During the preschool years, children’s self-regulation skills develop at a rapid pace. How to support this development, in particular in vulnerable children? In Belgium, a consortium of teacher trainers and researchers has been developing an approach to support self-regulation in preschool since 2015. The first results showed promising preventive effects for vulnerable children. Hence, the team decided to reach out to parents (cfr. Valcan et al., 2018). Teacher trainers Lien Ooghe, Sanne Feryn, and Michèle De Groote (Odisee University of Applied Sciences) give some recommendations for doing so.
Amelia has a hard time waiting for her turn during a circle discussion: she calls out the answer when another child is still speaking. She is also very impatient in line; because “Missss, I don’t like waiting!” Would this be difficult for Amelia at home too? What experiences do mom and dad have? What do they think does and doesn’t work?
What do we mean by self-regulation? And what are executive functions (EF)?
In order to function purposefully in daily life, we must be able to direct our behaviour. This skill (self-regulation) is dependent on thought processes, namely executive functions (EF). EF are a set of cognitive functions that are important for goal-oriented social behavior and school performance. Within this umbrella term we can distinguish three basic components: impulse control (sometimes called inhibition), working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Starting the first day of school, teachers get to know their new preschoolers a little better each day. Through playing together, talking and observing children, teachers also notice more and more about the self-regulation of the preschoolers in their class. For example, Amelia still has a hard time controlling her impulses and Ahmed regularly forgets what he was going to get in the hallway. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to involve their parents to share observations and search for what works together?
As we regard parents as equal partners, we should involve parents to support the development of their children’s self-regulation. In what follows we will give five tips for teachers on how to get started with parents on the self-regulation of their child. It can be important to inform or involve parents, while parents can also be a rich source of information and inspiration.
1. Really listening to parents
Realize that informal moments with parents matter. For example, speak to parents at the school gate when you noticed a nice self-directed moment from their child. “Fatma had to wait a bit for the toilet today, she did that very well!”
2. Parent–teacher conference
In addition, listen carefully to what parents tell you and try to recognize EF questions. Of course, parents won’t ask you the question: “Max has problems with his impulse control, what can I do to keep out external stimuli?” However, you can often discover EF questions in their stories and concrete questions. Who knows, maybe a parent will tell you during the parent-teacher conference “Whenever I let Sara get her socks, pants, t-shirt and sweater, she will always forget to bring something.”
Unknowingly, the parent is asking a question about Sara’s working memory. How do you get to work with such stories and questions?
Listen, ask follow-up questions and link the parent’s question to EF.
Does Sara also so this when she only has to get one or two garment(s)? So, Sara finds it hard to remember everything? Is this only when getting dressed or do you notice it at other times as well? Are you concerned about this?…
Reassure the parents by explaining this from the perspective of developmental psychology and acknowledge the parents and their concerns.
I understand your concern, although it is definitely normal for four-year-olds to forget things, especially when they might be distracted by the television or a sibling.
Look for possible answers or resources together. The voices of the parents and the teacher are equal in this search.
How will you deal with this at home now? What should Sarah be able to remember according to the parents? Can we use a photo of the socks as a reminder for Sara?…
Work out possible actions together. As much as possible, start from what parents already do at home, and what seems feasible to them.
We choose to start with two items of clothing. We first practice on the socks and pants. Mom and Dad try to turn off the TV when they ask Sara to go get her clothes. In the class as well, the teacher will ask Sara to bring two things from the hallway.
3. Executive what?
Executive functions, self-regulation, impulse control… what difficult terms! If you want to discuss the self-regulation of their child with parents, it is important to use understandable language. However, the goal is not to make things appear easier than what they actually are. Therefore, choose your words carefully.
How about these descriptions of working memory?
- Being able to remember what to do
- Remember different steps
- Keep everything in order
So, Sara still finds it difficult to remember 4 items of clothing when she goes to the other room?
In addition, you can also use videos, photos or icons to visually explain to parents what you are talking about.
4. Put self-regulation at the center of attention during a parent-teacher conference.
Highlight EF during one or more parent-teacher conferences. You can, for example, do this via a mini-EF questionnaire with a maximum of five questions in simple language and/or in multiple languages. Fill in the questions as a teacher and let the parents do the same. Give this questionnaire to the parents in advance or have them complete it at the beginning of the parent-teacher conference.
Completing the questionnaire can lead to an interesting conversation about the self-regulation of the child at home and at school. Do you see similarities and differences? How do the parents deal with certain challenges? What can you learn from each other?
What EF questions can you ask? Below are some examples:
- My child finishes what he started (yes – sometimes – no).
- My child can play concentrated (yes – sometimes – no).
- My child is easily distracted (yes – sometimes – no).
5. Getting started with videos
In addition to a questionnaire, you can also make videos or photos of the preschoolers in which a certain EF can be clearly seen (for example, a preschooler who may or may not be concentrating on a task). Parents like to receive more information like this about what exactly happens in the classroom.
Discuss what the parents see and what you see. Start from positive observations and focus sufficiently on what the preschooler already can do. Make sure that the parents can also watch the videos at home, nothing is more fun than watching a movie from the class with their child!
Do you want to know more about the project?
Take a look at the project website. Main project partners are Odisee University of Applied Sciences and University KULeuven. Support came from the cities of Aalst, Sint-Niklaas, the Flemish government, and the project “Little children, big chances”.
The new Dutch book “Kleuters laten groeien in executieve functies. Hoe? Zo! Zet je EF-bril op.” spends an entire chapter on working with parents, based on scientific evidence, good examples and a pilot project that was run together with primary school De Nieuwe Arend in Aalst.
Get in touch with project collaborator Lien Ooghe.
- Feryn, S. (2021). Kleuters laten groeien in executieve functies. Hoe? Zo! Zet je EF-bril op. Praktijkboek.Leuven: LannooCampus.
- Valcan, D.S., Davis, H. & Pino-Pasternak, D. (2018). Parental Behaviours Predicting Early Childhood Executive Functions: a Meta-Analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 607-649.
Source of central photo: https://www.warren.af.mil/News/Features/Article/636106/after-hours-childcare/ (taken by U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Malcolm Mayfield)