Self-regulation or self-control is the work of the preschool age child. The teachers see over and over again how hard it is for the children to learn to stop what you are doing, to wait for a turn, to not be disappointed if you don’t have a turn, to walk with a partner and stay in your place, to use words when you are angry, to ask for something rather than snatch it from someone. There is so much that children need to learn, and it seems so hard in the moment.
We know that it takes much practice, and we are always practicing a lot. On the teacher’s part this requires lots of watching and listening. It requires cueing to help children think about how to be in a group or how to wait. “I will choose someone who is sitting criss cross and has their hand raised. If you don’t get a turn today it will be OK, you might get a turn the next time. It is hard to wait, but I know you can do it.” Sometimes it requires trying again: “Oh, we can do better than that; let’s try it again. Let’s do that one over again.”
For the child it requires an understanding of cause and effect, and teachers use language to help them understand this also. “If we all have our jackets on we will get to the park sooner. We can learn more songs if we can work together. If you line up now we will have more time for . . .” Language mediates the experience and helps children make connections. As children learn the rules of school we often hear them repeat them. “I can’t do the puzzle right now, but I can do it at activity time. I can be at the end of the line, and it will be OK. We need to wash our hands first, and then we can have snack.”
All of this takes lots and lots of energy for all the little decisions and choices that need to happen during the day, for both the teachers and the children. All of these small decisions are building up patience and endurance, stamina and impulse control, all necessary for self-regulation – the work of the preschool child.