and settings to develop research-informed practice. Please contact us if you are interested in exploring further.

Further reading


EEF (2021) School Planning Guide

EEF (2020) Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self regulated learning

EEF (2018) Early Years Toolkit

Baker et al (Forthcoming) Making space for children’s agency with playful learning’.

Lester & Russell (2010) Children’s right to play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation

Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329 – 337

Sylva et al, (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from Pre-school to end of Key Stage1. London: DFES. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/18189/2/SSU-SF-2004 – 01.pdf

Montroy et al (2016) The Development of Self-Regulation across Early Childhood. Dev Psychol. 2016 Nov; 52(11): 1744 – 1762.

Zosh et al (2017) Learning through play: a review of the evidence. Billund: Lego Foundation

Daniel Tiger’s Felling mad song: https://pbskids.org/learn/lifes-little-lessons/pdf/DTN_Family_Activity_MadFeelings.pdf

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