Self-regulation is one of the early learning goals under Personal, Social and Emotional Development. The Early Years Foundation Stage suggests that children will “show an understanding of their own and others’ feelings; work towards goals; wait for what they want; focus their attention while following instructions”. But why is self-regulation so important and what environments lead to early development of self-regulation? And, as always, how can music support this?

To learn effectively, self-regulation, or the ability to direct attention and behaviour, is important (McClelland & Cameron, 2011) because it allows us to:

  • flexibly change attention
  • have a good working (day-to-day) memory
  • control impulses (inhibitory control)

Music addresses these three areas directly:

  • Interesting music often involves unexpected twists – a change in tune, beat or even lyrics. As music uses all senses and abilities, we are happy to follow these twists!
  • Music often involves repetition – like the chorus that is repeated or the same tune to a different verse – and this helps to build memory!
  • Finally, music often has a clear beginning and end, which involves the brain’s reward system through predictability – if the song is started, it can always be completed, whether externally or internally (in your head)!

Self-regulation seems to explain the early achievement gap from poorer and “English as an Additional Language” (EAL) families (Finders et al., 2021). Children from poorer families showed low self-regulation in maths and language, while children from poorer and EAL families showed both low self-regulation and also lower executive function skills.

Self-regulation is important in both cognitive and socio-emotional development. In a study of over 13,000 children (Oloye & Flouri, 2021) aged between 3 and 7 years old, two related areas were investigated: independence and emotional dysregulation. Independent children were found to come from home environments that were disorganised as well as those that were calm and quiet. Dysregulation was found in homes with damp, second-hand smoke and TV noise. Overcrowding, home traffic, presence of open fires and garden access did not affect self-regulation. Musical games are enjoyable, non-competitive ways to bridge this achievement gap. One of the great music education methods, Dalcroze, involves games that cleverly introduce these skills.


A little like musical statues, children walk to the beat while the music plays, and stop when it stops. Unlike musical statues, there is no penalty for getting it wrong, as the purpose is for children to learn by imitating others. This game can be developed into walking with music and clapping (to the beat) when it stops. Or walking when it stops and clapping when it plays. Each of these developments enhances and perfects the ability to self-regulate.

Quick reaction direction

Playing a beat on one instrument e.g. drum, means the children should walk forwards. Quickly changing to another instrument, e.g. bell, means children should walk backwards. Or sideways. Be inventive! Playing in regular timing (groups of 3 beats or 4 beats) allows children to prepare themselves, while keeping alert for changes.

Roll the ball 

Rolling the ball for the length of a line of a song develops the ability to both anticipate as well as prepare or control the speed of the ball. Below I have introduced a little rhyme that is fun to use (Roll Here Roll There), but well-known songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle” are also great for this: children sit opposite each other and must roll the ball slowly enough to only reach each other at the end of the line, e.g. (roll) Twinkle, twinkle, little star (catch), (roll) How I wonder what you are (catch), etc.

Stop on a spot

I’m going to walk, walk, walk, walk

Walk, walk, walk

I’m going to walk, walk walk and

Stop on a spot

Inhibition is about starting and stopping in response to an outside source. This song helps to develop this skill, a little like musical chairs, except that there are always more than enough spots for children to find, jump on, and stop! This song can also be developed in different ways – I’m going to tiptoe. Or jump. Or skip. Or hop. And when the song is well-known, it can be hummed without words, and children respond accordingly – and still stop on a spot.

Old MacDonald (finish the line)

Old MacDonald had a farm (- - - - -)

And on that farm he had a pig (- - - - -)

We actually learn songs in reverse. Try learning a new song by reading/singing it through, and then, sing it through a second time but do not read the last line – there is a good chance that you will mostly remember it. Sing it through a third time and do not read the last two lines – you will find it will soon be memorised! This also works for the lines of songs – sing the beginning of the line and we automatically fill in the end!

Roll here roll there

Roll here, roll there

Roll the ball to Leicester Square

Bounce high, bounce low

Bounce the ball to Shiloh

This game is best introduced with an adult sitting in the middle of the circle of children and demonstrating the speed of the ball to each child. Once they have all had a turn, children can sit opposite each other, taking turns at rolling and catching the ball in time with each line. This game can be developed into bouncing the ball to each other as children’s hand-eye co-ordination develops, or rolled twice as slowly or twice as quickly.

Self-regulation, or the ability to control impulses, is a powerful social skill. Not only does it reduce fights/friction, it allows society to function with the knowledge that behaviour will be rewarded (or punished!), that wages will be paid at the end of a week or month of work, that travel time will get us to where we want to be. And as we know, both nature and nurture impact our development, so we are able to learn new things, regardless of where we come from.


  • Finders, J. K., McClelland, M. M., Geldhof, G. J., Rothwell, D. W., & Hatfield, B. E. (2021). Explaining achievement gaps in kindergarten and third grade: The role of self-regulation and executive function skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 54(1st Quarter), 72–85.
  • McClelland, M. M., & Cameron, C. E. (2011). Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Improving Conceptual Clarity and Developing Ecologically Valid Measures. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 136–142.
  • Oloye, H. T., & Flouri, E. (2021). The role of the indoor home environment in children’s self-regulation. Children and Youth Services Review, 121(Feb 2021).
About the author:

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.



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