Self-regulation: an overview for EYFS
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By Hilary White

Self-regulation means being able to control our feelings, thoughts and behaviour so that we can maintain positive relationships, manage difficult events and fulfil our potential at each stage of our lives.

Teacher with group of boys sitting on table talking about emotions

Lying at the core of all aspects of life, self-regulation comprises a complex range of skills, capabilities, behaviours and mental functions. The 2021 EYFS framework devotes a whole PSED early learning goal to self-regulation, reflecting the importance it is now being given. The ELG focuses on two particular aspects of self-regulation, both of which are important to holistic child development. These are the exploration of feelings as a means of regulating emotional responses, and the regulation of thinking, action and behaviour in order to meet self-determined goals.

Given its importance, practitioners need to bring knowledge and understanding of self-regulation into every planned activity and ad hoc interaction with the children in their care. The following suggestions include both strategies to draw on spontaneously throughout the day, and activities that support the development of self-regulation.

Co-regulation and modelling

Co-regulation is a vital means of supporting another individual to develop self-regulation. In the early years setting, practitioners can scaffold children within a given situation to help them manage their feelings and behaviours. This means putting in support to enable the child to achieve more than they could manage by themselves. Over time, children will absorb the strategies, behaviours and actions of their co-regulators and so become better able to regulate their responses to a situation independently. Methods of co-regulating are as extensive and wide ranging as the events that take place in the setting each day. Some examples might include calming distressed children in the middle of an argument and mediating so they can find ways to resolve their dispute; showing a child how to wipe their brush on the side of the paint pot so they can better manage their painting activity; exploring ways of managing impatience when children struggle to wait their turn for a favourite activity.

Modelling is another important way of supporting the development of self-regulation. Focusing on an activity, speaking quietly in the book corner, looking and listening until someone has finished speaking and sharing food or craft resources are just a small number of everyday scenarios that require the regulation of impulses and desires, feelings and actions. If adults in the setting consistently model self-regulation when they are engaging in such activities and routines, children will gradually absorb and internalise the behaviours that make up self-regulation.

Exploring feelings

While picture books and planned activities play a useful role in learning about feelings, there is no substitute for real life and ‘in-the-moment’ exploration. Throughout the day, look out for opportunities to identify, talk about and manage feelings such as conflict over sharing, separation anxiety or anger at having one’s impulses thwarted. With challenging events, the most important step is to reassure, comfort and make the child feel safe (this is particularly important when the child displays undesirable behaviours, even though it can feel counter-intuitive). Once the child is calm enough, help them tune into how a feeling actually feels in the body (the hot, wet, stingy sensation of tears, a beating heart, sensations in the tummy, wriggly arms and legs wanting to move). Help the child to name the feeling (angry, sad, scared) and accept and acknowledge the child’s feelings without judgement. Holding a safe space for overwhelming emotions and associated behaviours such as tantrums can be challenging, but it’s important in helping children learn to recognise and, given time, better regulate their emotional responses.

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