What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is a critical competency that underlies the mindful, intentional, and thoughtful behaviors of younger and older children alike. The term self-regulation (sometimes also called executive function) refers to the capacity to control one’s impulses, both to stop doing something, if needed (even if one wants to continue doing it) and to start doing something, if needed (even if one doesn’t want to do it). Self-regulation is not to be confused with obedience or compliance; when children are truly self-regulated they behave the same way whether or not an adult is watching. Self-regulated children can delay gratification and suppress their impulses long enough to think ahead to the possible consequences of their actions or to consider alternative actions that would be more appropriate. Self-regulation is not limited to the social-emotional domain; it can also apply to cognitive behaviors, such as remembering or paying attention. In fact, research indicates that these two facets of self regulation are related: children who cannot control their emotions at age four are unlikely to be able to follow the teachers’ directions at age six, and will not become reflective learners in middle and high school.
Why is self-regulation important?
There is growing evidence that many children, especially those at risk, begin school lacking self-regulation and this lack of self-regulation may have a great impact on how well they do in school and later life. Kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness; at the same time, these teachers report that many of their students come to school with low levels of self-regulation. There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than do IQ or entry-level reading or math skills, and they are closely associated with later academic achievement. Researchers have also found links between self-regulation at an early age and a child’s functioning in school far beyond kindergarten and first grade. Self-regulation affects a children’s abilities to successfully function in school settings in two ways: first, social-emotional self-regulation makes it possible for children to conform to classroom rules and to benefit from learning in various social contexts, from one-on-one interactions to large groups; and second, cognitive self-regulation allows children to use and further develop the cognitive processes necessary for academic learning and problem solving.
How does Tools of the Mind teach self-regulation?
Research shows that early interventions targeting self-regulation have positive and long lasting effects on children’s social-emotional well-being and their academic success. Tools of the Mind offers these benefits to all children, not just the ones who are at risk for developing self-regulation deficits. We have found that embedding classroom activities with specific support and assistance (scaffolds) that fosters self-regulation does change the child’s level of self-regulation. However, teaching self-regulation means revamping the classroom and how activities are implemented.
We know from research that early interventions targeting self-regulation have positive and long lasting effects on children’s social-emotional well-being and their academic success. We also believe that these interventions benefit all children, not just the ones who are at risk for developing self-regulation deficits. However, teaching self-regulation to all children means making significant changes in the way things are done in the early childhood classroom. First, we have eliminated from the Tools classroom those activities that actually promote unregulated behavior, such as waiting in line with nothing to do, wandering around the classroom during center time, being unclear about what to do during an activity, and not being able to get help. Instead, teachers create a consistent classroom in which teacher expectations are clear and fairly enforced and where children are engaged in meaningful activities at all times. Second, special activities in which self-regulation is a primary focus are used throughout the day, from movement games with progressively more challenging rules to the creation of Play Plans and Learning Plans, both requiring planning ahead, monitoring, and self-reflection. Finally, self-regulation components are embedded in other classroom activities where the primary focus is on the development of skills and concepts such as literacy, mathematics, fine motor skills, etc.
Self-regulation development in preschool
Mature, intentional make-believe play is the foundation of self-regulation development in preschool. It creates conditions in which young children are able to act in a more mature way and use more mature mental functions. Children remember more, attend better, and have better self-regulation. This kind of play is the only classroom experience that naturally provides the three types of interactions which lead to self-regulation: regulation by others, regulation of others, and self-regulation. All play is NOT created equal! Most children today do not engage in the kind of intentional make-believe play that fosters self-regulation. Today’s children spend more time being entertained—watching TV or playing video games. They learn to play soccer or go to art and music lessons. Many do not have long stretches of unstructured time where they wander into the backyard and play with neighborhood children of different ages who act as play mentors. Unlike twenty years ago, children come to preschool without knowing how to play in a way that will promote self-regulation. Without deliberate scaffolding by teachers to provide opportunities to engage in mature play, many young children will not develop it on their own.
Why is play central in a Tools preschool classroom?
- Children practice delayed gratification. Nathan wants to have his birthday party, but his real birthday is months away. But Nathan can pretend to have a birthday party now.
- Children learn to suppress their impulsive behavior because to stay in the play, they have to abide by the rules. Maria is the person being saved by the firemen, so she cannot get up and play with the new puzzle she sees because she is waiting to be saved.
- Children practice regulating each other’s behavior. Meili is taking the tickets for the airplane. She sits down in the passenger’s seat and starts to pretend to eat lunch. The other children say, “No, you aren’t the passenger, you take the tickets.” Children thus monitor other children’s behavior, noting when someone is playing inappropriately for the role.
- Children learn about their own actions and emotions by using them on purpose. Shawana and Toni are playing house. Shawana says, “My baby is sick so she’s going to cry. Then I’ll feed her and she’ll stop crying.” Toni says, “O.K., but my baby is being bad so I am going to get mad and then when my baby is good, I’ll be nice.” These children plan and act out different emotions and their consequences. This awareness is a necessary accomplishment in the development of social-emotional self-regulation.
- When children play in an intentional way, they think ahead by planning each scenario before they act it out. The more creative and imaginative the play, the more the children need to plan what is going to happen. Children have to coordinate the different ideas of the players. Above, Shawana and Toni need to have a play scenario that includes a good but hungry baby and a bad baby. Adding in the fact that Max wants to play the role of the family dog creates a situation that requires a great deal of planning to make everyone satisfied with the outcome. This is the precursor of the kind of cognitive self-regulation required to solve a complex problem or to keep a story with many characters straight.
Self-regulation in kindergarten
At the beginning of the year, kindergarten children may not have mature play skills and consequently will lack self-regulation. For this reason, kindergarten teachers using Tools work on self- regulation in two ways.
First, specific activities with make-believe play elements are used to help children develop the level of play that they should have. Children listen to stories and chapter books, and then act out the characters and actions that they read about. This dramatization serves two purposes. One, it improves the characteristics of play; and two, it is a way to help children visualize and improve their listening comprehension skills.
The second way that kindergarten teachers improve intentional play skills is to extensively use learning games and other games with rules. Vygotskians argue that games with rules have many of the characteristics of intentional make-believe play and that these can be used to help children develop self-regulation. As the year progresses, kindergartners engage in more and more learning tasks with embedded self-regulation components as a way of helping them begin the transition to learning activities.