Inclusion and wellbeing

What Is Self-Regulation?

Katrina McEvoy gives the lowdown on self-regulation and where video can help
What is self-regulation?
December 11, 2020
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here's the quick run down.
  • With self-regulation being formally added to the new Early Learning Goals in the EYFS statutory framework, it’s more important than ever that you and your staff understand what it is, and how you support self-regulation in your setting.
  • Self-regulation is the ability to understand, control, and modify our own feelings and behaviour – and it’s a crucially important skill children need to develop, to support their learning and wellbeing.
  • Katrina McEvoy explains why it’s so important that we focus on what children do best and, using knowledge of theory and practice, help children become confident life-long learners.

Encouraging children to be independent learners means we need to know much more about how children learn rather than just what they learn.

This is because children who are able to take control of their own learning – even in the early years – become much more successful in later life. This self-regulation in the Early Years means learners are more likely to become high achievers.

It’s not what you know, but how much in control of your own learning you are.

As children develop further, they become aware of how they learn and can control their own learning in a more conscious way. This is called meta-cognition – a sort of thinking about thinking.

To understand more about developing these self-regulatory skills, there are some psychological principles that we need to know about. They are the bedrock that self-regulation needs to thrive.

And those psychological principles have to start with a secure base…

Emotional security and warmth

The first essential for self-regulation is emotional security and warmth, as this makes self-regulation manageable.

This starts at birth with positive relationships with primary carers. You cannot yet teach self-regulation skills, but secure attachments with close carers give the child a safe base from which to explore. These warm secure attachments come from the quality and consistency of early relationships, precisely why the key person relationships we have are so important in the Early Years Foundation Stage.

The first type of self-regulation a baby learns to develop is emotional regulation. As their brain develops and experiences emotional responses, the neuron pathways that fire most often become strengthened, while others gradually wither away. As adults support babies to regulate their emotions, through co-regulation, the brain develops in a way that will let the child become self-regulating as these 'self-regulation pathways' in the brain become well used. Co-regulation is necessary for children to self-regulate.

So that’s where you come in – the importance of a warm and supportive, responsive relationship continues when children start nursery or school. Attachments to key people lead to children feeling emotionally safe, and free to be themselves and play and explore enabling environments from a safe base.

What about motivation?

Young babies are motivated by several key concepts or innate drives.

One is the need to have some control over what happens to them. When they learn that what they do has an effect on what happens in their lives, they’re motivated to do things to make other things happen.

They’re also motivated by challenge and will strive to find interesting things that stimulate their developing brains. Babies are also born with an explanatory drive, making them highly motivated to be curious and notice patterns in the world as they go out in search for explanations.

According to key thinkers like Vygotsky, they learn best when they are trying to make sense of things or do something that’s close to the edge of their ability. This is often helped, by having just enough adult support – what Bruner called scaffolding. In turn, knowing when to sensitively withdraw that support leads to independence.

Free guide

How to navigate the EYFS

Download now
a purple background with the words tips and tricks to navigate the eyfs

Social learning

Human beings are social creatures and are specially adapted to learn in social contexts. As Vygotsky emphasised, most learning occurs through socialising, and so having good communication, self-confidence, and social skills is vital for any young child to develop self-regulated learning.

As time goes on, it becomes more important for young children's development for them to be able to speak their own thoughts. This is in order for them to develop the ability to regulate how they learn for themselves. By speaking their thoughts out loud as they’re doing things, children are gradually learning how to develop internal thought processes. This might not be with a great deal of self-awareness, to begin with, but gradually children can be encouraged to be explicit about their own learning.

So what makes a difference?

So children’s self-regulatory development is best supported where there is:

  • Emotional warmth & security
  • Feelings of control
  • Appropriate levels of intellectual challenge
  • Lots of opportunity and encouragement to speak and reflect on their own learning

Given these basics, babies are highly motivated to learn. Babies live in the moment and don’t worry about embarrassment. They don’t think it’s too hard or not worth the effort – they stretch themselves daily. They want to learn, and it comes from within.

This high degree of motivation and a willingness not to give up, but to persevere when things get difficult, often seems to diminish as children get older. What is it then that often puts a damper on the exuberant learning we see in babies?

What usually makes the difference is the interactions children have with others as they are encouraged to push themselves and keep going. Children who don’t have this support often lose the motivation to succeed.

Children need to be encouraged to keep trying at things and persevere with different strategies so that they can eventually succeed. And of course, close adults can have a positive impact through scaffolding.

Perseverance, then, is a key component of becoming self-regulated and this motivation is essential to children learning how to learn. They need to have some control and be able to make their own choices – and you are absolutely central in encouraging them to do this.

What children feel about themselves is at the very core of self-regulation, and knowing you can succeed if you keep persevering is key to helping children keep trying. The human brain takes a comparatively long time to develop, hence our long childhood compared to other mammals.

That’s the thing with self-regulation – this long childhood has an evolutionary purpose. Overall control of thinking – or meta-cognition – develops slowly in the frontal lobes of the brain. The connections here grow hugely during the second year and gradually over many years the connections become strengthened and others gradually fade away.

That’s why continuing support in developing self regulation is so important for every learner.

How video can help develop your self-regulation practice

I’ve been involved in making Siren’s award-winning films for many years now, and more recently I’ve decided that what would be really useful would be a library of short film clips that could be used as a basis to build bespoke training sessions.

So I developed the Early Years Clip Library to help practitioners understand theory in practice by being able to watch short video clips.

You can use the videos in lots of different ways – watch one for a short training session or combine a few for a half-day or a full-day training day.

Siren Films have a long-standing reputation for the production of high-quality films focused on child development that illustrate key concepts and points of good practice using real-life observations.

How to use the Early Years Clip Library

The clips provide you with the ability to focus in very directly on particular points and to generate discussion, joint observation, and assessment within your team. We provide prompt questions with each video as an aid to guide observation without predefining the outcomes.

This specific collection of clips focus on what self-regulation looks like and what the adults are doing to support self-regulation skills.

In our experience, training is most effective when the learning points come directly from the participants and the clip library is perfect for this kind of self-directed learning. It enables you to schedule more frequent, shorter and more sharply focused continuous development sessions which can be revisited later on.

The clip library enables you to provide more targeted support and to assess how you enable self-regulation to develop, while the ready accessibility of the individual short clips means you can return to them at your convenience to reassess, reemphasise and highlight learning points with specific practitioners when they need it.

The big ideas

download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Get famly free

Try learning journals for free

Add observations, and build digital learning journals to share with families instantly. All with your completely free 14-day trial.

Get started