Promoting self-regulation in Nursery to increase children’s attainment in Physical Development


By Miriam Razzaq


Imagine yourself for the first time staring into the eyes of twenty four three and four year old children who are waiting for you as their teacher, to provide the much necessary experiences and encouragement to help support their early development. For most and certainly for me, it sent me into panic mode – a flight or fight situation. I mean, how is it possible to teach your children all that needs to be taught in a year and yet still provide them with the experiences that are so crucial to their development? It was for this exact reason, I decided to base my research here at the Gants Hill Partnership Teaching Alliance on promoting self-regulation skills. In particular promoting self-regulation in the area of Physical Development (PD).

So now ask me why? Well, having come from teaching Reception for the previous two years I quickly realised that the area of PD was an area that can quickly develop. I mean, given the chance young children are so kinaesthetic, curious and more hands-on than us adults, that self-regulation in PD is pretty much an intrinsic routine, once children are taught the basics and how to do it!


Just a little background information about the school in which this research was conducted:

The school is larger than the average-sized primary school.

Most pupils come from minority ethnic backgrounds and the proportion speaking English as an additional language is much higher than the national average.


So how was it that I conducted my research? It was an amalgamation of two processes which are defined below.

  1. Ethnographic Research

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” – Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. The researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture to then sense the underlying problems.

2.   Action Research

Action research is known by many other names, including participatory research, collaborative inquiry, emancipatory research, action learning, and contextual action research, but all are variations on a theme. Put simply, action research is “learning by doing” – a group of people identify a problem, do something to resolve it, see how successful their efforts were, and if not satisfied, try again. While this is the essence of the approach, there are other key attributes of action research that differentiate it from common problem-solving activities that we all engage in every day.


I suppose I should now address why it was that I chose to focus on self-regulation. Having considered many other researches that I could do, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the many strengths and successes that self-regulation claims to have and indeed proven. David Whitebread wrote “self-regulatory abilities are of fundamental significance …and that these abilities are highly teachable” (The Emergence and Early Development of Self-Regulation in Young Children, 2012). He further states that self-regulatory abilities have a major impact on children’s general and academic development and that adult intervention can have a significant influence on this development.

The development of self-regulation and executive function is consistently linked with successful learning, including pre-reading skills, early mathematics and problem solving. It comprises of strategies which seek to improve learning by increasing self-regulation skills to have an impact of seven additional months’ progress. Studies also suggest that improving young children’s self-regulation skills has a lasting positive impact on later learning at school, and on wider outcomes such as behaviour and persistence. There are some indications that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to begin nursery or reception with weaker self-regulation skills than their peers. (Source: the Education Endowment Foundation)

Shonkoff and Phillips (2000) state that “the growth of self-regulation is a cornerstone of early childhood development and is visible in all areas of behaviour”. Gillespie and Seibel (2006) further support this statement by clearly stating that self-regulation skills are influenced by the important adults in a child’s life. Surely, that means you and I – we are the ones that are capable of developing a child’s learning.

Perhaps the quote that really got me was from Lev Vygotsky who was one of the first researchers to study self-regulation and he wrote “Through others we become ourselves.” – And that’s when it clicked – of course young children need guidance but actually this can only be truly achieved when adults are consistent in their modelling and provide children with the essential opportunities. In an article written by Ida Rose Florez (2011) she states “by demonstrating appropriate behaviour, teachers show children how to accomplish a task and use the self-regulation needed to complete it.”

Ellen Galinsky (2010) found self-regulation essential for success in school, work, and life. The critical window for self-regulation takes place from birth to age five when children develop the foundational skills for self-regulation. During this time, adults are helping children to build the necessary skills that are critical to regulate thinking and behaviour. In his online journal article, Blair (2009) points out, “Emotions may influence the development of the cognitive functions that contribute to successful self-regulation and thereby to school readiness (p. 1).” Many of the behaviours and attributes associated with successful school adjustment are related to self-regulation skills. As children enter kindergarten, good self-regulation includes focused attention, the ability to stay on task, ignore distractions, inhibit impulsivity, plan one’s actions, reflect on one’s thinking and cooperate and demonstrate empathy to peers. Other skills include turn taking, following directions the first time given and communicating thoughts and needs verbally (Bodrova & Leong, 2008). As Riley, San Juan, Klinkner & Ramminger (2008) point out in Social and Emotional Development; Connecting Science and Practice in Early Childhood Settings, “The ability to inhibit one’s own actions does not come naturally to children; they must learn it” (p. 66).


With all the research suggesting that self-regulation skills can and are taught to help children develop themselves in their learning, I decided to put it into practise. The aim was for all children to mange their own learning and behaviour through practical learning and consistent adult modelling. The cohort this year comprised of a higher number of early English speakers and I felt that this research would be able to benefit their Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Communication and Language as well as their Physical Development. (Self-regulation is clearly not an isolated skill. Children must translate what they experience into information they can use to regulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviours – Blair & Diamond 2008).

Through consistent adult modelling, with key words and simple sentences I hoped that these children would show just as much progress as the other children would. So by providing essential opportunities, complex directions, clear set of rules, skill-appropriate responsibilities and positive role models would help enable my young students to self-regulate their learning.

Put simply, myself and the Nursery Nurse used physical modelling to teach children basic skills such as putting on their coat, pulling sleeves out, washing hands after the toilet, holding a pencil correctly, making marks, sharing resources with others, the list is endless. We used any and every opportunity to help children self-regulate their own learning and behaviours in an attempt to increase their attainment for PD.


There has been a marked improvement in the progress children have made in the areas of PD, CL and PSED.

Children are displaying more effective teamwork to share resources and complete tasks.

Behaviour has improved as children are able to control their emotions.

Children are independent in their activities and are attempting to do things by themselves.

  • PROGRESS: PD – 89% have made the expected progress or more since the beginning of year to end of Spring
  • PROGRESS: CL – 73% have made the expected progress or more since the beginning of year to end of Spring
  • PROGRESS: PSED – 81% have made the expected progress or more since the beginning of the year to end of Spring
  • ATTAINMENT: PD – 51% are at the expected attainment or higher (30-50w+) compared to 24% at the beginning of the year
  • ATTAINMENT: CL – 40% are at the expected attainment or higher (30-50w+) compared to 24% at the beginning of the year
  • ATTAINMENT: PSED – 40% are at the expected attainment or higher (30-50w+) compared to 21% at the beginning of the year


So now what? I’ve done the research, found out the above – what am I going to do?? I’m going to make sure that I continue to provide opportunities for my young students to help them develop their self-regulation and confidence skills. In addition, it is of paramount importance that you are constantly striving to improve your own practise. If a method does not work and you know it, find ways to make it better. If you wish for more input from supporting staff,  then instead of carrying on by yourself, talk to them, involve them in your vision so that they too can strive to better themselves.


If you wish to develop this approach in school, ensure that you take the following into account:

  • Choose an area to focus on in particular, if you want to self-regulate choose an area for which you can build and develop learning activities for such as PD or CL. Choosing to self-regulate in all areas will leave you quite breathless, never mind the sleepless nights! So choose one area that you know you can do and then gradually feed it into the other areas – remember children are natural survivors. Teach them the basics and they will really surprise you!
  • Focus on a group so that you can really drive the figures, perhaps EAL or boys or girls. This will allow you to see the impact you can make for that particular group.
  • Take into account your cohort! If you’re setting yourself unreachable targets then its likely that your expectations for your children are unreachable. Remember the aim of self-regulation is to empower the young, not to make them feel pressured.
  • And of course, consider whether you have the support and network available to conduct such a research. I was fortunate enough to be amongst 8 other education practitioners who came from 5 other schools. Without their input this research would’ve been impossible.