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Reflections Magazine : Reflections Issue 58 Autumn 2015
8 Self-regulation develops rapidly in the early years and is a critical predictor of educational and life success. Early self-regulation skills are important in the successful transition to formal school environments, and are more highly predictive of early primary academic achievement than measures of general intelligence. Poor self-regulation skills are associated with problems relating to peers (Blandon, Calkins, & Keane, 2010), poor social skills (Sanson et al., 2009), and higher levels of behaviour problems (Williams, 2014). Further into adolescence and adulthood, self-regulation has been found to play a key role in motivation, aspiration, job and relationship satisfaction, and mental health (McClelland, Ponitz, Messersmith, & Tominey, 2010). Self-regulatory skills develop and change with experience through the development of particular areas of the brain. Age alone is not sufficient, self-regulation skills take experience and practice. In Australia, an estimated 30% of Australian children enter school with a history of persistent early childhood self-regulation problems (Williams, 2014), contributing to gaps in children's developmental competencies and school achievement levels (Nicholson, Lucas, Berthelsen, & Wake, 2012). It is therefore important that early childhood educators are skilled in observing and supporting children's growing self-regulatory competencies. In this article we provide a brief account of various self-regulatory behaviours and how they can be observed. We then suggest that music provides an ideal tool with which to support and build children's skills in this important area. What does self-regulation look like? There are a number of facets to self-regulation that are all linked in a complex system. Emotional regulation skills refer to children's ability to return to a state of equilibrium after reacting strongly to an emotion-inducing event. Children who find it challenging to settle once they have become angry or upset are still learning to emotionally self-regulate. Attentional regulation skills refer to children's ability to persist with a task even when distractions might be present. Children who stick with a task even if it is difficult, or return to the same activity after a brief interruption are showing good attentional regulation skills. Executive functions (EF) are considered a 'higher-order' or 'top-down' function of the human self-regulatory system. Specifically, they are cognitive processes that serve to control an individual's behavior and cognition and are likened to the 'air traffic control system' of the brain (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011). The EFs consist of the specific processes of working memory, inhibition and mental flexibility. Inhibition refers to a child's ability to inhibit behavior as required, for example, to wait for a cue before touching a tempting snack, to refrain from calling out in the classroom, or to refrain from touching a body part in the game Simon Says, unless the specific "Simon Says" cue is provided. Working memory refers to the active maintenance of information in short-term storage for the purpose of executing a specific task. This can be observed when children are provided with multi-step instructions and must remember these as they go about performing a task in order. Flexibility refers to the switching of attention or cognitive set between distinct but often closely related aspects of a given object or task. This can be observed when children are asked to sort pictures first by their color, ignoring their shape, then by their shape, ignoring their color. A number of tasks in early childhood require the combined and simultaneous efforts of inhibition, shifting, and flexibility (see 'Backwards Open Shut Them' as an example of this). Why use music to support self-regulation? Studies that have investigated the developmental benefits of early music education, arts-enriched preschool criteria, and music therapy intervention suggest that active music participation increases children's self-regulatory functioning. Winsler and colleagues compared a group of 3 to 4 year old children receiving weekly Kindermusik music and movement classes with a group who had not experienced any structured early childhood music classes. They found that those currently enrolled in Kindermusik showed better self-regulation than those not enrolled, as measured by a battery of tasks that required children to wait, slow down, and initiate or suppress a response. Further, the Kindermusik children were more likely to use a range of positive self-regulatory strategies, including private speech during an attention task and singing or humming during a waiting task (Winsler, Ducenne, & Koury, 2011). Arts enriched preschool environments that include music have been found to improve emotional regulation skills in low-income children (Brown & Sax, 2013) when compared to non-arts enriched programs. Music therapy with hospitalised infants has shown promising and robust results in relation to infants' capacities to self-regulate and engage in social interaction with adults compared to infants in a control group who did not receive music therapy (Malloch et al., 2012). Parent-child music therapy efficacy studies indicate that joint active music participation supports improved self-regulation skills (Pasiali, 2012), along with social and communication skills in preschool children (Williams, Berthelsen, Nicholson, Walker, & Abad, 2012).
Reflections Issue 57 Summer 2014
Reflections Issue 59 Winter 2015