Cool, calm and collected... so what is self-regulation?

    Published: 11 October 2021

    With the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) reforms including the term ‘self-regulation’ for the first time, we thought it was time to explore this is more depth.  Under the new reforms the seven areas of learning and development remain the same but the early learning goals (ELGs) have changed and have replaced what were previously referred to as ‘aspects’.  In Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) we have seen the the aspects of 'making relationships', 'self-confidence and self-awareness', and 'managing feelings and behaviour' make way for the new ELGs of 'self-regulation', 'managing self', and 'building relationships'.

    But, “what is self-regulation?”- I hear you ask! 


    Screaming child


    Self-regulation and the new Early Years reforms

    Simply put, self-regulation is “the ability to understand and manage your emotions and behaviour in response to things happening around you. It helps you to control your impulses (to make better decisions), to not over-react when upset or excited, and to be able to calm down after an incident, should one occur.”  (  Self-regulation isn’t something we are born being able to do.  It is something that develops over time when children are supported to understand their feelings and actions by caring and responsive adults.

    “Self-regulation is now recognised as crucially important in young children’s development, strongly predicting children’s later success in relating to others and in their learning, while supporting lifelong mental and physical health.”

    Birth to 5 Matters 2021

    For children to develop self-regulation skills they need the support of adults in an interactive process called ‘co-regulation’.  The educational programme for PSED highlights the need for children to develop “strong, warm and supportive relationships with adults” in order for children to be “[enabled] to learn how to understand their own feelings and those of others.”  It clearly states “children should be supported to manage emotions, develop a positive sense of self, set themselves simple goals, have confidence in their own abilities, to persist and wait for what they want and direct attention as necessary” this is done through adults modelling and guiding such behaviours, using positive reinforcement and affirmation. Consequently this will help children learn “how to make good friendships, co-operate and resolve conflicts peaceably. These traits will provide a secure foundation from which children can achieve at school and in later life.”

    How does self-regulation develop?

    Initially self-regulation is born through co-regulation.  This begins at birth.  This is mainly initiated and maintained by the carer giver.  For example, when a baby becomes upset/hungry the carer reacts accordingly to ensure baby’s needs are met by comforting or feeding them.


    New born with mother


    Over time the baby learns to recognise and interpret situations which then results in a different emotional response.  For example, a baby who is upset and crying for attention and can wait when they hear their carer’s voice. This is because over time they learnt that they have a responsive caring adult nearby who will promptly respond to their cues. This security makes them feel able to wait, regulating their feelings.


    New born


    As children grow, observe and are supported by adults modelling calming strategies; naming and talking about feelings and ways to manage them, this helps them learn to recognise their feelings. It develops their awareness of approaches to reduce or manage extremes of emotion.


    Father with child


    The enables the young child to begin to demonstrate self-regulation skills such as focusing attention, goal-setting, self-monitoring, problem-solving, taking different perspectives (such as being aware of others’ thinking and picturing the future), and decision-making.

    How can we support self-regulation in the Early Years?

    Now we have looked at it developmentally our role is to consider how we can nurture it under our care and teaching.  Our pedagogy needs to contain co-regulation strategies which will in turn support children to develop self-regulatory skills.  Researchers have identified three basic strategies for co-regulation:

    • positive relationships – Provide a warm, responsive relationship where children feel respected, comforted and supported in times of stress, and confident that they are cared for at all times.
    • enabling environments – Create an environment that makes self-regulation manageable, structured in a predictable way that is physically and emotionally safe for children to explore and take risks without unnecessary stressors.
    • learning and development – Teach self-regulation skills through modelling, suggesting strategies, providing frequent opportunities to practice, and scaffolding to support children to use self-regulation skills. 

    Taken from Birth to 5 Matters

    “The development of self-regulation and executive function is consistently linked with successful learning”

    Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) 2021


    Two Early Years children


    It is important to remember that self-regulation is not the same as compliance, where we may see a child sitting still and listening when expected to.  Children can fluctuate in their capacity to self-regulate; as can adults.  Self-regulation is not a fixed state. However, noticeably large relapses could indicate high levels of distress or be in response to a traumatic experience.

    If you’d like to explore the theme of self-regulation further you can hear Education Consultant Tamsin Grimmer leading a workshop on this topic at our National Early Years Conference.


    Behaviour Matters | Emotions Matter – Helping Children to Self-Regulate

    Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) 2021Birth to 5 Matters 2021

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