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Developing self-regulation: the Vygotskian view.


This paper focuses on current definitions of self-regulation and emerging research indicating its contribution to school readiness. Traditionally relegated to the social-emotional realm, the definition of self-regulation is broadened to include the ability to regulate both emotions and thinking. We conclude with an introduction of the Vygotskian approach to self-regulation--a unique perspective, little known in the West. For Vygotskians, many aspects of self-regulation are learned during the preschool years and the approach suggests ways in which early childhood educators can influence its development.


There is growing evidence that many children, especially those at-risk, begin school lacking the self-regulation necessary to succeed in school and life (Raver & Knitzer, 2002) and that this lack of self-regulation may have a great impact on how well children do in school and later life. Self-regulation is ranked as the most important characteristic necessary for school readiness by kindergarten teachers who indicate that over half their children lack effective self-regulatory skills (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta & Cox 2001). There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than IQ (Blair, 2002) or entry-level reading or math skills (Normandeau & Guay, 1998) and is closely associated with academic achievement (Espy, et al. 2005; Blair, 2002). In several studies, self-regulation of preschoolers was correlated with the cognitive, self-regulatory, and coping competence in adolescence (Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988; Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990; Eigsti et al., 2006).

Current views of self-regulation in children

When applied to young children, the term "self-regulation" is used to refer to a variety of abilities. Self-regulated behaviors thus include delaying gratification, being able to rapidly switch between different tasks, focusing attention and controlling one's emotions. Depending on the theoretical orientation, researchers focus on only one or two for these aspects, leading to a self-regulation as discrete behaviors, separating cognitive self-regulation from social and emotional self-regulation.

Researchers that study self-regulation as a social-emotional competency often regard it as an innate characteristic that is determined by children's psycho-physiological characteristics such as temperament. For example, the child's ability to purposefully engage in or refrain from certain behaviors--physical as well as social--is linked to this child's level of effortful control--the temperament trait that emerges at the end of the first year of life and regulates the reactive aspects of temperament (Studies emphasizing social-emotional self-regulation also tend to examine how individual differences in social-emotional self-regulation are related to the quality of early child-caregiver interactions (Murray & Kochanska, 2002).

Studying of self-regulation as a cognitive competency has for a long time been done primarily in older children. The link between various manifestations of cognitive self regulation and academic achievement is well documented for middle- and high school students (Zimmerman, 2002). Classroom studies indicate that specific educational practices such as choice in activities tend to increase the self-regulatory behaviors of primary aged children as well as older children (Perry, 1998).

With the advent of new and more sophisticated methods of brain research it has become possible to establish relationships between the development of self-regulation and the maturation of particular areas of the brain. It was found, for example, that relatively low levels of self-regulation in preschool age children are associated with the children not yet utilizing the areas of the brain responsible for planning and reflection (Bronson, 2000). Recent research on the brain seems to indicate that self-regulation is tied to the development of the prefrontal cortex which is not only important for the development of control over emotions, but also that of focused attention as well as planning and monitoring of cognitive behaviors (Davidson et. al., 2006). There is evidence that positive emotionality and negative emotionality induce different patterns of activation of the prefrontal cortex (Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000) and that this can affect levels of attention (Davidson, 1999). The fact that the same area of the brain is responsible for emotional control and for the metacognitive functions further supports the idea of the interconnection between social-emotional self-regulation and cognitive self-regulation (Blair, 2002).

Research suggests that if a neural system is repeatedly exercised, it, like a muscle, will blossom (Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Bialystok, 1999; Bialystok et al., 2005; Bialystok & Shapiro, 2005). Consequently the importance of the environment in the development of self-regulation is supported by current brain research. However, existing theories of self-regulation, especially the ones that focus only on its cognitive or just emotional aspects have not yet been able to provide an framework for designing instructional environments supporting the development of all aspects of self-regulation. Lev Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory might provide just this kind of framework.

Vygotsky's view of self-regulation

Vygotsky's view on self-regulation is based on his general ideas of cultural- historical nature of human development. For Vygotsky, self-regulation is not a single trait or even a combination of traits but rather a critical development signaling emergence of uniquely human set of competencies "higher mental functions". While not using the word "'self-regulation" to describe higher mental functions, Vygotsky described them though as deliberate, intentional, or volitional behaviors, as something that humans have control of Acquiring higher mental functions allows children to make a critical transition from being "slaves to the environment" to becoming "masters of their own behavior". This process requires children to master specific cultural tools--including language and other symbolic systems--which they can use to gain control over their physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning.

As it is true for all higher mental functions, children's self-regulatory abilities originate in social interactions and only later become internalized and independently used by children (Vygotsky, 1978). This means that self-regulation is not something that emerges spontaneously as the child matures but is instead taught formally or informally within the social context. Classroom presents one of the possible contexts; family and peer group provide alternative contexts for learning self-regulation. In the case when none of the social contexts support the development of self-regulatory behaviors, children continue to operate as "slaves to the environment" being guided by ever-changing external stimulation and incapable of intentional actions.

For Vygotsky, there are three critical conditions necessary for development of self-regulatory behaviors in children. First, to develop any higher mental function on the intra-subjective (individual) plane, children first have to experience it on the inter-subjective (shared) plane (Vygotsky 1978). In regard to self-regulatory behaviors--social as well as cognitive- it means that children need to have an opportunity to engage in other-regulation. Other-regulation implies that children act both as subjects of another person's regulatory behaviors (as is the case of many of their interactions with adults) and as actors regulating other person's behaviors (as might happen in the interaction with peers or younger children). A second necessary condition for emergence of self-regulation is children's learning of specific cultural tools that would allow them to eventually use self-regulatory behaviors independently. Among first such tools children learn is self-talk or "private speech". When children engage in private speech to themselves, the same words that adults once used to regulate children's behaviors, are now used by children themselves for the purposes of self-regulation. Studies of private speech have found a direct link between children's use of private speech and their self-regulatory abilities (Berk & Landau, 1993; Berk & Spuhl, 1995; Winsler, Diaz, Atencio, McCarthy, & Chabay, 2000).

The last condition is young children's engagement in well-developed make-believe play. Vygotsky's famous quote about a child standing "a head taller than himself' when engaged in highly imaginative sociodramatic play can definitely be applied to self-regulatory behaviors--in social-emotional as well as in cognitive realm. Being the "leading activity" for preschool- and kindergarten-aged children (Vygotsky, 1967; Leont'ev, 1978), play provides opportunities for children to practice self-regulatory components of multiple mental functions--from fulfilling their desires in a symbolic form while at the same time delaying gratification to beginning to develop reflective competencies while taking multiple perspectives (Elkonin, 1978).

Implications for early childhood educators

Vygotsky's approach provides early childhood educators with several guidelines on how to scaffold the development of multiple aspects of self-regulation.

1. Need to make sure children engage in other-regulation--a well-behaved child is not necessarily a self-regulated child

2. Teaching and learning of specific cultural tools including but not limited to private speech

3. Making sure that make-believe play not only happens but reaches its well-developed form.

First, it is necessary to distinguish between true self-regulation and mere obedience. For Vygotskians, it is critical that a truly self- regulated child does not simply follow the rules imposed on him/her by an adult but is also able to generate appropriate rules when facing a new situation (Veraksa & Dyachenko, 1996). To develop this ability, the child needs to engage in other-regulation by monitoring how other children follow the rules as well as by being monitored by other children (Zuckerman, 2003). For a classroom teacher, it would mean, for example taking another view of such phenomenon as preschoolers' or kindergartners' tattle telling. It would also mean re-designing some of the existing activities so that children can take turns checking their peers' work and self-checking their own work.

Similar to the manner in which teachers help children master certain cultural tools to develop cognitive abilities (think alphabet charts and literacy or counters and mathematical reasoning), they should also introduce children to the tools that will allow them to develop self-regulation. Modeling of and encouraging the use of private speech is one example of how such tools can be taught (Berk, 1992). Other examples include re-introducing tools for other-regulating and self-regulating social behaviors that have been passed on by many generations but may be missing from the experience of today's preschoolers and kindergartners (Bodrova & Leong, 2006). These tools include rhymes and chants as well as games (think paper-scissors-rock) children use to determine whose turn is next.

Finally, the context in which self-regulation is most likely to develop is during mature make-believe play (Elkonin, 1978; Vygotsky, 1967). In early stages of play, children are primarily involved in exploring objects. When play is mature, children have defined roles and have play scenarios that are complex and that are planned in advance (Bodrova & Leong, 2006). While engaging in this kind of mature make believe play, young children make their first attempts at self-regulation by constraining their behavior to a set of self-imposed actions defined by the play role. While playing the mommy, a child will confine her behaviors to a specific set of actions that fit the mommy role and will refrain from playing with other objects no matter how enticing if they do not fit that role. The limits the child places on his/her behavior are self-imposed and consequently differ greatly from following the teacher's directions. Vygotskians argue that when early childhood teachers support mature make-believe play, they provide the environmental conditions under which self-regulation can flourish. No amount of teacher directed instruction will garner the same level of self-regulation as mature make believe play (Bodrova & Leong, 2006).


The purpose of the paper is to describe the current views of self-regulation and how the Vygotskian approach gives an added dimension to that discussion. The approach provides an important framework for developing interventions to help children who are lacking self-regulation and provides important insights for early childhood teachers.


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Deborah J. Leong, Metropolitan State College of Denver

Elena Bodrova, McREL

Deborah J. Leong is a professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Elena Bodrova is a senior researcher at McREI.
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Author:Bodrova, Elena
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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