Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture.

Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture. – book review

Debra Galvin

Martha B. Bronson, New York: Guilford Press, 2001, 296 pp., hardcover, $35.00, paperback, $23.00

Martha B. Bronson’s book, Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture, is a valuable contribution to the early childhood education literature for understanding self-regulation. The author offers an articulate discussion of relevant theory and research, predominately in the field of developmental psychology, and translates these perspectives to important issues in educational practice. The overall focus of the book is to provide an understanding of theoretical underpinnings and research on self-regulation and the application of this knowledge to early childhood parenting and educational practices that include self-regulated learning, behavior management, and motivation. The scope of the book encompasses key elements of self-regulation of interest to early childhood educators, including self-direction, self-control, motivation, and prosocial behavior. These key elements are further elaborated into practical applications that educators can draw upon to support and promote the development of self-regulation in children through the elementary-school years. The author provides clearly written and understandable information that would be valuable to both the preservice student and the experienced educator.

The book begins by addressing the issue that the definition of self-regulation is neither singular nor simple as a construct, and thus is identified and studied in several different ways. In its broadest form, the concept of self-regulation has intellectual roots in three different areas: parent-infant attachment, the psychology of language and thought, and the neurophysiology of behavior (which relates physiologically to the development of arousal, inhibition, and attention; Wilson, Fel, & Greenstein, 1992). Although the author does not thoroughly cover the various terms for self-regulation (e.g., emotion regulation, impulse control, self-control) used throughout the psychological and educational literature, she does emphasize that the differences surrounding the definition of self-regulation are confusing. These differences require consideration when interpreting implications for development expectations and educational supports. The author further frames the conflict over definition and application by discussing the consensus that there is a developmental progression in the growth of self-regulation but that the contribution of specific internal and external mechanisms to individual differences remains unclear. The author cautions that careful consideration must be used when designing and implementing supports for children’s self-regulation development, noting that it is important to decide which theory or combination of theories is most relevant to age, situation, and domain of development. In short, there is some disagreement about what kinds of supports are useful at various ages and in different situations. Bronson does not weigh in on which theory or theories are best suited to supporting individual differences in self-regulation development but rather suggests that educators consider the controversy, select wisely, and adopt an integrated approach that reflects the whole child.

Chapter 1 briefly reviews the most salient theories of how self-regulation develops. Psychoanalytic, behavioral, social-learning, social-cognitive, cognitive developmental, and information-processing theories are highlighted. Although it is beyond the scope of her book to discuss and contrast the details of theoretical contributions, the author does highlight some of the most influential theorists relevant to self-regulation in young children. The author includes a comparison of the sources of self-regulation and the causes of development of self-regulation across each of the theoretical orientations in a table format that is useful for a quick, clear summary.

Chapters 2 through 6 describe theoretical and research perspectives on the development of self-regulation in specific areas of functioning. In chapter 2 the interrelation of motivation and self-regulation are discussed in a developmental sequence by age. There is consensus in the literature that early experiences of children with people and objects serve to promote or dampen development of children’s interests, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and acquisition of self-regulation skills. This chapter highlights the influence of early experience on the intensity of children’s motivation for self-direction and self-control. A unique feature of this book is the identification of how various theories stress the role of the environment versus the child’s innate, intrinsic motivation for self-regulation and, ultimately, self-competence. The interrelation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has important implications for the role educators play in identifying the individual nature of intrinsic motivation of children and providing contexts that foster self-competence. The author uses a developmental progression of age over time to discuss specific examples of how the interrelated aspects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation progress from infancy through early childhood. Aspects discussed include motivation for coherence, consistency, predictability, competence, mastery, and control. Self-regulation is an essential requirement of children’s feelings and behaviors of competence and is also required for successful interaction in a variety of activities whether or not the child is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. The bulk of this chapter focuses primarily on the very early elements of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that are foundational for self-regulation development and the manner in which environmental opportunities influence individual development. The author concludes this chapter with a useful table that summarizes the development of motivation for self-regulation and the effects of the environment on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on development from infancy through primary school age.

The influence of self-regulation in controlling arousal and emotional expression is covered in chapter 3. Development of control over behavior and emotion expression is discussed from different theoretical perspectives and supported with research findings focused on cognitive, emotional, and social development from infancy through early elementary-school age. The interrelated nature of emotional, social, and cognitive control is discussed briefly. The bulk of this chapter then relates key issues in the development of emotional and behavioral self-regulation in relation to infants, toddlers, preschool and kindergarten children, and primary school children. In each age range, the types of self-control, the relation of developing control to social and cognitive development, and the role of the environment in promoting control in each age range are reviewed and discussed. The author affirms the developmental phases of self-regulation of emotions and actions proposed by Kopp (1982, 1991) as a framework for linking development expectations to the importance of early experience. Although she recognizes that genetic tendencies such as temperament contribute to emotional and behavioral control in important ways, she also emphasizes the powerful influence of early social environments on early development. These early social experiences have the most relevant application for early childhood educators in promoting early patterns of control that affect future development. The chapter concludes with a table that summarizes the development of emotion and behavior control across age and the major effects of the environment at each age.

Chapter 4 discusses the development of prosocial behavior as it relates to the development of self-regulation. Major theoretical perspectives on prosocial development and corresponding research evidence related to the development of self-regulated prosocial behavior and moral understanding at different early childhood ages are reviewed. The controversy over defining positive social behavior is discussed in the context of differing views on what constitutes negative, positive, or altruistic social behaviors, views that may vary by cultural group, age, gender, and setting. The author provides two summary tables in this chapter. The first table summarizes the ways in which ethological, psychoanalytic, behavioral, social-learning, and Piagetian theories view the sources of prosocial behavior. The second summarizes the developmental progression of self-regulated prosocial behavior and the general effects of the environment on prosocial behavior from infancy through the elementary-school years. Early childhood educators will find particular use for the ways in which the author includes contemporary research findings on the development of prosocial behaviors such as perspective taking, sharing, helping, being altruistic, comforting, defending, and empathizing. Research that emphasizes the link between a variety of positive and negative social behaviors (such as aggression) to child outcomes from infancy to school age years is discussed. These research findings are described in relation to the importance of children’s early experiences that promote prosocial behaviors. The chapter also describes the importance of children’s early experiences with sensitive and responsive caregiving practices that provide critical modeling for prosocial and altruistic behavior. Specific strategies around modeling rules, empathy, emotional conviction, and the attribution of prosocial qualities to children are described. The chapter concludes with a table that summarizes the effect of the environment on the development of self-regulated prosocial behavior from infancy through primary-school age.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss theories and research on cognitive aspects of self-control influential in the development of self-regulation and executive, metacognitive control over attention and cognitive processing. Recent brain research on the development of control systems is discussed in chapter 6. Each chapter focuses on the interaction of nervous-system maturation and of experiences in the environment that are important in the development of cognitive control. Tables summarizing a range of theoretical perspectives on the development of control of cognitive processing and on the effects of the environment on self-regulated cognitive processing are given. Of particular interest to early childhood educators in these two chapters is the discussion of the role that positive and negative experiences play in brain development, particularly during the critical period of the first 3 years.

Part II of this book includes chapters 7, 8, and 9, which integrate theoretical and research information previously described in Part I into practical applications for promoting self-regulation development from infancy through the primary-school period. The first parts of each chapter are organized to focus on milestones of self-regulation behavior across social and emotional behavior, prosocial behavior, and cognitive and motivational contributions to self-regulation. Early childhood educators will find particular utility in the practical suggestions for evaluating settings, caregiver behaviors, learning and teaching routines, and developmentally appropriate activities that promote self-regulation. For each age range, specific ways that adults and the environment can support developing self-regulation abilities are described. Guidance strategies that specifically target interaction patterns between adults and children to promote self-regulation development are found throughout these three chapters. For example, adults should give reasons for social rules, emphasize the effects of violations on others, and avoid physical punishments that model aggression and threat as solutions to social problems. Environmental features that nurture self-regulation are framed within examples that describe the key elements of exploration opportunities and order and predictability features that promote self-regulation across each developmental age. For example, for preschool and kindergarten children a small set of reasonable ground rules that focus on what children are permitted to do rather than on what is forbidden provides a positive boundary to assist children in developing self-regulation abilities.

Bronson has offered an articulate, valuable resource to practitioners and scholars on the complex topic of self-regulation theory and research and on how parents and professionals can promote self-regulation development in the early childhood period. The book offers a rare combination of theoretical perspectives and research findings from various fields translated into an organized, clear discussion of strategies parents and educators can employ to support self-regulation development. This book could be widely adopted in training those who are both beginning their careers or are expanding their knowledge in early childhood education. Self-regulation plays an important, integrative role in the ways in which young children learn to be independent and to control and direct their behavior; this notion, and the theory and research supporting it, have important implications for early childhood educators, who typically receive little training in this area.

One of the best features of this book is the way in which the author continually embeds theory and research findings in adult-directed practices that can support children’s self-regulation learning at various age levels. The author does not attempt to oversimplify and imply that such practices can be applied in a one-size-fits-all recipe; rather, she offers a template for applying such knowledge to interaction and environmental practices that can make a positive difference to children’s outcomes.


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

Kopp, C. B. (1991). Young children’s progression to self-regulation. In M. Bullock (Ed.), The development of intentional action (pp. 38-54). New York: Karger.

Wilson, A., Fel, D., & Greenstein, M. (1992). The self-regulating child: Converging evidence from psychoanalysis, infant research, and sociolinguistics. Applied & Preventive Psychology, 1, 165-175.

Debra Galvin, PhD

Juniper Gardens Children’s Project

University of Kansas


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