17th May 2021 Early Years Foundation Stage All Posts

A whistle-stop tour on Self-Regulation

EYFS Series with Sue Asquith

EYFS Series Part 2:

Welcome to part 2 of the EYFS Series we are running to support you with the EYFS reforms which come into play in September. In today’s article, we look back on the webinar we held last month with the wonderful Sue Asquith – all about Self-Regulation.

You can catch up on Part 1 – ‘Beatrice Merrick on using Birth to 5 Matters’ here, and stay tuned for more articles coming soon with EY experts including the renowned June O’Sullivan.

Last month we invited Guest Host, Sue Asquith to hold a webinar on Self-Regulation Skills in Young Children. You must have seen the words ‘Self-regulation’ and ‘executive function’ being thrown around over the last couple of months, but what do they mean and why are they suddenly so important? 

Sue Asquith

What is meant by self-regulation and executive function?


Sue has written a book Self-Regulation Skills in Young Children so she certainly knows her stuff. Sue describes self-regulation as complex, but to put it simply, ‘it is the ability to understand and manage your own energy, emotions, behaviours and attention in a socially acceptable way.’ In time, self-regulation skills help us to understand feelings and emotions, manage and cope with disruptive environments, and gain impulse control which all provide a solid foundation for resilience. 

Sue helps us to put Self-Regulation into context…

“If we look back to March 2020 when we got thrust into the national lockdown for the first time, as adults, we all put our self-regulation skills to the test. We didn’t know how long it was going to last, or what the impact would be, so some of us didn’t know how to deal with it. This resulted in people finding themselves in fight or flight mode and displaying behaviours such as clearing the shelves and panic buying rice and pasta. It’s all because they were suddenly in a situation they had never been in before, with no previous coping strategies to rely on to help cope and self-regulate. 

However, now we have all been in that situation, it will provide a solid foundation for resilience for any subsequent lockdowns. We’ll now understand that we don’t need that much rice and pasta and we’ll be able to control our impulse buying.” 

“As a child – Self-regulation may display itself as a child being able to understand the different rules for being inside the classroom and being outside in the playground or park. For instance, a child might understand that it wouldn’t be socially acceptable to run around your classroom the same way they could do in the park, so they would learn to control their impulse and modify their behaviour whilst indoors.”

Children and Self Regulation

Executive Function

Sue says “Executive function is helpful – it helps us to get things done. There are lots of things that are sometimes attributed to executive function, some of the skills which make up executive function are:

Impulse control, focusing attention, emotional and physical regulation, working memory, mental flexibility, holding instructions in your head, getting started, planning, organising and problem-solving.

Sue helps us to put Executive Function into context…

We need to think about how we can support children with: 

  • Impulse control – “I remember a time I visited a nursery, a boy was sitting behind a girl who was wearing a headband. The headband was sparkly and different colours and it was exciting for the little boy. He gazed longingly at the headband and then suddenly he decided he wanted the headband and took it straight from the girl’s head so he could touch the different materials and look at the different sparkly colours. This is an example of a boy who couldn’t yet control his impulses.” 
  • Building emotional and physical regulation – “lots of children display their behaviour and communicate physically before they have the emotional literacy to be able to talk about it. Which means they can get overwhelmed and go into a ‘meltdown’ quite quickly.”
  • Working memory – “This simply is holding things in your head or accessing things you may have learnt before. As an adult – an example of this could be working out a sum in your head. Think about all the stages you go through to work out a sum. Try working out 46+52 in your head. First, you may add 40+50 and you will hold the number 90 in your head whilst you work out 6+2 then you will add 90+8 together. All of this requires you to have a working memory to get from one stage to the other.”

Holding information in their mind – “A reception class teacher takes the time to talk about ‘the sound of the week’ with the children during carpet time.  Once it is over the teacher hands the children a letter to put in their book bag, asks them to wash their hands, get their lunch box and line up to go to the dining room ready for lunch. They have to remember which order to do the instructions and to not get distracted on the way. There’s quite a lot of complex instructions there for a 4 or 5 year old. They might get to their book bag and find one with a similar name. They might head to the toilet and get distracted by a model they started earlier. Or maybe it’s raining outside when they look out the window. With all of this information to take in, we need to be there to support the children to focus their attention so that they don’t get distracted.”

So, why the sudden buzz?

Over the last couple of months, providers are turning their thoughts to how they are going to prepare themselves and their staff teams for the EYFS reforms. Self-regulation and executive function are not new terms, however, now that they are mentioned within the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for the very first time, ‘Self-regulation’ has naturally become a sector buzzword. 

Under the reforms, the seven areas of learning and development remain the same, but early learning goals (ELGs) are changing. In the revised EYFS framework, the PSED early learning goals will change to:

  • Self-regulation
  • Managing self
  • Building relationships
Children and Self Regulation

The Self-Regulation Early Learning Goals are:

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • Show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others, and begin to regulate their behaviour accordingly;
  • Set and work towards simple goals, being able to wait for what they want and control their immediate impulses when appropriate;
  • Give focused attention to what the teacher says, responding appropriately even when engaged in activity, and show an ability to follow instructions involving several ideas or actions.

The EYFS states that providers must help children work towards the Early Learning Goals which are the knowledge, skills and understanding children should have at the end of the academic year in which they turn five.

These are quite complex skills for such young children and of course, summer-born children and children with speech, language and communication delay, etc, may be on the back foot if this is the benchmark they are hoping to achieve.

So, what can you do to support children with Self-Regulation?

Although the 2020 Development Matters document is not statutory, you may wish to use the seven key features of effective practice pointers in this guidance as a tool to audit your setting in preparation for September. One of these key features is self-regulation and executive function

With just over 3 months until September, why not explore the non-statutory guidance documents (Development Matters and Birth to 5 Matters with your team? This may help you to understand where you are currently, as well as spark some debate with your colleagues. Think about how knowledgeable staff are on certain areas and arrange any relevant CPD to fully support your staff teams before September arrives.


Self-regulation and executive function is point six of the key features of effective practice (page 7).

Development Matters states:

Executive function includes the child’s ability to:  

  • Hold information in mind
  • Focus their attention 
  • Regulate their behaviour
  • Plan what to do next


These abilities contribute to the child’s growing ability to self-regulate:

  • Focus their thinking
  • Monitor what they are doing and adapt
  • Regulate strong feelings
  • Be patient for what they want
  • Bounce back when things get difficult


Children and Self Regulation

Reactive behaviour management policies should be scrapped, and nurseries should become more proactive in their approach.

By having a basic awareness of a child’s brain development and the amygdala (we’ll get back to this), knowing your children, and understanding what is causing them to display negative behaviour, you can help them to understand their emotions. This way, they can start to manage their own behaviours in time. 

The brain is complex, but as this is just a whistle stop tour – to help you remember we can think about the brain as having just three base layers: 

  1. Top – Prefrontal Cortex – Your ‘thinking brain’ – The HEAD brain analyzes information and applies logic.
  2. Middle – Limbic System – Your ‘emotional brain’ – The HEART brain senses the world through emotion and feelings.
  3. Bottom – Brain Stem – ‘Reptilian brain’ – The GUT brain is used for understanding our identity and who we are in the world. The gut brain also helps us learn self-preservation by teaching us to follow our instinct – the “gut feeling” we all experience at times.

The three base layers work together like an orchestra and for you to be happy, and to have the ability to learn, your brain needs to be all ‘open’ from the ‘bottom to the top’. 

The ‘brain collapse’ a.k.a the Amygdala hijack

There is also the amygdala part of the brain for when things go wrong. Sue calls this the ‘Silent Alarm Bell’. Imagine a child is too hot, too cold, too tired, or in more extreme cases, it could be that they are witnessing abuse or domestic violence. The amygdala will start to do a ‘silent ring’ and emit lots of cortisol. Then:

  1. Your ‘thinking brain’ starts to shut down
  2. If the problem is not solved, the ‘Silent Alarm Bell’ will ring even louder (emit more cortisol)
  3. Then your ‘emotional brain’ starts to shut down
  4. Which leaves you with your ‘Reptilian brain’ – and what we call ‘fight or flight’ mode.

This is called the amygdala hijack. This could cause the child to fight and have a meltdown. 

As this is not a conscious decision for the child to ‘fight’ or to go into ‘meltdown’, reactive reactions such as ‘punishments’ or consequences are not useful. . So instead of saying something along the lines of ‘look what you’ve done, you’ve kicked me’, you can use a self-regulation lens and try and work out what has caused this reaction. 

Children and Self Regulation

Behaviour management (being reactive) Vs Self-Regulation (being proactive)

Sue wants to start a Self Regulation revolution:

“We have to be proactive and find out why the child has gone into meltdown in the first place. We have to be mindful of what’s going on for the child and understand what is causing that trigger. Once we have identified what the child is not happy with, we can provide them with strategies moving forward so they will no longer feel that way. It will help them to understand their emotions so that they can start to manage their own behaviours in time. If we’re proactively doing things, we can keep children’s bodies regulated, we can prevent the amygdala hijack and we can stop the meltdown. That way, there shouldn’t need to be a ‘behavior management policy’ for us to follow.” 

Share your expert opinion

We’re looking for EYFS experts to share their opinion or advice on the EYFS Reforms. If you’d like to be considered, please introduce yourself to our team by heading over here.

EYFS Reforms and Connect Childcare Software

We have built a full new ‘Add Screen’ which we recently shared a preview of – this will help you to reduce your paperwork and step away from the tick list approach, whilst still having the ability to provide parents with cherished moments and highlight any areas of concern.

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