Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Children

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health

Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Children
By C. Michael Sandberg, MA

Recently the world of early childhood education has once again been echoing with terms like self-regulation, executive functioning, and social skills. This is a welcome moment! Not that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and literacy are not important, but, rather, that it is once again being realized that success academically, socially, and personally is more dependent on these “soft skills” than it is on the content of the knowledge being taught and learned!

Flavell in 1977 called these skills “one of the really central and significant cognitive-developmental hallmarks of the early childhood period.” Their importance has been well demonstrated by several recent studies that followed children over time. In one, done in New Zealand, 1037 kids were followed birth to 32 years. They were looking specifically at what they call self control, certainly one of what might today be called the executive functions. They defined self control as being willing to delay gratification, able to control your impulses, and able to modulate your emotional expression. Even though some of the study’s participants improved their ability to control themselves over the period of the study, they did find that self control at older ages could be largely predicted by self control at 5. Children were first measured at 3-5 with a 90-minute scored observation. They were scored again in their preteen years. In adulthood they were evaluated for several social, health, and financial outcomes. Their heath score was a composite of their cardiovascular health, respiratory system health, dental health, sexual health, and their inflammation status. They found that self control at 5 was highly predictive of improved finances, better physical health, lessened levels of substance dependency and fewer interactions with the justice system. They also found it to be predictive of better decision making in the teen years. Higher self control children were less likely to become pregnant as teenagers or to leave school early. They also had significantly fewer interactions with the authorities. They were also able to do an analysis comparing the differences using social situation as a child and IQ with those found using self control and they found that self control was a much better predictor.1

These kinds of results have been found by several other long-term studies.2 Interestingly these findings echo the findings of studies of the impact of quality early childhood programming such as that done of the High Scope programming evaluated by the Perry Preschool Project. There, even though the initial finding of improved IQ washed out over time, the children still had improved outcomes in terms of social, academic, and financial success. It could easily be argued that what they had gained was improved executive function. 3 For me, these are important findings because the children failing and being expelled by our schools and preschools are mostly being excluded because of poor self-regulation skills. 4 At the same time most researchers and educators agree that most executive function skills can be taught.

While most evaluators use teacher reporting to assess self-regulation skills, (the most responsible researchers recognize that there may be bias included in these ratings and evaluate the ratings across different ethnicities and SES (Socioeconomic Status) to guard against as much as they can), there is interestingly one evaluation method in relatively common use. It evaluates cognitive flexibility in 3-5 year olds by using cards featuring different attributes. There are different shapes, such as bunnies and turtles, and among each shape there are also two different colors. Children are asked to sort the cards by shape and then to switch and redo the sort by color. What is being evaluated is their ability to let go of the old references and switch to the new one. Most 3 year olds struggle with this change, while most 5-6 year olds can easily shift. This method, known as the dimensional change card sort, can separate the age at which children are able to succeed and show that cognitive flexibility is used as an indicator of emerging self-regulatory skills. 5 For me, this is reminiscent of Piaget’s work with classification and it may demonstrate a link between cognitive and social skills!

For a while, people also thought the marshmallow experiment conducted at Stanford could become an assessment tool. The method tried to evaluate the ability to delay gratification by tempting children with a marshmallow, while promising them a second one if they could wait about 15 minutes before eating it. While the researchers reported good predictive power of later success, when people tried to replicate the experiment controlling for SES, they found SES had a higher impact than any maturity measure. The kids, who could wait, were those who had not experienced scarcity!

In order to decide what we need to be teaching and come up with teaching methods, we need a more specific definition of these executive or self-regulation skills. They include the ability to monitor and manage emotions, thoughts and behavior via impulse control, maintaining attention and focus, filtering distractions, emotional regulation, problem solving, and prosocial behavior. When we know what we are trying to promote we can both appreciate and protect it when it is happening and know more about how to create situations that will enhance the learning of those skills.

Interestingly, even fetuses have some self regulation skills. We know that because their activity level often varies dependent on the mother’s activity and mood. After birth, many newborns also illustrate their ability by turning away to take a break after an intense social interaction. They know how to shut down in the face of too much stimulation! So we are not starting with a blank slate. Reading last month’s piece on perinatal psychology might give you some ideas on how to support higher skill levels even before a baby is born!

Once they are born, what can we be doing! We can help children learn that their emotions can be regulated. We do that by allowing them to become upset, and then intervening when they are no longer able to regulate and coregulating them through our calmness and nurturance. We do it by honoring when a child needs a break and waiting for them to come back online before proceeding. We do it by recognizing when they are losing focus or becoming too frustrated to continue and then supporting their efforts and directing their attention back to what they were working with. We do it by scaffolding their explorations (Tools of the Mind, a Vygotsky based curriculum has been shown to be very effective at building self-regulation skills for those children who are starting further behind. It was less effective for those who already had higher skill levels6).

The first key to all of this is that if we expect children to learn self regulation skills, we as the adults must model those skills and remain centered and calm. It is only when we are calm that we can use our support to calm children. How can we give teachers and caregivers the supports that allow them to be present and listening most of the time? When teachers become stressed by their jobs, they may react with frustration and anger to misbehavior in the room, leaving the children who are acting out feeling alone, without an ally. As allies we are engaged in trying to assist children in meeting their goals for themselves, while doing so in socially acceptable ways. When you see yourself getting that kind of support it is easier to let go of the emotionality of the moment and to begin to use and improve the functioning of your thinking brain. Mark Rains, a board member of the Maine Association for Infant Mental Health and a psychologist, suggests that when children lose it (Flip their lids to use Dan Siegel’s expression), they need us to help them feel safe, connected to others, help them learn language to talk about feelings, gradually support their ability to see the patterns in behavior, before we can expect them to be ready to plan better actions.7

In general, we have to ask, how can I support the child’s autonomy and self-regulation rather than working to control them. As one example, if we have a child who is struggling with entering groups and tends to charge in and destroy things, what method can we come up with that might help them learn the skills needed. Could we ask them to try something new and then sit down with them to play alongside the group they want to join, without ever asking to join (the child who has poor executive functioning will often be told no if she or he asks to join a group)? Soon the child will be playing with the other children, and depending on their play skills you may have to remain and continue to support their involvement, or you may be able to leave. Later we could talk about what had worked and give them another tool (By the way, this may have to be repeated multiple times before it begins to take).

How can I help them learn to evaluate risk and make decisions? Instead of saying, “No that isn’t safe!” could we ask about where they would be landing the jump and do they want to land on that? That can be followed with, “well how could we make it safer.”

Executive functioning can be built better, and if it is, children are likely to be better citizens and parents when their time comes. Join me in trying to learn more about how to do this every day.


  1. Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Ross, S., Sears, M. R., Thomson, W. M., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 2693–2698.
  2. Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American journal of public health, 105(11), 2283–2290.
  3. Heckman, J., Pinto, R., & Savelyev, P. (2013). Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes. The American economic review, 103(6), 2052–2086.
  4. Gilliam, W. S. & Shahar, G. (2006). Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension; Rates and predictors in one state. Infants and Young Children, vol. 19, No. 3 p. 228.
  5. Zelazo P. D. (2006). The Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS): a method of assessing executive function in children. Nature protocols, 1(1), 297–301.
  6. Blair C. (2016). Executive function and early childhood education. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 10, 102–107.
  7. Rains, Mark. “‘Getting It Together’ Healthy Start Community Forum.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Oct. 2009,