Imagine the scene – it’s Christmas eve and you realise with horror that you have no cranberry sauce. Without it, Great Aunt Jenny would spend tomorrow complaining and so you pop out to the overcrowded supermarket in a panic to pick some up. As you wait patiently for a car to pull out of a parking space, another car ignores your signalling and drives straight into the space you were waiting for. You wind down your window and yell, “I was waiting for that space!” and the other driver shrugs an apology yet still takes the space! How would you feel and react?
We all have moments when our emotions get the better of us, or we feel less than in control. Some people refer to this increased rush of stress hormones as being in a state of ‘freeze, fight or flight’. When this happens, we are unable to think rationally until we return to a state of calm. As adults, we have ways of overcoming this stressful state, often in an instant. Perhaps we take a deep breath or count to 10, or even just roll our eyes. Children do not yet know how to deal with these powerful feelings and part of our role as educator is to help children to regulate their emotions by becoming a co-regulator, actively listening and being attuned to children’s emotional states.
Co-regulation is a supportive process that relies on the foundation of a warm, responsive and trusting relationship between adults and children. It is about adults providing a safe and stable environment within which children can explore and take risks. A consistent routine and predictable boundaries will help children to feel secure, as will having adults who interact in the moment, coaching and role-modelling to scaffold their learning. In this environment, adults help children to regulate their emotions and teach them strategies to use in the future.
Sometimes self-regulation as a term is, I believe, not totally understood by those working within early childhood education. It is regularly equated with children simply controlling their behaviour. Although this is part of the story, in reality, self-regulation is about a child managing their powerful thoughts and feelings in order to regain feelings of calm. It is also about children being able to maintain focus and attention and, at times, inhibit impulses. Just like the impulse that you might have to say something unkind if your parking space were stolen!
It is through relationships with others that children learn how to self-regulate. Vygotsky first uses this term within the context of children being able to do something with a little help or a scaffold from others that they wouldn’t be able to do alone. He talks about children moving from being regulated by others to being self-regulated. Part of this process is learning about our emotions and understanding social situations and etiquette. Children need to know that it might be appropriate to clap during show and tell in the classroom, but not during prayers in assembly. Research suggests that children who are able to self-regulate are well-adjusted, socially competent, cognitively more able and ultimately, more successful in life.
So it should be no surprise that self-regulation forms part of the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). It replaces, in my view inappropriately, the aspect Managing Feelings and Behaviour in the Prime Area of Personal, Social and Emotional Development. I want to draw your attention to the consultation that is currently considering these proposed changes. It is really important that as many early childhood educators as possible respond to this.
As educators we can become co-regulators for our children. Here are some ways that we can support children’s self-regulation:
1. Follow the child’s lead and react and interact sensitivel
2. Use language associated with feelings and emotions
3. Avoid reprimanding children for having big emotions, instead offer calm and continuous reassurance, emotional support and warmth
4. Acknowledge and accept children’s feelings
5. Use any incidents that arise as opportunities to practise conflict resolution and emotion-coaching techniques
6. Engage in role play and pretence play, e.g. role modelling calming strategies
7. Use books and stories to talk about character’s thoughts and feelings
8. Develop emotional intelligence and praise children when they successfully manage big emotions
9. Encourage children to recognise other people’s feelings – using photographs can help
10. Focus on fostering the characteristics of effective learning and enabling children to be resilient, persevering in the face of challenges
11. Play listening and attention games
12. Support children to problem solve and develop creative approaches to learning.
So this new year, take a deep breath and become a co-regulator for the children in your care.
The proposed Self-Regulation Early Learning Goal states, “Children at the expected level of development will:
- Show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others, and begin to regulate their behaviour accordingly;
- Set and work towards simple goals, being able to wait for what they want and control their immediate impulses when appropriate;
- Give focused attention to what the teacher says, responding appropriately even when engaged in activity, and show an ability to follow instructions involving several ideas or actions.”
(DfE, 2019, Early Years Foundation Stage Reforms, p.18, emphasis mine)
This begs the question, what does “regulate their behaviour accordingly” mean? This vague statement is unhelpful and open to interpretation. In addition, assessing whether children are able to “wait for what they want” will open the doorway to children being made to wait inappropriately at times. If a teacher needs to assess if they can respond “appropriately even when engaged in activity” the easiest way to check this is to interrupt their play even when deeply involved. Julie Fisher (2016) would call this interfering not interacting!
In addition, children “show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others” – this in itself is a difficult task which requires a high level of empathy and the ability to know that others have thoughts and feelings that are different to their own – which is theory of mind. Research shows that young children struggle to understand this concept and at the age of 4 or 5, many may not have grasped it yet. So this goal is assessing them on something that could be developmentally out of their reach!
If the EYFS is to include self-regulation, it needs to be written in a developmentally-appropriate way through exploring how children learn to manage their emotions and develop emotional resilience. It should consider how children overcome stress through understanding their feelings, and through developing meaningful relationships and social interaction.
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.