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What is self-regulation?

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By Sara Higgins
Senior Early Years Officer at Moffat Early Years Campus

As an undergraduate, studying a BA in Childhood Practice, I recently created an academic poster on self-regulation. The title “Self-regulation: Autonomy or Compliance?” stirred up some strong and conflicting viewpoints from the audience. This is a topic which highly interests me and one which I will continue to study and research in my final year at university.

So, what is self-regulation? According to Whitebread (2012), it is an extensive subject that encompasses various interconnecting aspects of social, emotional, cognitive and motivational development, it may also be referred to as executive function; control of attention, working memory and inhibitory or effortful control.

I would suggest that children who self-regulate, demonstrate their ability to govern their own learning and behaviours. Autonomy is an essential element of self-regulation.


Like adults, children are more likely to achieve a goal if they have set the target for themselves. Increased levels of concentration, perseverance and motivation are evident when children have this ownership.

The benefits of self-regulation:

The development of self-regulation in children is so important. I believe it is the foundation for the development of a broad range of skills and temperaments that influence children to be successful and achieving individuals. It may also predict the child’s:

  • emotional well-being
  • academic and educational outcomes
  • the ability to work in a group
  • the ability to make friends
  • the ability to develop as a well-adjusted human being
  • the ability to tackle complex tasks and to be successful at them


There are increasing levels of interest and enthusiasm from policy makers regarding self-regulated learning in childhood and its positive links to educational attainment. Self-regulated learning includes:

  • setting goals for learning
  • concentrating on instruction
  • using effective strategies to organise ideas
  • using resources effectively
  • monitoring performance
  • managing time effectively
  • holding positive beliefs about one’s capabilities – self-efficacy


Unfortunately, interpretation of self-regulation will vary within practice. Often, there is a narrow-minded notion that self-regulation relates to school readiness or compliance.

Current policy informs the practice of early year’s educators and strives for children to be independent and successful learners. However, the reality is that there are often pressures that militate against children’s independence and autonomy in schools and nurseries. Contradictorily, these pressures often come from the policy makers themselves, striving for raised attainment levels and orderly classrooms.

Early years practitioners and teachers must understand the fundamental aspects of self-regulation in order to nurture and support this in young children and to develop a culture within their establishments.

Fortunately, self-regulation is a skill that can be developed through effective learning and teaching practice, which includes; emotional warmth and security, feelings of control, cognitive challenge and articulation of learning (metacognition).

Here at Moffat Early Years Campus, we are striving to improve our practice and understanding of self-regulation in childhood. We have strong links with our cluster nurseries and schools and intend to work collaboratively with others to improve local children’s ability to self-regulate.

At Moffat, we respect children’s agency and are responsive to their growing interests and needs. We support a wide range of experiences, some that offer a degree of risk. However, our strength is trusting and respecting our children. We value positive and nurturing relationships and have high expectations for all children.

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Whitebread, D. (2012). Developmental Psychology & Early Childhood Education. London: Sage.