This guide outlines key practices for supporting Executive function and self-regulation in early learning settings.

Support children to understand and control their emotions and behaviours

Early Years Learning Framework | All outcomes

Executive function refers to the ability to control our attention, remember instructions, manage emotional reactions and behaviours and organise our thinking. Self-regulation is when learners use these skills to control their behaviour. For young children, executive function and self-regulation are essential for a range of tasks, including engaging in purposeful play, sustaining attention, persisting with challenging tasks and taking turns. Executive function and self-regulation are important foundations for success in life and learning. These capabilities develop particularly rapidly in toddlers but continue to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Executive function and self-regulation contribute to all five outcomes in the Early Years Learning Framework by enabling children to engage in learning, develop strong relationships with others and make choices that enhance their wellbeing.

This guide lists evidence-based practices for supporting executive function and self-regulation in early childhood education and care settings. Note that some examples may not apply in all contexts and/or may be more suitable for particular learners or age groups.

Key practices

Shared goals, predictable routines and consistent expectations help learners to take responsibility and self-regulate their behaviour.

  • Give learners opportunities for setting goals and managing their own behaviour. Positive behaviour is the result of self-regulation, as children have opportunities to make choices about how they behave within clear expectations, and to experience the positive or negative consequences of those choices.1
  • Name desired behaviours and progress towards goals to help learners manage their attention and develop effortful control. Say, ‘I can see you are working hard to build a higher tower than you did yesterday. How high will you build it tomorrow?' Or ‘I can see you are eager to take your turn. But let's see if you can be patient so I can have my turn first’.2
  • Reinforce specific, desired behaviours to help learners internalise rules. Notice and celebrate when positive behaviours are displayed or when obstacles are overcome.3
  • Play group games that require children to follow sequences, control their impulses and concentrate, such as ‘Red Light, Purple Light’ or ‘Simon Says’. Children can learn to adapt or switch their thinking (cognitive flexibility) when games progressively get more difficult or when they need to listen or adapt to new instructions.4

1 Vandenbroucke et al., 2018
2 Vandenbroucke et al., 2018
3 Vandenbroucke et al., 2018
4 Pandey et al., 2018

Learners should have opportunities in their play to understand and manage emotions and behaviours through doing and practising.

  • Assist learners to recognise feelings and to express emotions. Teach learners to use simple words such as ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘angry’ or ‘excited’ to communicate feelings and to practise expressing different emotions during play with others (during which learners develop their own ‘rules’, often relating to their roles in the game).5
  • Provide opportunities for play that involve rules, or play that involves turn-taking. These types of games encourage learners to self-regulate their behaviours. Peer scaffolding of self-regulation also often occurs during such play – for instance, children may remind each other of roles and rules: ‛You can’t do that. You’re the puppy, not the mother’.6
  • Join in with play as appropriate, following learners’ rules (for example, taking on roles allocated to you). Use these opportunities to extend play, building on learner’s interests, skills, experience and knowledge. This encourages sustained attention. Model the use of words to express feelings and to negotiate differences of opinion.7

5 Pandey et al., 2018
6 Pandey et al., 2018
7 Pandey et al. 2018

‘Tune in’ to the learning moments occurring throughout the day.

  • Model appropriate behaviour for all learners when they are experiencing difficulties or challenges. For example, if a child is feeling frustrated with a challenging puzzle, acknowledge their feelings with calmness and understanding. ‘This is a tricky puzzle. How about I help you to turn it gently and slide it in? You see? You can do it!’8
  • Provide opportunities for physical activities that combine both movement and thinking skills to help your children manage stress and increase self-confidence – for example, team games such as obstacle courses, risky play and physical challenge.9,10
  • Be attentive to learner’s emotional, physical and learning cues and respond appropriately. This helps learners to feel safe, secure and supported.11

8 Vandenbroucke et al., 2018
9 Diamond, 2012
10 Jian-Bin et al., 2021
11 Vandenbroucke et al., 2018

Build your own understanding of how executive function and self-regulation develop in children and use this knowledge to reflect on children’s learning.

  • Expand your understanding of concepts related to executive function and self-regulation such as working memory, inhibition control and cognitive flexibility.12 Learn to recognise when children demonstrate these skills and how they are related.
  • Engage in critical reflection with your colleagues, informed by your professional reading and research. Conversations between colleagues working with different age groups are particularly useful so that observations can be shared about how children develop during the different stages of childhood.13
  • Become curious about your own executive function and self-regulation and how they continue to change in adulthood.14 Noticing your own development can help you to notice children’s learning.

12 Diamond, 2013
13 Best & Miller, 2010
14 Diamond, 2012

Further reading

Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A developmental perspective on executive function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641–1660.

This article presents a synthesis of the literature on the development of executive function in childhood and adolescence. It discusses the different aspects of inhibition, working memory and shifting (between tasks, rules or mental states). It finds that although executive function emerges during the first few years of life, it continues to strengthen throughout childhood and adolescence and can be influenced at a variety of levels.

Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current Directions in Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society, 21(5), 335–341.

This monograph presents a literature synthesis on empirically supported activities and programs that improve children’s executive function, including reasoning, working memory and self-control at a variety of ages. It finds that various activities improve children’s executive functions, including transitional martial arts, aerobics, yoga, mindfulness and school curricula. It also finds that interventions which combine aerobic activity with elements that address children’s emotional, social and character development (such as martial arts and yoga) are more effective than focusing on physical activity alone.

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168.

This seminal paper presents an overview of executive functions, describing each concept and how they relate to everyday life. The authors discuss the developmental progression and representative measures, explaining that executive functions are trainable and can be improved with practice.

Jian-Bin, L., Shan-Shan, B., Willems, Y. E., & Finkenauer, C. (2021). The association between school discipline and self-control from preschoolers to high school students: A three-level meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 91(1), 73–111.

A meta-analysis of 68 studies published up until the end of October 2018. To be included in the review, each article had to examine the association between a component of school discipline and self-control. The studies focused on community-based samples and included children aged 3 to 16 years. The authors analysed these papers to explore the association between school structure, support and teacher-student relationship, and self-control. This paper identifies five key conclusions:

  • school discipline is positively related to self-control
  • the relation between school discipline and self-control became stronger as children grew older
  • teachers can be viewed as critical attachment figures and play a role in students’ self-control
  • some aspects of self-control (such as attentional control) have already mainly developed in infancy and childhood, but others (such as impulsive control) aren’t fully developed until late adolescence.
  • ways to foster socio-emotional learning include policies and practices which strengthen the structure in school (classroom management, positive behavioural interventions, supports), teachers with strong social skills (caring, emotional responsiveness, granting autonomy, provision of emotional support), and strengthening teachers’ relationships with students.

Pandey, A., Hale, D., Das, S., Goddings, A. L., Blakemore, S. J., & Viner, R. M. (2018). Effectiveness of universal self-regulation–based interventions in children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(6), 566–575.

A meta-analysis and systematic review of 49 studies, published up until the end of July 2016. To be included in the review, studies had to report cluster randomised trials or randomised clinical trials and evaluate interventions designed to improve self-regulation in children and adolescents aged 0 to 19 years. The authors analysed these papers to determine which interventions improved self-regulation skills. This paper identifies a wide range of interventions that were successful at enhancing self-regulation and finds that:

  • the interventions could be classified into five categories: curriculum interventions, physical activity and exercise interventions, mindfulness and yoga interventions, parenting and family-focused interventions, and other skills-based training
  • curriculum-based interventions were the most commonly used interventions for preschool-aged children
  • the strategies used in the preschool (the year before formal schooling) and kindergarten (first year of school) age group included circle-time games, storytelling, book reading, and self-talk
  • mindfulness and yoga, and exercise-based interventions were evaluated and found effective, especially for the preadolescent and adolescent age groups.

Vandenbroucke, L., Spilt, J., Verschueren, K., Piccinin, S., & Baeyens, D. (2018). The classroom as a developmental context for cognitive development: A meta-analysis on the importance of teacher-student interactions for children’s executive functions. Review of Educational Research, 88(1), 125–164.

A systematic review and meta-analyses of 23 studies on teacher-student interactions and children’s executive functions. To be included in the review, studies had to be based on a sample of children between the ages of 2 and 12 years, comprise a community sample, measure teacher-child interactions, and measure executive functions such as working memory, inhibition or cognitive flexibility. This paper found that:

  • teacher-child interactions are related to general executive functioning, working memory and inhibition but not cognitive flexibility
  • teachers can promote the cognitive processes by changing their behaviour to create an emotionally positive, structured and cognitively stimulating classroom environment
  • teacher-child interactions are particularly important for executive functions of children in the year before they start school, and the beginning of formal education.

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) – Connecting with practice: Respecting and responding to children

This resource provides an example of developing children’s self-regulation and executive function through play.

This video showcases an educator in an early childhood education and care setting, working with children and catering to their many interests. The educator becomes involved in play, creating opportunities to extend play. The educator acknowledges when students need help and offers choices about the next activities, allowing children to make their own decisions and feel safe and supported. This is illustrated when the educator points out that the weather is getting cold and asks the children if they think they should move inside, giving a choice of activity to engage in and finding ways children can still pursue their chosen activities inside. 

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) – Connecting with practice: Enjoying the vegetable garden

This resource provides an example ‘modelling behaviour’ to improve children’s self-regulation.

This video shows an educator in an early childhood education and care setting, supporting students to develop self-regulation by cooperating in the garden. She does this by modelling turn taking and sharing behaviour, supporting children to decide on next steps in the garden. In the video, it is clear that the educator has explicitly taught desired behaviour to the children, which is demonstrated when a child notices when the educator’s hat is not on, and they point it out.

Keywords: EYLF, child development, ECEC