Research School Network: Supporting Self-regulation Julian Grenier, director at East London Research School, on the impact of Covid-19 on young pupils’ self-regulation skills.


Supporting Self-regulation

Julian Grenier, director at East London Research School, on the impact of Covid-19 on young pupils’ self-regulation skills.

by Research Schools Network
on the

Babies and young children are wired and primed to be great learners. They are the best learning machines in the universe’, as Alison Gopnik, one of the world’s leading experts on child development, memorably claimed.

But having potential is not enough. Children also need favourable conditions for successful early learning. It’s easy to see how children might lack stimulation and miss out on learning in their early years. They might not have space for play, or much to play with. They might not experience much back-and-forth conversation or sharing of books.

But in the background behind what’ children are learning – or missing out on – there is something else that’s important. It’s how they are developing to become more powerful learners. That depends crucially on their emerging ability to self-regulate. Successful early learning depends on both the how’ and the what’.

The DfE’s guidance to support the revised Early Years Foundation Stage, Development Matters , incudes a brief overview of self-regulation and executive function. It describes self-regulation as children’s developing capacity to:

  • focus their thinking
  • monitor what they are doing and adapt
  • regulate strong feelings
  • be patient for what they want
  • bounce back when things get difficult.

The American researchers Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver have been researching self-regulation for decades. Their research shows that the stress of living in poverty can lead to family life becoming chaotic for young children. Stressful, noisy and disorganised home environments, where parents are focusing on daily survival, have a negative impact on children’s developing self-regulation.

Blair and Raver (2005) comment that:

‘children in poverty are far less likely than their higher-income counterparts to enter school ready to learn’ and that they ‘are also less likely to experience family, home, and neighborhood environments that foster prototypically optimal self-regulation, and as a consequence, the impact of available learning opportunities is reduced’.

Of course, every family is unique. There are many parents living in poverty who manage to support their children, against the odds. The largest research into early learning in the UK, the EPPSE project, found that it’s what parents do that makes a difference. Parents on low-incomes can provide stable home environments with stimulating play and conversation. They can support their children just as well, or better, than more affluent parents.

But in the big picture, poverty is associated with more stressful family life. That results in poorer conditions for children’s developing self-regulation.

Furthermore, as researcher Hope Oloye explained in a recent blog for the East London Research School, poor-quality housing damages children’s development. Looking at a large cohort of 14,000 children, Oloye and her colleagues found that:

‘children living in homes with higher levels of damp and second-hand smoke had higher emotional dysregulation scores. Damp and second-hand smoke both worsen the indoor air quality. The children had higher emotional dysregulation scores even when we factor out socio-economic factors.’

Oloye and her colleagues also found that:

‘background noise generated by the TV or radio was another significant predictor of emotional dysregulation trajectories. This is in line with findings that noise exposure leads to diminished reading and language ability. Studies show that children in homes with high levels of TV noise experience greater instances of depression, anxiety and aggression.’

As a result, many children in poverty will not be ready to play, make friends and learn in their early years setting or school.

We don’t know what the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be on young children’s self-regulation. In the community where I work, we are currently seeing more and more families referred to our Children’s Centre because they are facing financial destitution. Many young children are staying at home, in over-crowded and poor-quality housing, because of the lockdown. It is reasonable to guess that their early self-regulation skills will be negatively affected.

So, what should we do?

Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, we need to be very careful about our communications with families who may be struggling for daily survival. Recent research sponsored by the Royal Foundation has shown how pandemic has affected different families. Parents in the most deprived areas report higher levels of loneliness, for example. Overall, many say that they feel judged by others, with roughly half reporting that this is taking an emotional toll on them.

That suggests we should stop and consider how our communications with families are likely to be received. Many parents are telling our Children’s Centre team that they can’t do enough to support their young child’s home learning. Often, they are trying to help older children too. Might regular messages about home learning and online lessons for early years children make them feel even more anxious? We need to remember that parents living in poverty already feel more stressed, isolated and judged than their better-off counterparts.

The evidence suggests that the single most important thing any parent can do for their young child is to provide warm, responsive care’. But, to be consistently warm and responsive’ to your child, you need support, and you need to be confident that your family’s basic needs will be met. Many parents living in poverty can’t rely on either.

With that in mind, we need to think about communications which might make a very bad situation for a parent even worse. Having good intentions isn’t good enough.

There are structured methods of communicating with parents to support early learning at home that have shown positive results when trialled. For example, the Sutton Trust evaluation of the EasyPeasy App yielded promising outcomes:

‘Parents taking part in the trial used the app for 18 weeks and reported improvements in their children’s ‘cognitive self-regulation’. Examples of this include persisting to complete difficult tasks, making decisions independently, and working things out for themselves – sometimes described as ‘character’. These capabilities strongly underpin children’s ability to learn and succeed at school.The parents taking part in the trial also felt better able to stick to rules and set boundaries. Both of these findings were statistically significant.’

At East London Research School, we undertook a small scale and informal evaluation of support for home learning in the early years. We found that parents responded positively to gifted resources, like play materials or books, and supportive short videos made by staff. Those short videos focused on modelling how to enable children’s free play, and guide their learning. Parents and children also enjoyed short videos of nursery staff singing songs and rhymes, and reading favourite books. 

Our understanding of the importance of children’s self-regulation is growing. But we lack strong evidence of how to improve the self-regulation skills of children who are struggling. Many of us are also troubled by what we are seeing in the communities where we work. Children are struggling, and parents are feeling high levels of anxiety and isolation. 

However, there are signs of early promise that we can make a difference to this important aspect of children’s development through proactive and sensitive engagement with families. 

Related reading:

You can access the EEF guidance report on Metacognition and Self-regulation’ here.

You can find an EYFS Independent Behaviours’ assessment tool here.

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