The ability to self-regulate can go a long way in helping children manage the transition from preschool to primary school. We speak to an NIE Research Scientist to learn more about the importance of self- regulation and how it impacts children’s academic and socioemotional outcomes.
By the time children enter primary school, they are expected to be able to stay focused during lessons, be more autonomous in their learning as well as interact well with teachers and classmates.
So what do these developmental milestones have in common and why are they important?
According to Dr Ng Ee Lynn, a Research Scientist with NIE’s Centre for Research in Child Development, these milestones are linked to children’s ability to self-regulate and have implications for their ability to adjust to a new school environment.
Self-Regulation and Child Development
“Self-regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s own emotions, thoughts and behaviours,” Ee Lynn explains.
For her ongoing study on the relationship between self-regulation skills and children’s academic and socioemotional outcomes in primary school, Ee Lynn is interested in two aspects of self-regulation – executive functioning (EF) and effortful control (EC).
While EF concerns a child’s ability to engage in goal-directed thought and action (e.g., inhibit distractions), EC is about how well children can use their attentional resources to suppress a behavioural or emotional response that is inappropriate within a given situation.
“Generally, children with good self-regulation skills are better able to manage the transition from preschool to primary school and more likely to have positive learning experiences,” Ee Lynn shares.
This is because the ability to self-regulate enables children to stay focused during lessons and build positive relationships with their peers and teachers, both of which contribute to positive academic and socioemotional outcomes.
Measuring Self-Regulation in Children
A series of games can be administered to children to assess their ability to self-regulate and scores are awarded to children based on their respective performance in these activities.
“There is a game called ‘Heads-Toes-Knees-Shoulders’, which requires children to perform an action that does not align withthe command. For example, when instructed to ‘touch your head’, children are actually supposed to touch their toes and vice versa,” shares Ee Lynn.
“If children are able to execute an action that is different (e.g., touch their toes) from what they will automatically do (e.g., touch their head), they are deemed to have good self-regulation skills,” Ee Lynn explains.
Another game is termed the “statue task”. “Children are asked to stand still for 90 seconds with their eyes closed. During this time, game administrators will make sudden noises and observe whether the children open their eyes or make any movement,” Ee Lynn elaborates.
“If children are able to inhibit their innate tendency to find out the source of the noise (i.e., distractors) and not make any movement, they are deemed to have better self-regulation skills.”
Although these games can help identify children with good and poor self-regulation skills, Ee Lynn highlights that such categorizations are in fact relative rather than absolute.
“For my study, we consider those with scores in the bottom 25th percentile of all children assessed to have poor self-regulation skills,” Ee Lynn adds.
“There is a game called ‘Heads-Toes-Knees-Shoulders’, which requires children to perform an action that does not align withthe command. For example, when instructed to ‘touch your head’, children are actually supposed to touch their toes and vice versa. If children are able to inhibit their innate tendency to find out the source of the noise (i.e., distractors) and not make any movement, they are deemed to have better self-regulation skills.”
– Ee Lynn, on how children’s ability to self-regulate are measured
Poor Self-Regulation – Risk Factors and Implications
Children develop self-regulation skills over a long period of time and one of the key factors that influences this development is the environment they grow up in.
“Many studies have found that socioeconomic disadvantage and an unstable family environment put children at greater risk of having poor self-regulation skills,” shares Ee Lynn. “One reason for this is that children who grow up under such conditions, unlike their more privileged peers, often lack the support that is needed from the adults around them (e.g., their parents) to help them develop the ability to self-regulate.”
Given that there is a direct relationship between self-regulation and a child’s ability to adjust and do well in school, can it be presumed that children with poor self-regulation skills will necessarily experience poorer outcomes? According to Ee Lynn, it would be premature to arrive at any conclusions at this stage.
“Presently, there are few studies that have actually followed children with poor self-regulation skills over a period of time to find out whether they really struggle throughout primary school and experience detrimental academic and socioemotional outcomes,” she explains.
Ee Lynn thus hopes that her ongoing study will provide some insight on the impact of poor self-regulation skills on children’s academic and socioemotional outcomes, and whether there are any factors that may mitigate the impact of poor selfregulation skills.
The Journey of Self-Regulation
Some children may be better able to self-regulate than others, but Ee Lynn believes that at the end of the day, self-regulation is a quality that can be cultivated.
What, then, can be done to help children develop good self-regulation skills?
“For a start, preschools can consider setting the development of self-regulation skills as a learning objective within the curriculum,” Ee Lynn suggests. “After all, preschool is a time when children’s self-regulation skills are developing rapidly so this is an opportune period to not only teach children to manage their emotions and inhibit distractions, but also provide intervention to those who exhibit signs of poor self-regulation.”
Another strategy is to create opportunities for children to practise their self-regulation skills, whether at home or at school. “This can include getting children to collaborate with their peers, training them to inhibit distractions, or having teachers guide them in managing negative emotions that may arise in the classroom,” Ee Lynn elaborates.
Ultimately, when children have good self-regulation skills, they are not only better positioned to manage the transition to primary school, but are also more likely to have positive educational experiences.