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Self-regulation and academic achievement in young children

Alyssa Sawyer
Dr Alyssa Sawyer is based in the Discipline of Public Health, School of Population Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

This article is adapted from two sources. The first is Sawyer, A. C. P., Chittleborough, C. R., Mittinty, M. N., Miller-Lewis, L., Sawyer, M. G., Lynch, J. W. (2014) ‘Are trajectories of self-regulation abilities from ages 2-3 to 6-7 associated with academic achievement in the early school years?’ Child: Care, Health and Development, in press: doi: 10.1111/cch.12208. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cch.12208/full. The second is Sawyer, A. (2014) ‘Early pointer to school success’. Available at: https://cerp.aqa.org.uk/perspectives/early-pointer-school-success.


There is growing interest in understanding how children develop self-regulation in early childhood, and in particular how this development may impact children’s achievement during the early school years. However, little has been done in this area in Australia. My colleagues and I investigated this issue using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which is a large population-based cohort of Australian children. In particular, we looked at whether preschool children’s rate of development of two key aspects of self-regulation—task attentiveness and emotional regulation—had implications for their academic achievement in the first years of school.


Previous research has found that self-regulation skills have a positive association with children’s academic achievement independently of children’s level of intelligence (Bull & Scerif, 2001; Moffitt et al., 2011; Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, Swanson, & Reiser, 2008; Zhou, Main, & Wang, 2010). Children’s self-regulatory skills have also been found to contribute to the development of school readiness during the preschool years (Raver et al., 2011).

Less is known, however, about whether the rate at which children develop self-regulatory skills during the preschool years impacts on children’s academic achievement in the first years of school. This is an important issue for research to investigate as it is known that self-regulation changes substantially during early childhood (e.g., Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, 2001). Generally, children show large improvements in their ability to self-regulate across the preschool years (Diamond & Taylor, 1996; Kochanska et al., 2001). However, individual children differ greatly in the rate at which they develop these skills prior to school.

My colleagues and I (Sawyer et al., 2014) have investigated whether children’s rate of development of self-regulatory skills during the pre-school years impacts their later academic achievement. We hypothesised that children with greater rates of improvement to their self-regulatory skills would have greater levels of academic achievement in the first years of school.


The study used data from 3410 children who had participated in the LSAC. We examined whether the extent of improvements to children’s task attentiveness and emotion regulation from ages 2/3 to 6/7 years affected their teacher-rated level of academic achievement at age 6/7 years. Task attentiveness describes children’s ability to regulate their attention in order to persist with difficult tasks, while emotion regulation skills describe children’s ability to modulate their emotional reactions in order to respond to environmental demands effectively.

Children’s level of task attentiveness and emotional regulation were measured at three time points (ages 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7 years) using parent-rated items selected from the LSAC questionnaires (Sawyer et al., 2014). Children’s level of maths and literacy achievement was measured using the Academic Rating Scale, which was completed by teachers when children were aged 6/7 years (National Centre for Education Statistics, 2002; Rothman, 2009). Analyses modelled children’s development of self-regulation, children’s average rate of change in task attentiveness and emotional regulation, from ages 2/3 to 6/7 years. We then examined the association between rate of change to children’s development of self-regulatory skills and their level of maths and literacy achievement. These analyses also adjusted for a wide range of child and family characteristics at age 0/1 year, and children’s receptive vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning skills at age 6/7 years.


We found that children differed in their rate of development of task attentiveness and emotional regulation. Some children showed increases in these skills per year on average, while other children showed decreases in skills per year on average.

The children’s development of task attentiveness and emotional regulation was positively associated with literacy achievement at age 6/7 years. Children with greater improvements in task attentiveness and emotional regulation skills had greater literacy achievement in the first years of school, though these effects were stronger for task attentiveness. Children’s achievement in maths at age 6/7 was, once again, positively associated with the development of their task attentiveness, but in this case there was no association with the development of their emotional regulation. These effects continued to be evident after taking account of child and family factors, including children’s vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning skills.


The findings of this study suggest that the rate at which children develop self-regulatory skills across the preschool years has an effect on their academic achievement in the first years of school. This is particularly the case in terms of task attentiveness. These findings suggest that children who are better able to regulate their own attention and persist with completing difficult tasks may be more able to learn in a formal schooling environment, and as a result achieve better academically. It may be that helping children to improve their self-regulatory skills prior to school entry also helps them to achieve better academically in the first years of school. An important next step for this research is to investigate whether enhanced preschool curriculums or interventions, which target children’s development of self-regulatory skills, lead children to achieve better academically when they enter school.


Bull, R., & Scerif, G. (2001). Executive Functioning as a Predictor of Children's Mathematics Ability: Inhibition, Switching, and Working Memory. Developmental Neuropsychology, 19(3), 273-293.

Cutler, D. M., & Lleras-Muney, A. (2006). Education and Health: Evaluating Theories and Evidence. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, No. 12352.

Diamond, A., & Taylor, C. (1996). Development of an aspect of executive control: Development of the abilities to remember what I said and to “Do as I say, not as I do”. Developmental Psychobiology, 29(4), 315-334.

Heckman, J. J. (2006). Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children. Science, 312(5782), 1900-1902.

Kochanska, G., Coy, K. C., & Murray, K. T. (2001). The development of self-regulation in the first four years of life. Child Development, 72(4), 1091-1111.

Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., . . . Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 2693-2698.

National Centre for Education Statistics. (2002). User's manual for the ECLS-K first grade public-use data files and electronic code book (NCES 2002-135). Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Raver, C. C., Jones, S. M., Li-Grining, C., Zhai, F., Bub, K., & Pressler, E. (2011). CSRP’s Impact on Low-Income Preschoolers’ Preacademic Skills: Self-Regulation as a Mediating Mechanism. Child Development, 82(1), 362-378.

Rothman, S. (2009). The LSAC Academic Rating Scale score. Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Sawyer, A. C. P., Chittleborough, C. R., Mittinty, M. N., Miller-Lewis, L. R., Sawyer, M. G., Sullivan, T., & Lynch, J. W. (2014). Are trajectories of self-regulation abilities from ages 2–3 to 6–7 associated with academic achievement in the early school years? Child: Care, Health and Development, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/cch.12208

Valiente, C., Lemery-Chalfant, K., Swanson, J., & Reiser, M. (2008). Prediction of Children's Academic Competence From Their Effortful Control, Relationships, and Classroom Participation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(1), 67-77.

Zhou, Q., Main, A., & Wang, Y. (2010). The relations of temperamental effortful control and anger/frustration to Chinese children's academic achievement and social adjustment: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(1), 180-196.


Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Early childhood education
Child development