Teaching self-regulation in early childhood education

Published on Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Last updated on Monday, 26 April 2021

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If you’ve seen your under five snatch a toy, jump in before their turn, or erupt into a BIG emotion, then you’ll know that self-regulation is important, but not innate.

Your toddler or preschooler has to learn how to control their impulses, get along with others and regulate their emotions; and the Ministry of Education says, ‘Good self-regulation means having a flexible range of emotional and behavioural responses that are well-matched to the demands of any environment.’

Self-regulation benefits your child now and in adulthood, and in support of this, a new ECE research project is seeing how self-regulation games and oral language activities can combine to improve pre-schoolers’ lifelong outcomes.

Here, we look at the Kia Tīmata Pai project and see how it could be a game-changer for generations of Kiwi kids.

What does the Kia Tīmata Pai project involve?

Kia Tīmata Pai means ‘to start well, safe and sound’ and this project is being rolled out in about 140 BestStart early learning centres nationwide, with around 1,600 pre-schoolers taking part.

This study is attempting to strengthen both the self-regulation and oral language of pre-schoolers, with plenty of fun thrown in.

BestStart’s National Education Leader, Clair Edgeler says, ‘A lot is also known about the importance of oral language in early childhood education. We know that self-regulation is key to better adult outcomes including educational attainment, career success, healthy lifestyle and longevity. Furthermore, we know that these skills can be taught. We’re setting out to measure the effects of supporting both oral language and self-regulation together on a very large scale, and in real-world settings.’

To do this, the researchers have chosen the BestStart early learning centres randomly, and split them into four research groups:

  • One group is trialling ENGAGE, a play-based self-regulation programme,
  • One group is trialling ENRICH, a language enrichment programme,
  • One group is trialling both programmes, and
  • One group is having no intervention (this is the control group).

ENGAGE uses self-regulation games to teach a range of emotional, cognitive (thinking), and behavioural skills to the children, which include:

  • Delayed gratification
  • Working memory (this means using memory to recall information to make decisions), and
  • Emotional regulation.

While the ENRICH programme involves, ‘Picture-book-reading and high-quality interactions between teachers and children [that] are aimed at enhancing self-regulation and social and emotional skills.’

What does the Kia Tīmata Pai project hope to achieve?

Ms Edgeler says, ‘The idea is to find out whether those two programmes together enhance both oral language and self-regulation outcomes.’

‘If children have a good ability to communicate, understand and articulate their own emotions, make decisions and have that emotional control – it stands to reason that will have an impact. But that’s what we are going to find out.’

It’s hoped that the research will highlight the best way to support children’s self-regulation and oral language development in early learning settings, and if the Kia Tīmata Pai project is successful, Ms Edgeler says, ‘This could create positive change for generations, as well as ground-breaking changes in the way we teach.’

The Kia Tīmata Pai project is happening over four years in the 140-odd BestStart early learning centres, and if it goes well, the programme will be rolled out to all of the provider’s 260+ centres and could go on to, ‘Inform ECE curricula in New Zealand and around the world.’

How can you teach your child self-regulation?

If your preschooler isn’t one of the 1,600 kids participating in the Kia Tīmata Pai project, then it’s still possible to help them develop the self-regulation skills that will hopefully enable them to make positive life choices and experience great life outcomes.

He Māpuna te Tamaiti is a new resource that supports kaiako in early learning services to develop children’s social and emotional competence, and at home, Raising Children says, ‘The best way to help your child learn to self-regulate is to provide support’ when they need it. This means:

  • Talking about feelings with them,
  • Encouraging your child to ‘name’ their strong emotion and explain what caused it,
  • Helping them find appropriate ways to react to big feelings, and
  • Being patient, recognising that it’s hard for small children to cope when they have strong feelings.

Behaviour strategies are also recommended, and the experts suggest that you:

  • Plan for challenging situations where your child might struggle to behave well,
  • Praise your child when they self-regulate and manage a tricky situation, and
  • Try to model self-regulation yourself.

Self-regulation has many upsides, and although we all have moments when we feel impulsive, unfocused or unruffled, it’s important to develop self-regulation all the way from early childhood into adulthood.

Time will tell if the Kia Tīmata Pai project is successful in combining fun games and serious life lessons, and we’ll be following it with interest.


The Ministry of Education


Raising Children

Further reading

7 life skills that will help your child succeed

How children learn social and emotional competence in care

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