Children’s self-regulation: Why is it important and how can we support it?

Kate E. Williams and Steven J. Howard, Australia, February 2021

Resource Summary

This short article is based on the paper: Williams, K. E., & Howard, S. J. (2020). Proximal and distal predictors of self-regulatory change in children aged 4 to 7 years. BMC pediatrics, 20(1), 226. Read the full article here.

What is self-regulation and why should we care about it?

Self-regulation is the ability to control our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in ways that help us to function day-to-day and achieve our goals. Building self-regulation skills, particularly early in life, lays the foundation for children’s positive social and emotional development.

For children, self-regulation assists in key social and developmental milestones such as making friends and building social skills, learning and achieving at school, making good decisions and managing stress.

A child with good self-regulation skills, for instance, might be able to:

  • regulate their emotions and react appropriately to different situations
  • wait their turn
  • persist with challenging tasks; and
  • resist the impulse to behave inappropriately.

Strong self-regulation skills in early childhood are linked with a wide range of health and achievement outcomes across the lifespan, including positive mental and physical health, and educational attainment (Moffitt et al., 2011; Robson, Allen, & Howard, 2020). Self-regulation continues to develop across adolescence and young adulthood, but early childhood is a particularly crucial period for self-regulation growth. This positions self-regulation as an important target for early childhood prevention and early intervention.

Which factors are linked with self-regulation growth in young children?

There is a growing understanding of the factors that support growth of self-regulation skills early in life. Key influences identified include:

  • rich home learning environments and experiences (e.g. reading books, playing or singing with children);
  • positive parenting approaches (e.g . warm, responsive and consistent caregiving) and, importantly, the absence of negative and harsh parenting;
  • stronger language and motor development; and
  • well-adjusted sleep routines and behaviours (Baker, Cameron, Rimm-Kaufman, & Grissmer, 2012; Hanno & Surrain, 2019; Hindman & Morrison, 2012; Kim et al., 2016; Williams, Berthelsen, Walker, & Nicholson, 2017).

However, very few studies have explored the extent to which these factors (and others) predict change in children’s self-regulation over time. A more comprehensive and holistic study of these early childhood factors and experiences would build our understanding of what supports growth of self-regulation skills.

What did this study explore?

This study aimed to identify the most important predictors of growth in self-regulation behaviours in Australian children as they progressed from 4 to 7 years old. Data of almost 5,000 children from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children were used to investigate a range of possible predictors from the areas of:

  • children’s health and health behaviours
  • children’s development
  • child-teacher relationships
  • home-environment (including family factors)
  • children’s use of time (e.g. sport, music/dance, TV); and
  • neighbourhood characteristics (e.g. socio-economic level of an area).

What did the study find?

Significant predictors of children’s self-regulation growth over time were:

  • fewer sleep problems, including trouble with night-waking and falling asleep
  • stronger gross motor skills (e.g. running, jumping)
  • higher pre-academic skills (i.e. foundational skills that support the development of academic skills, such as copying shapes and using a pencil and paper)
  • lower levels of emotional dysregulation in parents (e.g. lower levels of anger when providing discipline); and
  • lower levels of family financial hardship.

The following factors were also found to have smaller predictive effects on children’s self-regulation across time:

  • high-quality home learning environments (e.g. parents reading books to children, singing nursery rhymes); and
  • positive child-educator relationships at childcare.

How can we use these findings?

This study identifies the most significant factors for enhancing the growth of self-regulation skills in young children. While many prevention and early intervention approaches focus on strengthening children’s self-regulation capacities (e.g. the ability to cope with frustration), our findings suggest that these skills could also be supported through addressing key aspects of children’s surrounding environment and context.

Specifically, practitioners and parents might consider:

  • addressing children’s sleep problems, such as identifying and supporting sleep hygiene and consistent bedtime routines
  • supporting positive parenting approaches, including those that support emotional regulation in parents
  • attending to, and supporting, parental mental health
  • providing opportunities to develop language and motor skills
  • enhancing the home learning environment through approaches that support parental knowledge, confidence and skills; and
  • ensuring positive child-educator relationships that are safe, secure and responsive.

What are the study limitations – and where to next?

The study measures were mainly broad in nature. Future studies should use more precise measures to better understand the exact nature of how children’s early experiences and environment might support self-regulation growth. Updated studies may also wish to consider the potential impact of more recent changes to children’s lifestyles on the development of self-regulation skills (e.g. children’s digital experiences).

References

Baker, C. E., Cameron, C. E., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Grissmer, D. (2012). Family and sociodemographic predictors of school readiness among African American boys in kindergarten. Early Education and Development, 23(6), 833–854.

Hanno, E., & Surrain, S. (2019). The direct and indirect relations between self-regulation and language development among monolinguals and dual language learners. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 22(2).

Hindman, A. H., & Morrison, F. J. (2012). Differential contributions of three parenting dimensions to preschool literacy and social skills in a middle-income sample. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 58(2), 191–223.

Howard, S. J., & Williams, K. E. (2018). Early self-regulation, early self-regulatory change, and their longitudinal relations to adolescents’ academic, health, and mental well-being outcomes. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 39(6), 489–496.

Kim, H., Byers, A. I., Cameron, C. E., Brock, L. L., Cottone, E. A., & Grissmer, D. W. (2016). Unique contributions of attentional control and visuomotor integration on concurrent teacher-reported classroom functioning in early elementary students. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36, 379–390.

Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, J., Dickson, N., Hancox, R., Harington, H., Houts, R., Pouton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M, R., Murray Thomson, W., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient o fchildhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 108(7), 2693–2698.

Robson, D. A., Allen, M. S., & Howard, S. J. (2020). Self-regulation in childhood as a predictor of future outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. 146(4), 324–354.

Sawyer, A. C. P., Chittleborough, C. R., Mittinty, M. N., Miller-Lewis, L. R., Sawyer, M. G., Sullivan, T., & Lynch, J. W. (2014). Are trajectories of self-regulation abilities from ages 2-3 to 6-7 associated with academic achievement in the early school years? Child: Care, Health & Development, 41(5), 744–754.

Sawyer, A. C. P., Miller-Lewis, L. R., Searle, A. K., Sawyer, M. G., & Lynch, J. W. (2015). Is greater improvement in early self-regulation associated with fewer behavioral problems later in childhood? Developmental Psychology, 51(12), 1740–1755.

Williams, K. E., Berthelsen, D., Walker, S., & Nicholson, J. M. (2017). A developmental cascade model of behavioral sleep problems and emotional and attentional self-regulation across early childhood. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 15(1), 1–21.

Williams, K. E., Nicholson, J. M., Walker, S., & Berthelsen, D. (2016). Early childhood profiles of sleep problems and self-regulation predict later school adjustment. The British Journal Of Educational Psychology, 86(2), 331–350.

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