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Self-regulation is a psychological term that means being able to manage your emotions and behaviors. A big part of the parenting role is helping children learn to self-regulate as they grow. As a psychologist, helping children and adults increase their self-regulation skills is my day to day work.


This new study published in the journal “Early Childhood Research Quarterly” and led by Megan McClelland of Organ State University found that adding a daily 20 to 30 minute self-regulation exercise to a kindergarten readiness program significantly boosted children’s self-regulation and early academic skills. I’m keen to share this study with you because the types of games included in this study are games you could easily include in your parenting or teaching repertoire.

Breaking down the study

Dr. McClelland’s program focused on developing skills to help children pay attention, follow directions, stay on task and persist even when it’s difficult. These self-regulation skills are vital to a child’s success in schooling and life in general. In Dr. McClelland’s program the children learned and practiced self-regulation skills through developmentally appropriate music activities and games.

The program was delivered in a “real-world” setting, where teachers, rather than researchers, led the students through self-regulation activities. Teachers were trained to deliver the intervention. They then led the movement and music-based games that form the basis of the intervention as part of the kindergarten preparation program.

One of the games led by the teachers was “Red Light, Purple Light.” The teacher acts as a stoplight and holds up construction-paper circles to represent stop and go. Children are required to respond to the color cues, such as purple is stop and orange is go, and then switch to the opposite, where purple is go and orange is stop.

Another game included in the program was “Freeze.” In this game teachers encouraged children to do the opposite of the teacher’s instructions. The game “Sleeping,” is a game where children pretend to sleep and then wake up as a different animal or character and must remain in that character was also part of the intervention.

These games teach self-regulation because they require children to listen and remember instructions, pay attention to the adult leading the game and resist natural inclinations to stop or go. To increase the complexity of the games, additional rules were added once children understood the game.

The findings based on the data of 150 children participating in the program over a three year period, suggest that after three weeks of the program there was a significant improvement in the children’s self-regulation skills. Impressively, other school readiness skills, including early math and literacy skills, also improved as a result of the program. The researchers found the improvements continued after the program with greater-than-expected growth in the child participants skills in the months following the program.

What did we learn?

The research team was excited by the results, especially as they showed the benefits of self-regulation skill training in a natural environment. “It was a test to see if the results of this intervention look similar in a less-controlled environment, and it appears that they do,” said McClelland, “It helps demonstrate the feasibility and scalability of this kind of program.”

This outcome adds to the increasing body of research indicating the benefits of teaching self-regulation skills to children in the early years. Dr. McClelland hopes that schools will increasingly adopt self-regulation programs such as this. She indicated that it could be particularly important for those children who are at higher risk of struggling academically in school.

Do you play these kinds of games with your children? In my experience, these types of games are fun to play with children and they will join in readily. If you are looking to increase your child’s self-regulation, games like this could be an enjoyable and creative way to start.

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