Applied Psychology OPUS

The Major Influences of Self-Regulation Development in Early Childhood

Gabrielle Gunin

In recent years, research in developmental psychology has given much attention to the construct of self-regulation in early childhood. In short, self-regulation is the ability to modify one’s behavior in order to meet situational demands (Kopp, 1982). These skills are exhibited when children delay immediate gratification, internalize societal rules, and utilize attentional, emotional, and stress responses in their fulfillment of goal-directed actions (Blair, Urasche, Greenberg, & Vernon-Feagans, 2015; Kopp, 1982). While the study of self-regulation is important throughout childhood, it is especially critical during the preschool years (Karreman, Tuijl, van Aken, & Dakovic, 2006).

Children experience the most rapid gains in self-regulatory behaviors from the ages of three to five (Karreman et al., 2006; Kopp, 1982; McClelland et al., 2007). The demands of the classroom context, which children first experience in the preschool setting, require that children inhibit socially undesirable impulses, such as disobedience and aggression, in order to succeed (Garner & Waajid, 2012). Preschoolers who are effective self-regulators also show advances in emergent math, vocabulary, and literacy abilities, relative to their peers with weaker self-regulatory capabilities (Blair & Razza, 2007; Blair et al., 2015; McClelland et al., 2007). Evidently, self-regulation is critical in both classroom behavior and academic success in preschool-age children.

Although self-regulation tends to follow a developmental timetable, the skills are sensitive to environmental influences, such as poverty, parenting practices, ethnic background, and school-based interventions (Colman, Hardy, Albert, Raffaelli, & Crockett, 2006; Li-Grining, 2012). Given how predictive self-regulatory abilities are of academic success, understanding the contextual influences on these skills is imperative in bolstering academic achievement (Li-Grining, 2012). Thus, this review of the literature explores the major influences of self-regulation development in early childhood. Fixed factors, such as poverty and culture, and malleable factors, such as parenting practices and in-school interventions, will be discussed.

The Influence of Poverty on Self-Regulation Development

Extant research demonstrates a host of negative outcomes associated with poverty, including its detrimental impact on self-regulatory skills in children (Blair, 2010; Evans & Kim, 2013; Evans & Rosenbaum, 2008). Poverty-related stressors negatively impact the neural networks associated with self-regulation (Blair, 2010), and thus poverty hinders children’s acquisition of the skills needed to manage situational demands (Evans & Kim, 2013). Controlling impulses, for instance, is especially difficult for low-income preschoolers, as research shows that this component of self-regulation is inhibited when children have high neural reactivity, as tends to be the case in poverty (Blair, 2010; Evans & Kim, 2013).  

In a study that tracked the effects of moving in and out of low-income neighborhoods (Roy, McCoy, & Raver, 2014), the association between poverty and self-regulation was strong. Children who moved out of economically advantaged communities and into high poverty neighborhoods during early childhood demonstrated poorer self-regulation, when compared to peers who did not move away. Conversely, children who moved out of high poverty neighborhoods and into economically advantaged communities faired better in their regulation, compared with children who remained in those areas (Roy et al., 2014). This finding has been frequently replicated in the literature, indicating a clear association between poverty and poor self-regulation (Bernier, Carlson, & Whipple, 2010). However, other empirical work has shown that environmental mediators, such as parenting practices, may buffer the negative impact of poverty on self-regulation (Evans & Kim, 2013).

The Influence of Parenting Practices on Self-Regulation Development

While poverty is a relatively fixed influence on self-regulation, parenting practices are more fluid (Li-Grining, 2012). Good self-regulation development starts in the home, as parents act as role models of self-regulation for their children. By utilizing problem-based situations as a means of practicing personal awareness and understanding the needs of others, parents can explicitly teach self-regulatory skills to their children (Boyer, 2012). Beyond specific teaching moments, parenting practices are also predictive of different self-regulatory outcomes in the preschool years (Choe, Olson, & Sameroff, 2013). For instance, positive control by parents promotes good self-regulation development (Karreman et al., 2006). This positive control is created through high levels of warmth and responsiveness, and low levels of harshness (Colman et al., 2006). Additionally, parents who encourage autonomy by allowing their children to take the lead in decision-making tend to have children with well-developed self-regulation (Bernier et al., 2010; Karreman et al., 2006).

While some parenting practices are predictive of high self-regulatory skills in preschoolers, others may negatively impact the development of self-regulation. For instance, high levels of maternal distress tend to be associated with less warm parenting styles, and in turn, inhibit the development of self-regulation for preschoolers (Choe et al., 2013). When parents face stress, they may spend less time on cognitive development with their children, resulting in low self-regulatory abilities (Bernier et al., 2010). Parents who utilize high assertions of power, set high levels of control for their children, and utilize extreme harshness (e.g., physical punishment) also tend to have preschoolers with poor self-regulation (Colman et al., 2006; Karreman et al., 2006). The literature suggests that high levels of control do not allow for children to make their own decisions in either behavioral or cognitive self-regulation (Bindman, Pomerantsz, & Roisman, 2015). Overall, this body of work indicates that parent-level factors can have either a positive or negative influence on the development of self-regulation in early childhood, depending on the type of parenting practice or style.

The Influence of Ethnic Background on Self-Regulation Development

Parents’ behaviors and practices are influenced by macro-level factors such as ethnic identity and cultural background. Culture involves the values that shape an individual’s interpretation of the world, and different cultures vary in their expectations of children (Boyer, 2013). Parents utilize norms from their native culture to create regulatory standards for their children, beginning in infancy and continuing throughout early childhood (Meléndez, 2005). With this influence, children make decisions about how they will comply with the demands of their surroundings (Boyer, 2013). Thus, self-regulation development is dependent on culturally driven norms regarding children’s behavior (Boyer, 2013; Li-Grining, 2012).
Differences in self-regulation across nations also expose cultural differences in the development of these skills. While American girls tend to have higher levels of self-regulatory skills than boys (Matthews, Ponitz, & Morrison, 2009), for example, research conducted in Korea has found no gender differences in self-regulation (Son, Lee, & Sung, 2013). Further, though highly predictive of early literacy and numeracy skills for American children (Blair & Razza, 2007), self-regulation is not predictive of academic outcomes in Korean populations (Son et al., 2013). Researchers hypothesize that these discrepancies may be due to the culturally driven expectations of children (Son et al., 2013). Given different standards and expectations for behavior, children from different cultures regulate their behavior in different ways.

In-School Influences on Self-Regulation Development

Beyond family-level influences that preschoolers experience, the school setting is also valuable in the development of their self-regulatory skills. Given the mounting evidence that self-regulation develops rapidly during the preschool years, and that it is predictive of academic success (e.g., McClelland et al., 2007), research has started to examine the effectiveness of teaching it explicitly in schools. Various forms of self-regulation training in the school setting have been found to be effective, such as mindful yoga, circle time games, and explicit teaching of self-regulatory strategies (Pears, Kim, Healey, Yoerger, & Fisher, 2015; Razza, Bergen-Cico, & Raymond, 2015; Tominey & McClelland, 2011). In one study that examined the effectiveness of a year-long, mindful yoga intervention in preschool classrooms, children who participated showed significant increases in self-regulation compared to children who did not receive the intervention (Razza et al., 2015). Most impressively, the children who were deemed most at-risk in their self-regulation development given out-of-school factors (e.g., poverty status) made the greatest gains in this intervention (Razza et al., 2015). Additionally, an in-school playgroup-based intervention also found significance in the gains made by preschoolers, particularly those most at-risk for poor self-regulation when considering other factors such as poverty (Tominey & McClelland, 2011). Even interventions that focus on the direct teaching of self-regulatory skills through an explicit classroom curriculum have been found effective at improving self-regulation (Pears et al., 2015). As research has demonstrated the efficacy of school-based interventions, educators have many evidence-based options when considering ways to scaffold, teach, and improve the self-regulatory skills of their preschoolers.


Given the social and academic implications of self-regulation (Blair & Razza, 2007; McClelland et al., 2007), the study of its influences and developmental trajectory aim to understand these skills and how children can develop them. Based on the research conducted to date, the most prominent influences appear to be poverty status, parenting practices, ethnic background, and in-school interventions. While some of these influences are relatively stable (i.e., poverty status and culture), others are much more malleable and subject to change (i.e., parenting practices and in-school interventions). A relation also seems to exist amongst all of these influences. Yet, even for children who face a host of risk factors, such as those associated with living in poverty (e.g., less access to academic resources, less quality time with parents), gains in self-regulation can be made if children are exposed to certain parenting practices or in-school interventions (Evans & Kim, 2013; Tominey & McClelland, 2011).

Though much is known about self-regulation and its development, the research still lacks many complexities. Overall, self-regulation proves to be a difficult construct to capture, as there are many definitions for it and a broad range of data collection styles (Karreman et al., 2006; McCabe & Brooks-Gunn, 2007). This poses a limitation on the majority of self-regulation research, which tends to assess self-regulation in quiet spaces, unlike realistic school settings where self-regulation skills are challenged. Research on self-regulation may also be confounded by a lack of variation in samples, as few studies examine low-income and ethnic-minority groups (Bernier et al., 2010; Karreman et al., 2006). For these reasons, future research should continue to examine self-regulation and how these skills translate to academic success through the use of diverse assessment techniques and samples, particularly in preschoolers as this time period is crucial in understanding how children learn to regulate their behavior and emotions (Kopp, 1982).


Bernier, A., Carlson, S. M., & Whipple, N. (2010). From external regulation to self-regulation: Early parenting precursors of young children’s executive functioning. Child Development, 81(1), 326-339.

Bindman, S. W., Pomerantz, E. M., & Roisman, G. I. (2015). Do children’s executive functions account for associations between early autonomy-supportive parenting and achievement through high school?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 756-770.

Blair, C. (2010). Stress and the development of self-regulation in context. Child Development Perspectives, 4(3), 181-188.

Blair, C. & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 78(2), 647-663.

Blair, C., Ursache, A., Greenberg, M., & Vernon-Feagans, L., (2015). Multiple aspects of self-regulation uniquely predict mathematics but not letter-word knowledge in the early elementary grades. Developmental Psychology, 51(4), 459-472.

Boyer, W. (2012). Cultural factors influencing preschoolers’ acquisition of self-regulation and emotion regulation. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 26(2), 169-186.

Boyer, W. (2013). Getting back to the woods: Familial perspectives on culture and preschoolers’ acquisition of self-regulation and emotion regulation. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41, 153-159.

Choe, D. E., Olson, S. L., & Sameroff, A. J. (2013). Effects of early maternal distress and parenting on the development of children’s self-regulation and externalizing behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 437-453.

Colman, R. A., Hardy, S. A., Albert, M., Raffaelli, M., & Crockett, L. (2006). Early predictors of self-regulation in middle childhood. Infant and Child Development, 15, 421-437.

Evans, G. W. & Kim, P. (2013). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, self-regulation, and coping. Child Development Perspectives, 7(1). 43-48.

Evans, G. W., & Rosenbaum, J. (2008). Self-regulation and the income-achievement gap. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(4), 504-514.

Garner, P. W., & Waajid, B. (2012). Emotion knowledge and self-regulation as predictors of preschoolers cognitive ability, classroom behavior, and social competence. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 30(4), 330-343.

Karreman, A., van Tuijl, C., van Aken, M. A. G., & Dakovic, M. (2006). Parenting and self-regulation in preschoolers: A meta-analysis. Infant and Child Development, 15, 561-579.

Kopp, C. B. (1982). Antecedents of self-regulation: A developmental perspective. Developmental Psychology, 18(2), 199-214.

Li-Grining, C. P. (2012). The role of cultural factors in the development of Latino preschoolers’ self-regulation. Child Development Perspectives, 6(3), 210-217.

Matthews, J. S., Ponitz, C. C., & Morrison, F. J. (2009). Early gender differences in self-regulation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 669-704.

McCabe, L. A. & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2007). With a little help from my friends? Self-regulation in groups of young children. Infant Mental Health Journal, 28(6), 584-605.

McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Connor, C. M., Farris, C. L., Jewkes, A. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 947-959.

Meléndez, L. (2005). Parental beliefs and practices around early self-regulation: the impact of culture and immigration. Infants & Young Children, 18(2), 136-146.

Pears, K. C., Kim, H. K., Healey, C. V., Yoerger, K., & Fisher, P. A. (2015). Improving child self-regulation and parenting in families of pre-kindergarten children with developmental disabilities and behavioral difficulties. Society for Prevention Research, 16, 222-232.

Razza, R. A., Bergen-Cico, D., & Raymond, K. (2015). Enhancing preschoolers’ self-regulation via mindful yoga. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 372-385.

Roy, A. L., McCoy, D. C., & Raver, C. C. (2014). Instability versus quality: Residential mobility, neighborhood poverty, and children’s self-regulation. Developmental Psychology, 50(7), 1891-1896.

Son, S., Lee, K., & Sung, M. (2013). Links between preschoolers’ behavioral regulation and school readiness skills: The role of child gender. Early Education and Development, 24(4), 468-490.

Tominey, S. L. & McClelland, M. M. (2011). Red light, purple light: Findings from a randomized trial using circle time games to improve behavioral self-regulation in preschool. Early Education and Development, 22(3), 489-519.