Report Overview

Self-regulation has been identified as an ‘essential life skill’. It underpins other aspects of learning and has a significant impact on a child’s long term life chances. The Department of Education’s Effective Pre-School, Primary & Secondary Education Project (EPPSE) study identifies an association between socio economic background and self-regulation in the early years (Sammons et al., 2014) Some of the adverse impacts of poverty are moderated by self-regulatory skills: Low-income children with better self-regulatory skills are more resilient to adverse psychological outcomes (Blair, 2010; Blair & Raver, 2012).

Research strongly suggests that ‘essential life skills’ are laid down during the early years in the family and preschool. As children’s early development of self-regulation is highly dependent on the quality of their early social interactions, early years educators are in a unique position to have a major beneficial influence on children’s development beyond the home environment.

Self-Regulation can be defined and interpreted in different ways leading to confusion. This pilot action research project and the resulting manual comes at a particularly pertinent time for the sector as Self-Regulation has now been included in the “Early Learning Goals”.

The project was led by Dr David Whitebread formerly acting head of the PEDAL centre University of Cambridge. Dr Whitebread is one of the leading academic figures investigating the significance of Self-Regulation in early childhood, drawing on his expertise and wide knowledge of the subject as well as those of other leading academics in the field, in particular Nancy Perry.

The aim was to bring together maintained and voluntary nursery settings to test the feasibility of this training programme and to create a manual as a first step in the roll out of a model supporting self-regulation in the Early Years.

Key Findings

Qualitative findings:

  • A Continuing Professional Development approach to supporting self-regulation in the early years was developed and tested in ‘real-life’.
  • The practitioners in three early years settings (one maintained, one voluntary, one nursery class from a primary school) serving areas of disadvantage engaged in the training programme, increased their understanding of children’s self-regulation and demonstrated practical ways of improving their children’s self-regulation.
  • A manual was produced which enables the approach to be shared, ready for the next level of scale up and evaluation.

Quantitative findings:

  • Alongside the development and manualisation of the approach was a feasibility trial. This included pre and post tests in order to establish appropriate measures of self-regulation in the early years sensitive to change. It was also an opportunity to identify signs of improvement that may be attributed to the effect of the programme.
  • Children improved (scored significantly higher) at post-test in 16 out of a total of 17 measures. Since all the measures showed significant gains over time, it is suggested that all might be appropriate as evaluation tools to detect the effects of an intervention.
  • In the absence of a control group, the study cannot show that the programme was successful. However, children’s gains on virtually all the measures are compatible with the view that the intervention improved children’s self-regulation. This is a plausible hypothesis but would require further robust trials including a randomized control group to confirm.
  • Settings and schools wishing to internally monitor children’s progress in terms of self-regulation can use the CHILD, which has been validated in this study through its close association with the CSBQ (which has been validated extensively against other instruments).
  • Any formal evaluation of the Whitebread professional development programme could not be evaluated via the CHILD since this rating scale is part of the programme itself. Showing improvement on the CHILD would only demonstrate success at ‘teaching to the test’.
  • Formal evaluation of the Whitebread programme could use the CSBQ questionnaire, which is an independent measure and appears to measure the same things as the CHILD. Because the CSBQ is only modestly related to the researcher administered direct tests of self-regulation/executive function, a good outcome battery in any future evaluation would include at least one or two of the direct child tests.
Next Steps

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) identified self-regulation “as a promising area, but one that would benefit from more rigorous evaluation in early years settings to identify how to achieve benefit for young children’s learning.”

This pilot forms an essential step in the evaluation journey of this CPD approach to supporting ‘Self-Regulation’ in the Early Years.

A manual for the approach is now ready to be tested at the next level with a group of settings who have not been directly involved in the development of the approach.

The feasibility trial has provided validation of relevant measurement tools.

The innovative and practical nature of this work within the Early years has sparked interest. Nancy Perry, a leading academic specialising in Self-Regulation in the primary school years, has invited Dr David Whitebread to present on the project at the AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference in San Francisco in April 2020.

The London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) a social enterprise managing 37 voluntary nurseries  in the London area has expressed an interest in rolling out the training across the LEYF network. This would be an opportunity to test the feasibility of scaling up the delivery of the training model.

This project was made possible by the generous support of Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and

The Headley Trust.