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Self-regulation and school readiness

Clancy Blair

Self-regulation of behavior generally refers to controlled, cognitive monitoring of the actions and steps required to obtain a goal, or to bring about a desired response from the environment. Age-related changes in self-regulation as well as individual differences in self-regulation at a given age or developmental stage play fundamental roles in shaping children’s experiences and the responses that children bring forth from caregivers and others. Changes from basic types of reflexive regulation in infancy (e.g., self-soothing, gaze aversion), to early attempts at voluntary control of behavior in toddlerhood (e.g., the intentional coordination of walking and reaching to gain some end), to active, cognitive control of behavior in the early childhood years (e.g., remembering and following rules) represent key developmental shifts in children’s abilities (Kopp, 1989). Increasingly, research in child development has come to focus on these shifts and the ways in which parents, peers, and early care experiences play an important part in the development of children’s self-regulation (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003). However, individual differences in children’s temperamental emotional reactivity (an automatic autonomic and behavioral response to emotion-inducing stimulation) and the ability to control this reactivity are also important for understanding developing self-regulation. This Digest focuses on emotional reactivity and its relation to the development of cognitive functions that promote self-regulation in young children. It examines how emotions may influence the development of the cognitive functions that contribute to successful self-regulation and thereby to school readiness.

Regulation and readiness
Self-regulation skills underlie many of the behaviors and attributes associated with successful school adjustment (Blair, 2002). In particular, both regulation of emotion in appropriate social interaction and goal-directed behavior, as well as the regulation of attention and the use of strategies in the execution of cognitive tasks, are important for successful adjustment to school. A survey of a nationally representative sample of kindergarten teachers indicated clear endorsement of multiple aspects of child self-regulation as being essential or very important to school readiness, including being able to:

In contrast, few teachers endorse strictly academic aspects of readiness, such as letter or number knowledge or the ability to use a pencil or paintbrush (Lewit and Baker, 1995).

Similarly, longitudinal studies of young children representative of middle-income backgrounds indicate that self-regulation skills such as those listed above underlie the strong relation between social and academic competence observed in the early elementary grades. Specifically, children who achieve academically at high levels and exhibit positive social and cognitive developmental trajectories through the early elementary grades (1) easily form and maintain friendships, (2) have greater self-perceived control over learning activities and liking for school, and (3) are rated by the teacher as having high levels of persistence and the ability to resist distraction (Ladd, Birch and Buhs, 1999; Normandeau and Guay, 1998).

Individual differences
Although knowledge of the normative developmental course of self-regulation in young children is well advanced, our understanding of individual differences among children and of the ways in which cognitive, emotional, and physiological aspects of self-regulation are interrelated within the child is less well established. Here, research on temperament provides a useful framework (Rothbart and Ahadi, 1994). Current definitions of temperament emphasize biologically based individual differences in emotional reactivity and in the developing physiological and cognitive regulation of this reactivity (Posner and Rothbart, 2000). For example, a particularly shy or withdrawn child is thought to be characterized by high levels of emotional reactivity but low levels of regulatory control of this reactivity. In contrast, a child with high levels of effortful regulatory control over emotional reactivity involving anxiety or wariness in the presence of strangers might be thought to be characterized by a more balanced or easy-going temperament type.

Self-regulation and cognitive skills
Examination of emotional reactivity and the effortful control of this reactivity in the study of temperament suggests a particular course for the development of self-regulation in young children. Specifically, neuroscientific research indicates reciprocal influence between areas of the brain associated with reactivity resulting from emotional arousal and areas of the brain associated with the effortful cognitive control of this reactivity (LeDoux, 1995). In brief, emotional experience can either disrupt or facilitate the application of the cognitive control processes that are important for self-regulation, such as sustaining attention, holding information in mind when solving a problem, and inhibiting impulsive responding when formulating and executing a response (Derryberry and Reed, 1996). In models of self-regulation in the adult, it is well known that negative emotional experience can lead to poor attention, increased disengagement and impulsivity, and increasing negative affect, while positive emotional experience can lead to higher levels of sustained attention, engagement, and persistence (Carver and Scheier, 1990). In young children, similar processes are at work; however, unlike in the typical adult, in the child, higher-order cognitive processes that can serve as the bulwark against the ups and downs of emotional experience are just beginning to develop.

Only limited work has explicitly examined the role of emotionality and emotional reactivity in the development of higher-order cognitive control processes such as working memory and attention that are important for self-regulation and for school readiness and school success. An important scientific next step is the direct examination of ways in which influences on physiological and neurobiological aspects of emotional reactivity and regulation in young children are related to success in the transition from preschool to elementary school. Certainly, emphasis on social and emotional aspects of readiness for school is increasing. Numerous research reports and policy papers attest to the vital role of social and emotional competence for successful school adaptation (Raver and Knitzer, 2002). Work on the neurobiology of the interaction between emotional and cognitive aspects of child functioning provides increasing support for this emphasis and suggests that successful emotion regulation plays a foundational role in the development of the cognitive skills that are important for early success in school.

Implications for caregivers
Most specifically, it is important that individuals caring for, working with, or studying the development of young children recognize that biologically based aspects of emotional reactivity and regulation are influenced by aspects of the caregiving environments in which children are situated. From a risk and resilience perspective, the child characterized by high levels of emotional reactivity within an environment that provides little support for self-regulation is at high risk for difficulty in school. In particular, in the effort to promote school readiness in young children, several key points are suggested by the growing body of research on the interaction of cognition and emotion in the development of school readiness:


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This feature is from the ERIC Digest and is therefore in the public domain.