Self-regulation in the EYFS: Unfit for Purpose. Guest Post from Mine Conkbayir

Alistair Bryce-CleggABC Does A Blog, Boys Learning, Child Initiated Learning, Continuous Provision, Environment, Ofsted, Outdoors, Uncategorized, Weapon and Superhero Play19 Comments

Self-regulation in the EYFS: Unfit for Purpose.

 I have been writing and talking about the fundamental importance of understanding self-regulation (SR) and the neuroscience of early brain development for well over a decade and in this time, I am disappointed to have not seen it feature in early years (EY) qualifications or training as mandatory practice. However, recently, things have changed and SR (which simply put, is the individual’s ability to manage big emotions and their resulting behaviours and to return to a state of calm) has become the ‘’buzzword’’ in the EY sector. ‘What’s the problem?’ you may well ask. Based on my observations, a few key issues come to mind including the proliferation of unscrupulous consultants who have misunderstood the meaning and purpose of SR, selling training that offers to ‘manage behaviour through SR’. SR and behaviour management are diametrically opposed concepts that do not go together. Critically, we are now faced with the EYFS revised Early Learning Goals (ELGs) coming into force in 2019 – seemingly a positive step on behalf of the government, but (and herein lies another key issue), how is the EY workforce supposed to nurture SR when they have received no mandatory training in nurturing these vital life skills?

It is safe to say that the arrival of the revised Early Learning Goals (ELGs) has been met with much criticism given its reduced emphasis on physical development and particularly, the introduction of self-regulation (SR) – which is the focus of this article. Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology, Dr Stuart Shanker defines SR as existing in five core domains of experience:

  1. Biological
  2. Emotion
  3. Cognitive
  4. Social
  5. Prosocial

Shanker (2018) goes on to explain that:

When an individual’s stress levels are too high, various brain/body regulatory systems that support thinking, emotion regulation, social engagement and even metabolic recovery are compromised. The signs of dysregulation can show up in the behaviour, mood, attention and physical well-being of a child.

While eminent neuroscientist, Dan Siegel defines SR as:

The way the mind organizes its own functioning…fundamentally related to the modulation of emotion…Emotion regulation is initially developed from within interpersonal experiences in a process that establishes self-organizational abilities.

Essentially, both definitions highlight the fact that the brain is social organ, growing and refining itself through social interactions and meaningful relationships. It is through our relationships with others (especially key adults) that we develop the ability to manage (or control) ourselves – that is, to self-regulate our emotions and behaviour. It is a deeply complex and precarious process which therefore cannot be taught with a tick-box approach.

Yet, each of the 11 SR ELGs which have been introduced, are quite some way off the mark, failing to acknowledge the psychological world of children. For example, children are expected to:

  • Show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others, and regulate their behaviour accordingly;
  • Pay attention to their teacher and follow multi-step instructions;
  • Manage Self
  • Manage their own basic hygiene and personal needs, including dressing and going to the toilet
  • Understand the importance of healthy food choices.

Those who have written the ELGs have grossly misinterpreted SR and as a result, have misinformed an entire workforce, where children will ultimately pay the price, especially those who experience emotional and social sensory integration difficulties and learning disabilities. What we are left with are inaccurate, vague and brief descriptors of SR which are utterly disrespectful and dismissive of the child. Take for example ’regulate their behaviour accordingly’ and ‘manage self’– a young child cannot readily achieve this without co-regulation (broadly described as an interaction between two individuals and the strategies used to help regulate the child’s emotional responses to the environment) with an adult. Yet this term does not feature at all, by way of explaining how to help children achieve SR. Children’s ability to self-regulate is still developing and hence often goes up and down – being able to consistently regulate their own feelings and behaviour is a major task for a young child and co-regulation is integral to this process, providing them with a healthy blueprint of how to respond to triggers and regulate their own behaviour and learning.

The concept of SR cannot be confused with expecting a child to eat independently or to resolve conflict without adult support. Practitioners have raised with me the issue of children who have not experienced secure attachments and who consequently lack the ability to self-regulate as they have not had this modelled to them – what happens to these children under the revised ELGs? Given the deep complexity of SR and the responsibilities of the practitioner in understanding and nurturing it through co-regulation – a wonderful opportunity for the workforce has been lost.

Understanding SR can equip practitioners to be more sensitive and attuned to babies’ and young children’s emotional states and consequent ability to get on not only at nursery or school but throughout their lives. Crucially, research shows that a child’s ability to self-regulate at three-years-old is a better indicator of school success than IQ (Siegel, 2015; McClelland et al., 2013; Blair and Diamond, 2008). Yet we are seeing a higher number of children enter nursery and school with a range of complex emotional issues which are preventing them from engaging socially, intellectually and ultimately failing to thrive – with practitioners insufficiently equipped to respond to these children’s behaviours, alongside the use of ‘behaviour management’ strategies which only serve to make matters worse. Many factors in the home also compound children’s difficulty in mastering SR, due to the very nature of ‘caregiving’. This includes consistently high levels of negative emotional responses from parents and the presence of anger in parent-child interactions (Siegel, 2013; Wyman et al., 2010; Perry, 2007; Salonen et al., 2005), alongside a range of parental mental health issues which may prevent them from being able to tune in to their baby or child and provide the co-regulation that is necessary for children to develop SR.

Much of this can be prevented if professionals (and parents alike), truly take the time to use all those experiences within the daily routine to co-regulate – as opposed to getting frustrated and wasting great opportunities to nurture SR, because it is during these times, that their self-confidence and communication skills are being built – or not, depending on the practitioner’s responses. Also, gently teaching the youngest children how to safely express anger and frustration, how they can overcome fear, resolve conflict and delay gratification also help to build a better relationship between the practitioner and the child – and so this virtual cycle can continue and be extended.

So, when does this vital skill, SR, start to develop and how? Some professionals erroneously think that we can’t teach babies to self-regulate because they’re too young. This is far from the truth! We provide the foundation on which SR develops. This includes attuned communication from birth, truly listening and responding to needs and feelings being communicated and co-regulating their emotional state. Co-regulation is a necessary precursor to SR. The attuned, responsive and focused gestures support the young child to regulate their responses in line with what is happening in that context. It might be that they had to tidy away before they could finish a drawing, or that they were finding it difficult to say ‘goodbye’ to their father at drop-off in the morning. Your tone of voice, eye contact, conversation and cuddles can help to immediately enable a child to return to that calm and psychologically safe place so that they can get on with the serious business of play and learning.

Introducing a weighty concept like SR without aligning this to urgent revision of workforce qualifications, training and CPD to enable staff to know what SR is will prove damaging to children and practitioners alike. Although it is reassuring to read the many counter-arguments against the revised ELGs, very few focus on the SR ELG, which again, is testament to the scant knowledge and understanding of this skill and how adults should be nurturing it – from birth. This has implications for practitioners who work with children from birth, as they are with these infants from so early on in their lives. If we get it wrong for children during these formative years, we are setting them up for failure. The neurobiology of executive functions (EF) and early brain and emotional development must be understood by practitioners so that they can fully understand their role in co-regulating children’s emotional responses and behaviour. As Shanker (2018) explains:

The emphasis on self-regulation in school readiness research is heightened by advances in neurobiology and neuroendocrinology indicating that environmental conditions and interpersonal interactions, both positive and negative, are embedded biologically, shaping or canalizing the development of brain and behaviour.

The state of dysregulation intensifies rapidly when adults do not understand how to bring the child back to a regulated, calm state. Practitioners need to understand and acknowledge that stressed brains cannot learn. During times of stress, anxiety or fear, the downstairs, emotionally reactive brain takes control over the upstairs, cortical brain (where all those executive functions reside such as concentration, planning, paying attention, curbing impulsive behaviours, problem-solving and regulating emotions). This is where a child might ‘flip their lid’ (or enter flight-or-flight mode) -shouting, hitting, losing control or becoming inconsolable, and will need adult support (co-regulation) to help regulate their limbic stress-behaviours.

Not being one to complain without doing something about it, I developed what is now an award-winning online Cache Endorsed Learning programme, Applying Neuroscience to Early Intervention, which is immersed in the neuroscience of early brain development – focusing on the importance of nurturing SR in children. One EY practitioner engaging with my Programme, reflects on how understanding SR and the developing brain helps us to co-regulate children’s emotional responses to stressors. She says:

This knowledge helps as we are more aware of how stressors affect a child’s developing brain and the impact these have. As practitioners understand more about brain development, our knowledge can help us to co-regulate with children to help them to self-regulate. We can co-regulate by being consistent, positive and reflective with our children ensuring that we are attuned, actively listening and responding to a child’s needs and thus co-regulating their emotional state. We can support children’s emotions when experiencing stressors through continuous reassurance, cuddles, eye contact and tone of voice, to supporting them in line with their needs at that time – not reprimanding or isolating them.

Patterns of emotional exchange contribute to the formation of children’s sense of self and to mutual expectancies within relationships (Meadows, 2016; Gerhardt, 2015; Cicchetti and Valentino, 2013), and high-quality early years provision can make all the difference to promoting the emotional and social wellbeing of children. This will be especially valuable where babies and children are deprived of warm, reciprocal relationships in the home.  Below are just a few suggestions to support SR:

  • Name it to tame it (Siegel, 2013) – encouraging a child to talk through their emotions can be halfway to diffusing their intensity
  • Nurture children’s emotional vocabulary
  • Scaffold the behaviour you want to encourage
  • give models that can be imitated and applied to a range of scenarios
  • Praise children for the attempts they make at managing ‘big’, overwhelming emotions
  • Refrain from making unhelpful judgements – these will only further dysregulate the child and does nothing to nurture alternative behaviours
  • View challenging situations as learning opportunities
  • Involve children in decision-making processes
  • Find alternative ways with children for them to diffuse difficult emotions – glitter jars are proving a popular choice for many children!

For bespoke training on nurturing self-regulation within the EYFS, contact Mine at

Mine’s first-ever conference takes place on 4 February 2019. Details can be found at:

If you are interested in signing up to Mine’s award-winning Cache Endorsed Learning Programme, contact Mine at

19 Comments on “Self-regulation in the EYFS: Unfit for Purpose. Guest Post from Mine Conkbayir”

  1. Hi Mine,
    great blog post, congratulations, I am all the more excited about the conference in Feb! I wonder if you could share your reference list from this post, I would really love to read more about this area and you have drawn on a breadth of work here that I would really like to explore for my own research into self-regulation.
    thank you x

  2. This is a fantastic and interesting article. I am currently in the last year of my degree and decided to focus it on self regulation within early years for similar reasons you have discussed above. 😊

    1. Hi Dona I’m in my final year of an Early Years Foundation Degree. I’m doing a small scale research project on self reg. I just wondered if you would care to share your work or any useful sources? Thank you.

  3. Truly insightful. But I was under the impression that the ELGs were undergoing pilot this year with a consultation in 2019. Coming statutorily in 2021. I understand that these are not set in stone. Perhaps I am wrong

  4. I received no training in how to do any of the EYFS except a 3 day 2 hour a day course with the council.

    I’ve still managed to deliver in every aspect with no problems and I didn’t work in the sector before.

    2 year successful childminder with 12 children and 3 members of staff everyday.

    Buzz words and key words should all be cancelled. It’s all a load of tosh. Either your good with kids and you can engage and help them develop and you like kids and like playing games and running round and being silly do like 90% of people you don’t have it in you to like others kids.

  5. Thank you Mine. A really thought provoking blog. Your deep understanding of SR and how crucial this understanding is for for all EY practitioners if we aren effectively. We were lucky to here you live in Stockport recently. Riveting key note presentation.
    With the the proposed changes to the ELGs surely must come Development guidance on the typical age/stage journey towards the goal at 5? We need expert EY educationalists to fight for this or we we will have a narrow and misunderstood curriculum framework that is unfit for purpose and will not support new and inexperienced practitioners in how best to nuture and interact with young children which is vital in the absence of high quality mandated EY training.

  6. After the vastly helpful and, frankly, new information I got when I went on the recent Early Years conference in Taunton, Somerset which focused on inclusion, I thought I was alone in not knowing about helpful ways of teaching children to understand their own bodies and understand things with/through their bodies – and I came out of Uni as recently as 2010.

    Evidently, looking at this article, I was not alone in not really knowing practical helpful things to help children calm themselves down, or even in understanding the underlying emotions behind the behaviours. Glitter jars (really?) or calming breathing mostly helps US to think they are okay – and most times they’re masking the emotion they still feel.

    If anyone is seriously interested in ‘helping children to self-regulate’, then I suggest hitting up your SENCO, and the local EP or OT, and quizzing them about the hidden senses – vestibular and proprioceptive – and how children’s development in these areas contribute to health of both mind and body, particularly in cases where the home life was not ideal. Having tried these in my own classroom, I can honestly say I wish I’d done a specialism in SEND and known about them from the beginning of my career.

  7. A fascinating topic, something my school has embraced wholeheartedly in EYFS (and increasingly beyond). Such a shame the DfE doesn’t get it …. I’m leaving the profession at Christmas because the government’s version of ‘good practice’ is becoming less and less child centred and I don’t want to be part of it anymore. Testing 4 year olds, for goodness sake!

  8. Wow just read this, so truly informative and opens up questions to why understanding of brain development is so important.
    Looking forward to the conference in February.

  9. Fantastic article. You really should have been part of the ELG revision Mine! My new found knowledge of SR and CR have helped me to completely rethink strategies for responding to children’s big emotions and behaviours that challenge us.

  10. Thank you – very useful and engaging post. As an outdoor specialist, I am deeply concerned about the future of physical development in the EYFS. I’ve found that physically active children, in tune with their physicality and deriving joy from movement, are also able to manage emotional responses better. I would have called this SR, but will re-read this piece again, along with the references, to see if this is indeed what I’ve observed. Thought provoking, thank you.

  11. Excellent. So true. Have been a Nursery Nurse for 25 years. My training was very much in line with this approach. That we as adults are role models for children and responsible for enabling/demonstrating how to manage their well-being etc. Thank you for sharing this article. Helen

  12. Hi Mine,
    I have had the pleasure of listening to you speak before in Bury and this article makes for very interesting reading.So many settings are struggling with Self-regulation, our setting included, with no help to turn too.
    I would be very interested in your online training for myself and the staff. We would have loved to attend your conference in Feb, but we can’t afford it being a charity pre-school. Best wishes

  13. On point and what so many settings misunderstand completely. I will be forwarding this to every.colleague. Thank you

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