Every setting is different, and every child is different. But are we too quick to treat children’s behaviour using a blanket approach?
Strict behaviour management plays a large role in too many early years settings across the UK. We chatted to Dr Mine Conkbayir and Ursula Krystek-Walton to hear why that needs to change.
Mine is a lecturer, author and consultant with a special focus on neuroscience and self-regulation in the Early Years. Ursula is Head of Early Years at the Bertram Nursery group, and has already been working with Mine to bring her training into their settings, alongside a brand new self-regulation focused curriculum.
They discuss the importance of ‘self-regulation’ for child development, and the strategies you can bring into your settings to put the child’s emotional wellbeing first.
We made a quick round-up of the key points below along with our favourite clips – but if you’d like to watch the whole hour-long session just scroll on down to the bottom to watch it.
So what is self-regulation?
It sounds like a complicated topic, but you’ll see from Mine that self-regulation and early neuroscience can be a lot simpler than you might think.
In essence, self-regulation is knowing how to manage your emotions and behaviour in any situation you might find yourself in.
Preparing children for any situation is certainly no easy task – that’s why it’s so vital you deepen your knowledge about how self-regulation works and how you can support it. As Mine explains, there are 5 different domains of self-regulation:
- Biological – A child’s energy levels and how they respond to what’s around them
- Emotional – Controlling positive and negative emotions like excitement and fear
- Social – Knowing and understanding social cues, and how to act in social situations
- Prosocial – Knowing how to act with others and how to acknowledge their feelings
- Cognitive – How a child processes their own thoughts and then uses that information
For young children, this can be a real struggle. Mine explains that these 5 domains are ‘massive asks’ of them if they don’t have help or encouragement.
Self-regulation and the Early Learning Goals
Drawing on her recent studies in Neuroscience in the Early Years, Mine states that the current Early Learning Goals miss the crucial point that self-regulation provides ‘the foundation for executive functioning.’
In short, the learning goals do not acknowledge that without self-regulation, children will not be able to develop the essential skills they need to plan, make goals and display self-control.
Mine believes that self-regulation skills are the building blocks for executive functioning, and these skills will ‘stay with the child for life’.
Ursula agrees, noting that her ‘lightbulb’ was realising that the skills developed through self-regulation, such as this ability to process and understand emotions, were necessary for navigating life, not just Early Years.
The dangers of a passive child
Within the framework of formal behaviour management, an obedient child is rewarded and a ‘naughty’ child is more likely to be told off for their bad behaviour.
But for Ursula, there is “nothing more dangerous than a child who is passive, quiet and does what they’re told by an adult simply because that’s the behaviour they have learnt.” In other words, if a child learns that their behaviour is wrong, they will repress this behaviour and become passive.
Not only will children not stick up for themselves by doing this, but they lose their voice and ability to defend themselves as well. Can this be dangerous? From a safeguarding perspective – absolutely. If children don’t learn how to harness their emotions and build up their confidence, they may not be able to do so in later life.
How to help children self-regulate
Encouraging self-regulation itself can begin with a few simple steps. Ursula uses the example of a child being terrified of the setting’s gardener to explain this process.
In her discussion Ursula notes that a simple ‘I understand that this frightens you’ is the first step in helping a child begin their self-regulation journey.
In line with Mine’s ‘Name it to Tame it’ concept, Ursula stresses the importance of naming an emotion so that the child is able to fully understand it, and validate that emotion. Instead of keeping the child in a state of stress, this teaches them that their emotions are perfectly okay.
It’s up to you as the practitioner to then assess the situation and decide what the next steps are to help this child continue their self-regulation journey. Can you plan stories and activities about the gardener? Can you encourage parents to discuss gardening at home? This all plays a role in allowing the child to understand the emotions behind their fear, and to show them that you are there and ready to support them.
Ursula also points out that the particular child in question could have a sensory issue that you aren’t aware of. If we immediately shut children down without validating their emotions, these are exactly the kind of issues that we can miss.
How to make a self-regulation safe space
At 27 minutes in, she emphasises the importance of making a self-regulation safe space in your setting – a ‘cosy’ space, completely separate from the reading nook or play corner.
Spending all day with 30 other children can be incredibly overwhelming and having a calm, quiet space is key for children to learn how to control these emotions independently.
Creating a safe space is simple – it can be as easy as a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a few cushions, says Ursula. What matters is that children know they can go there if they are feeling stressed, anxious or upset.
For Ursula these spaces are absolutely necessary to help a child self-regulate, as building self-regulation skills can only happen when children feel ‘safe, secure and motivated.’
Your role as a co-regulator
Helping children self-regulate beyond the self-regulation space is just as important. That’s your role as a co-regulator.
Being a co-regulator involves helping every child to maintain these skills of self-regulating in everyday life and beyond. You’re playing a vital role in giving them a ‘toolkit’ to use into adulthood.
Mine discusses that children need a helping hand when it comes to regulating their ‘emotions, attitude and behaviour in a socially acceptable way’. It doesn’t just happen ‘by osmosis’.
From the moment a child is born, all their responsive reactions have become part of their self-regulation journey. It’s up to you to be the support on the other side.
How can I get my team on board?
Ursula acknowledges that staff may be scared to adopt self-regulation as it isn’t part of the official Ofsted guidance. With the pressure Ofsted places on so many settings, it’s with good reason that many are reluctant to take something on that isn’t part of that inspection. But wherever Ofsted place their focus, what really matters is the impact you’re having on the children in your setting.
For Ursula, sharing and cascading information to all members of staff is key. If staff understand the science and benefits behind self-regulation, they will be able to confidently carry out these strategies and explain why they are using them.
Both Ursula and Mine agree that gaining knowledge and insight into self-regulation is key to cascading this information. Only then can you begin to confidently and effectively introduce self-regulation practices into your setting.
Where to find out more
Mine recognises that there is simply not enough information available for practitioners and parents to understand Self-Regulation and what it means for the Early Years.
That’s why she’s created a free app called ‘Keep your cool toolbox’, to help everyone from young children to teenagers manage their own behaviour. This gives parents and practitioners a huge toolbox to work with so they can introduce Self-Regulation practices into their day-to-day lives.
She’s also created a programme specifically designed to introduce practitioners to Self-Regulation. Ursula herself has carried out this programme, and brought the practices she learnt there back to all the settings at Betram.
Watch the full hour-long session
Here’s the full hour-long session, in which Mine and Ursula go into depth on self-regulation practices with real-life examples and tips.
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