A literature review on supported playgroups

Here’s a blog about our recent research review about evidence for supported playgroups …. Thanks Graeme!

Sustaining Community

Playgroup (Photo: Christine Cabalo)

Do supported playgroups actually make a difference? A recent literature review of research on supported playgroups [1] found that, while they are very popular, there is not a strong research evidence base demonstrating their effectiveness. The lack of research evidence appears to be more about the challenges (including the cost) of undertaking high quality research and evaluation rather than indicating that playgroups are ineffective.

Playgroups in Australia

Parent led and managed community playgroups have been around since the 1960s, but began to flourish in Australia in the 1970s. In 1975 the Australian Government started funding playgroups and increased its funding of supported playgroups, which are facilitated by a paid worker, from 2003 [1,2]. Supported playgroups are used extensively by family services as a way of engaging families who otherwise may not access community playgroups or other family services [1].

According to Playgroup Australia,

Playgroup is…

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Keep reading to children….. but don’t forget the music!

Miles & Kate large drum 9.5mths cropped

It has long been known that reading to children is one of the key activities adults can engage in to support children’s development. The number of books found in a home, and the amount of time adults spend reading those books to children, or even reading themselves, are key predictors of children’s later language and literacy skills. What we didn’t know until now is whether active shared music making in the home also has similar benefits for children’s development. The answer appears to be yes, but even more so in particular skill areas that can be tricky to teach, like social skills and attention.

I recently published a paper with a University of Queensland team that describes a snapshot of informal home music use in over 3000 Australian families participating in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). In families where parents reported more frequent shared parent-child music activities in the toddler years, children tended to be more prosocial and have stronger numeracy skills, and greater ability to control their attention at 5 years. These effects were over and above the effects of shared book reading and socio-economic circumstances, meaning that while book reading is absolutely important and was also associated with positive outcomes for children, music contributed additional value. In fact shared music was the only contributor to children’s prosocial skills, with book reading having no effect.

So exactly how is shared music time supporting children’s development? To be frank, we need much more research in this area. But we do know that music is fun and engaging. The very young and old, the skilled and unskilled, can participate together in ways that not many other activities allow – from active listening through to performing. Music addresses power and skill imbalances by allowing children to lead, and adults to follow. Even the toddler who is not yet ready to still for more than two pages of a book, can engage in active musical play. Dancing or doing action songs together often means face-to-face interaction that we don’t tend to get in shared book reading where joint attention is on the print. With more and more of our eye contact time going to screens of some kind perhaps this opportunity for human face-to-face time that comes with joint action songs, singing, and dancing, is crucial to the processes linking music with prosocial development in particular.

I strongly suspect that the opportunity that music provides for us to move our body in a rhythmic, structured way supported by pulse and beat is critical. This kind of movement stimulates brain-body connections likely to build the types of neural networks needed for attention, and regulation of behaviour and emotion. I’m not talking about complicated dance structures (though those are great too) – but simple rhythmic clapping, knee tapping, and fine motor action songs are probably ‘good enough’ to build these networks. Shared home music activities might provide a structure within which parents and children engage in mutually responsive interactions requiring joint attention, active cooperation, turn-taking, and immediate feedback, supporting children’s self-regulatory and social development. We also all know about the motivating context that music provides for learning specific information. For example, The Alphabet Song, Five Little Ducks (number sense, subtraction), and Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes (body part awareness, spatial awareness).

What should we take from this latest research? The paper has recently been awarded The Music Trust Award for Research in to the Benefits of Music Education. While “music education” sounds quite formal, the particular value of this latest research lies in its ability to highlight family music interactions like listening to music together, dancing, musical games, singing, and action songs, as important home learning activities. While formal music tuition and its ever expanding range of known non-musical benefits is often disappointingly confined to only those that can afford it, all families can engage in no or low cost informal home music activities in early childhood. In fact the study found that this kind of musical play at home was common with over 40% of Australian parents reporting that they shared some sort of music time with their toddlers at least six days per week.

How are modern society and the changing culture of parenting supporting or hindering this practice? This research and decades of other studies consistently highlight the role of parents as children’s first and most important educators….. but do we all believe this message? A growing number of parents enroll their young children in specialist user-pay music classes with formal early childhood music programs. It is hard to imagine that shared book reading would be outsourced from the home to quite the same extent (though many of us access story time at a local library). Certainly there is developmental and social value for children, parents, and communities in group music making outside of the home and I would not want to see these important community-building programs decline. But, it is hard to know to what extent these programs represent an outsourcing of familial musical interactions grown out of an eroded confidence on the part of parents, or if they are about something else. Do parents feel the need to ‘professionalise’ parenting, by accessing external expertise in areas such as music? Are these programs empowering and reinforcing parents’ capacity to use music in their own daily parenting practices as we believe they should, or further eroding confidence? Certainly if the music program you attend with your young child does not boost your confidence as a musical parent, and stimulate ideas for you to use yourself at home, then it may be time to look elsewhere.

Music in our home. In my own experience the way music is used in the home necessarily changes as children grow and develop, and find their own musical identities…. And all families will be different. Almost all children will hear their first sound in utero – their mother’s heart beat is rhythmic, not random, and her voice is melodic, not monotone. This is one of the reasons we speak of music as inherently human and of children as naturally musical beings. In my case, our children also experienced several early childhood music therapy sessions a week in utero as I was a practicing Registered Music Therapist at that time. However, I stress to you that my training and work has not made our use of music in the home more sophisticated or complex than in any other home – though for some homes where one or more parent is highly trained in music, it might.

If you need a break and a giggle about now check out this musical infant, make sure you have the sound turned up:

When our children were infants and toddlers, my husband (not musically trained) and I both engaged in the kind of brief music engagement that seems to be happening in many Australian homes. We ‘sang’ (term used very loosely here) our way through baths, nappy changes, and belted over the top of screaming babies in the car (yes, we had one of those children who didn’t calm in the car, only ramped up). We incy wincyed and twinkled our way through some otherwise painful early evening feral hours, we used lullabies at bedtime which I’m sure were more about distracting our own frazzled minds than lulling babies to sleep. Now that the kids are older we use recorded music as a mood changer and lifter at home (getting ready for school or cleaning the house are prime times), we play music critic games on road trips, and both privileged kids are in formal piano lessons because we choose and can fund that for them (with differing degrees of protest from each). One of our kids is all about the rhythm and always has been (and struggles to find pitch); the other one finds their natural music voice most easily through expressive dance – she dances to her own constant tune playing in her head – and living with her is at times like living in a stage musical. I’m sure many of you know that feeling.

You might think with my history of two music degrees I’m keen to incubate music genius and that every interaction in our house is somehow ‘musical’. This is certainly not the case, I know of many other more ‘musical’ households stimulated by both trained and un-trained musical parents. I liken music in our house to swimming training – music experience and formal education in our family is about having some skills, confidence and options in leisure and recreation time, about making connections with other people, and about having a way to express yourself and escape from the rest of the hurly burly of life. Certainly the expense of formal music lessons is an absolute privilege and the commitment to support for regular practice in a busy family life is not an easy road for many parents and children. I am not certain how long either of my children will maintain their piano training at this point (my rule is a two year minimum as research shows that positive neurological changes are likely to have been embedded by then – aaah the unique suffering of a kid with a researcher as a mother!!) In my own childhood, it was only thanks to the free and internationally renowned Queensland Education Department Instrumental Music program that kicks in around Year 4 in Queensland primary schools that I began my own musical career – we MUST keep this program. And from then I had a mother with no musical training herself, who recognised and fed my passion in extraordinarily committed ways with very limited resources – I am very grateful.

What musical experiences is your child accessing in education settings? Along with reinforcing the musical parenting role, the study findings also suggest that early educators should be aware of the non-musical benefits of active music participation for young children, and should be trained and supported in the use of music to support early development. As many of our children spend large amounts of time in early childhood education and care settings, there are strong indications that educators should be well equipped to engage in shared music experiences with children and to promote music as a home learning activity to parents. How much music training is provided in the training courses of early childhood teachers and child-care workers? How confident and effective are teachers in using music as part of the program to stimulate child development across multiple domains? I suspect we may have lost some ground here in recent years.

The study described here is a small part of a wider research project led by the Head of UQ’s School of Music, Professor Margaret Barrett and Professor Graham Welch from University College London, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant. Team members include Vicky Abad, Mary Broughton, and Libby Flynn. While we are lucky to have such large longitudinal datasets like LSAC in Australia that allow us to take these national snapshots of phenomena such as home music use, much more detailed and nuance research is required. The UQ research endeavour is currently investigating many of the questions posed here in more depth, so stay tuned for further findings. The project Being and becoming musical: towards a cultural ecological model of early musical development aims to provide a comprehensive account of how Australian families use music in their parenting practices and make recommendations for policy and practice in childcare and early learning and development in and through family.

Music is an inherently human and social activity, and as a tool for parenting and early education, it is too valuable to be left to the ‘professionals’ or in fact left to the wayside – devalued, and under utilised. As a community we should build parent and educator confidence in this area, and provide equitable access to quality early music engagement for all families, and in particular for all young children. It is time to show some commitment.


When parents and self-regulation meet early childhood settings….

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be invited to be the guest speaker at the AGM of the Early Childhood Australia NSW North Coast group. I was asked to speak on parenting and its influence on children’s self-regulation, and ways in which early childhood professionals can best engage parents around this topic. In turn, I think some of the stories may speak to parents about the ways they can best engage with early childhood teachers and carers around this stuff. And about the developmental progression of self-regulation and how parenting can support it. Here’s my speech……

First, so we have a shared understanding of the term self-regulation – I’m talking about the ways in which we all regulate our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviour so that we can be acceptable members of society and have some degree of success and wellbeing.

When we are all born, we are all other-regulated, rather than self-regulated. Parents must soothe us, feed us, help us transition to sleep; even physically regulate us by dressing us in appropriate clothing for climate, and swaddling when required. But the absolute major task of early childhood, and I would argue the most important, is to learn to self-regulate.

In fact, self-regulation skills continue to develop through to adulthood, so this isn’t something confined to early childhood at all. But crucially, the skills that children bring with them to school are going to set them on paths of learning and social success, and thus why early childhood is such a focus. Early childhood self-regulation skills are also predictive of things like career success, tertiary completion, adult relationship stability and all the good stuff…. Even after we account for growth that occurs between early childhood and adulthood. So it is clearly an important time to try to focus on these skills with children.

When we think about self-regulation across early childhood there are a number of important things to remember.

First, and critically, the leap from other-regulated as an infant to self-regulated does not happen without co-regulation in between. And what I mean by co-regulation is the sensitive available adult teaching, coaching, soothing, talking, hearing, and being with children before withdrawing little by little over time as children develop the skills for full self-regulation. Other-regulated, co-regulation, self-regulation.

Second, and related, is that self-regulation is learned through practice, it does not just happen with development. So while some dysregulation is developmentally appropriate – think about a standard toddler tantrum – signs of dysregulation that are not age appropriate will not be ‘grown out of’ as such, and it is risky to think of them like that. “He’ll grow out of it” won’t really cut it. But these skills can be taught, scaffolded, modelled and practiced and absolutely learned…… other-regulated, co-regulated,…. Self-regulated.

Another thing to remember is that part of how we react to situations is genetically driven. Many early childhood professionals experience this: they have a child in their care that they find rather interesting, only to get to know their parent a bit later and suddenly think…… “ok, I get it now! A chip off the old block”. But while how we initially react might be partially genetically based, the skills we have to regulate that reactivity can be developed and taught, other-regulation, co-regulation….. self-regulation…so all is NEVER lost.

So other than biology, what role does parenting have to play in all of this? As a parent myself, you’ll never catch me parent blaming, I hope. The research seems to be telling us that parenting is about being ‘good enough’ for the child you have, never perfect, but just good enough. What do I mean by good enough for the child you have?

Well as parents and educators you will know well, that some children seem to be born ‘easy’. And I am speaking primarily about self-regulating here. You could pretty much give these children to a mother chimpanzee to raise and love, perhaps read them a few books every now and then… but essentially they will do just fine in any stable circumstances. I am lucky enough to live with one of these….. So good enough parenting or educating this kind of child is largely a pretty cruisy affair. And for that reason they can sometimes get ‘lost’ in early childhood settings and left to their own devices, which can be a shame….. but that’s a discussion for another day.

Then there are children who are born highly reactive, sensitive, a bit tetchy, a bit high maintenance. Parenting and educating these children is a 110% effort, all of the time, physical and mental challenge, push you to your limits, tough mudder, iron woman / man kind of affair. I am also lucky enough to have birthed one of these children….. I don’t want you thinking I have it all sweetness and light. But when I say I’m lucky, I’m not being sarcastic. Because what happens with these children, like anything that you have to work hard for, the rewards are huge and exponential when all of the work begins to pay off.

But let’s back track a bit. So we have these two extreme types of temperamental self-regulation in children – and there are hundreds of other types in between of course – but we also have different types of parents in combination with these children. And while children’s temperament and biology are important, the dynamic interplay between them and their caregiver’s behaviour has the most effect on how self-regulation skills develop. For example, if one of those tricky infants who are fussy from birth meets a parent who is low on social support, low on patience, perhaps vulnerable to depression, than this fussy infant might eventually get some pretty negative responses from this parent over time. These babies can be difficult-to-soothe, frustrating, and awkward to interact with. This baby will not get as many opportunities, through co-regulation experiences with their caregiver, to experience positive regulation, and practice the skills required for self-soothing over time. In fact in parents vulnerable to depression, these infants can make the mental health of their parents worse.

On the other hand, if this tricky infant is lucky enough to land with parents who are able to persist in co-regulation attempts, and provide the baby with lots of positive feedback, then the baby is more likely to begin to build up its self-regulation skills it can use to dampen down its own reactivity over time. These children might even start to look like those easy children on the outside, but those who know them well will understand they are still sensitive souls on the inside.

Being a positive, sensitive, persistent, and consistent parent or carer for children like this is hard yakka even for well supported and calm parents. And I would say that no one can do it well all day every day. So I would advocate for much empathy and support for all parents who report finding their child particularly tricky at times. I think starting with empathy and understanding can be a good place to start a conversation around this stuff with parents…. But more on that later.

Another important thing to remember about children’s self-regulation and how they display it, is that it will be different in the settings that early childhood professionals see them in, compared to at home with their parents. It is universally found, that educator and parent ratings of children’s self-regulation skills rarely match…… you may as well be looking at two different children when you look at the data. The reason for this is that the home and childcare or kindy are two very different contexts that demand different things from the self-regulatory systems of children.

Generally speaking, at home there is less demand for children’s self-regulation. They are part of a smaller group there where co-regulation with adults is usually more available, just because the adult to child ratio is more favourable. Often in early childhood, children can set their own play agendas at home and parents can be sensitive to their likes and dislikes and sensitivities, thus not pushing the boat out too far in terms of self-regulatory demands.

In childcare or kindy, children need to function as part of a group, they usually have to fit into a routine that may not be their own, the adult to child ratio is different, and there are probably less opportunities for co-regulation and much higher demand for independent self-regulation from children.

And this leads me to different parenting styles and how they can also mean that parent and educators see very different sides to children’s self-regulation skills. I will tell you a story I heard recently. Last year at a kindy at a parent teacher evening earlyish in the year, one of the mums complained that her son had never been naughty or in any trouble at all until he had come to kindy. Kindy had taught him to be naughty; it must have been the other children there! He had not been to any other early childhood settings in terms of care or anything.

This mother also happened to have a highly permissive parenting style. The boy was allowed to do what he wanted, when he wanted, his demands were always met.. pronto…. And thus he was never required to self-regulate at home. He rarely experienced disappointment, frustration, was never required to complete a task, do something he didn’t want to do etc. Parents like this might also present a preferred activity like an iPad or ice-cream at the first signs of the slightest upset. They might continue to pat or stay with their child until they are asleep right through early childhood and beyond. There are all sorts of ways in which children in this situation can miss out on opportunities to practice the shift from other-regulated to co-regulated to self-regulated. I think this was what was happening with this boy….. he had essentially remained co-regulated through this highly permissive parenting style and never had the opportunity or requirement to develop independent self-regulation skills.

Of course at kindy, the demands for self-regulation are quite high compared to this boy’s home life and this resulted in his behaviour being at odds with what the teacher needed, and his lack of self-regulation skills being really highlighted in that context. But totally bewildering to the mother who had never had any feedback from educators or carers about her child’s behaviour being a problem before. This certainly caused some tension between the kindy teacher and this mother over the course of the year…. And I’ll come to how we could approach this issue.

So that’s permissive parents, and there are lots of other styles out there too that interact with children’s temperament in different ways. Remember there is no perfect parenting, and no perfect children, only a good enough parenting fit for the child you have.

So now, let’s talk about how early childhood professionals can positively engage parents in this vital area of self-regulation development for children.

First, I think we need to get the self-regulation language in higher rotation and make it part of our regular work, our curriculums, our pedagogies, the way we write and the way we speak. Unfortunately, because self-regulation issues come out in children as emotional or behavioural difficulties they can feel a little bit personal for parents when bought up by educators or carers. You wouldn’t imagine the same kind of angst over a discussion of numeracy or literacy….. but I think if we can make self-regulation known to be a developmental skill that can be coached, just like literacy, then we can take the personal element out of it. We are not talking about temperamental or personality deficiencies here. We are simply talking about yet another skill area that all children are working through at different rates across early childhood.

What if learning stories in children’s portfolios always incorporated something about self-regulation? We might start to desensitise parents around this stuff. We could document how children paid attention, used problem-solving in a social situation, used a particular strategy to calm themselves when upset.

Even with very young children we can talk about the co-regulation strategies that you and the children use in times of upset. When you think about a very young child who still needs co-regulation when emotionally upset….. if that child comes to a caregiver for support, rather than withdrawing or hitting out or something less positive, than this child is actually showing they are on their way to self-regulating. They are actively seeking you the carer to support them and that is a regulation strategy which should be celebrated.

We also need to have age and developmentally appropriate expectations around this stuff. It is not age appropriate to have toddlers sitting still for long periods of time, and when they can’t they aren’t dysregulated… they are just two years old. However, when they do start to attend for longer periods with a bit of coaching and co-regulation… then this is something to celebrate and point out in learning stories and parent discussion.

Remember that nothing can bridge other-regulated to self-regulation except for co-regulation. Infants and some toddlers will need physical help to be soothed, put to sleep etc. You could ask parents how they handle it if their child is upset or stressed at home, and this might give you an idea of what level of co-regulation is happening in the home. If you suspect children aren’t getting co-regulation experiences at home you might need to offer more of this in the centre. You could also document these strategies, particularly if they worked, and discuss them with parents who might get ideas for home. It might be that you are still co-regulating much older children if they haven’t had these experiences before. This takes time and effort and can be exhausting but should pay off in the longer term. This is one of the reasons we do not want to see a roll back of adult to child ratios in early childhood care settings.

Also if children are hungry, tired, stressed, or traumatised, lower or erase your expectations for self-regulation. Their system is caught up with other issues and until and unless you can address those things that are taxing their system, it will be very difficult to coach self-regulation.

I think we also need to contextualise why we are concerned with these behaviours and skills and make our discussions specific. So rather than, general comments about a child being disruptive and having trouble with self-control, we can be more specific. For example, we could discuss that we are working on paying attention for longer periods of time during group time because this is an important skill at this age and will be expected by teachers at school. Perhaps talk about the group as a whole and mention that many children find it difficult, others are ok with it and comment to parents about specific goals you are working on with their children in relation to self-regulation. Having group goals clear also takes the personal out of it and means that parents may feel less singled out.

As I commented before, starting with empathy for parents is always important. But remember that the children you find tricky might have parents who don’t find them difficult to manage at all as the story demonstrated.

It might also be that your easiest most self-regulated children at your centre wreaks havoc at home. It is always disconcerting for a parent when they comment to an educator that they had a rough morning or night with behaviour and the educator gives them a bewildered look and comments that they can’t imagine that as little Beth is always such a delight at the centre. What’s usually happening here is that little Beth has made some smart decisions to use all of her self-regulation skills that you and her parents have worked hard to develop during the day, but her little system is exhausted and has had enough of self-regulating by the time she gets home.

So she lets it all hang out in the place where she knows people will love her unconditionally anyway. This is very common in young children, especially those trickier ones, but actually they are making the right decisions about where to use their self-regulatory energy. The implication when an educator says ‘oh no, not perfect little Beth really?’ is that it must be the parent and something they are or are not doing. When actually clearly that parent has probably worked quite hard to develop those self-regulation skills you are seeing in the centre, and we should be grateful…. But they pay the price at home.

Be very aware of parents who appear depressed or report a history of depression, particularly matched with a tricky kid. Try to give extra support and understanding and perhaps linking in with other local services if possible. It might be that you have these other services come in and offer parent workshops or information. You might offer parent tip sheets or night time information sessions on sleep and diet with are really foundational for children self-regulation. You might also offer ideas and resources for parental self-care and social support networking to help boost parents’ psychological resources and energy to continue to persist with their efforts.

And finally of course, remember to care for yourselves and each other as early childhood professionals, and as parents. This is difficult work, but so worthwhile. Children will come to your care in various stages of other-regulated, co-regulated or self-regulated. You are in an important position to assess where they are at developmentally and work with them from there. As well as to try and engage with parents and bring them along with the ride too. Just like a good enough parent, you won’t be able to be at 100% capacity all day every day. You are only human after all…..and you should never hesitate to seek some co-regulation from your colleagues, friends, or family when needed. The little and big successes you have along the way will have huge and long-lasting ramifications for the life stories of the children you work with.


Early Childhood Self-Regulation Through Music

Here’s a short piece I wrote with the amazing kindy teacher and early childhood music specialist Sue Lewin, who happened to teach my daughter last year. As a Registered Music Therapist in a past life, Sue and I had a fabulous year discussing how music could be such a great tool to support children’s development in general, but in particular their self-regulation……

Early childhood self-regulation support through music

Kate E Williams and Susan Lewin

A critical dimension of early learning competence in the years prior to school is self-regulation. Self-regulation enables individuals to manage their emotions and direct their attention, thinking, and actions to meet adaptive goals. These skills enhance young children’s readiness to learn. 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. Poorer self-regulation skills are associated with problems relating to peers (Blandon, Calkins, & Keane, 2010), poorer 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 primer 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 comprise the extent to which individuals react strongly to emotion-inducing events and are then able to return to a state of equilibrium. Children who find it challenging to be distracted or settle once they have become angry or upset are still learning to emotionally self-regulate. Attentional regulation skills refer to the ways in which children can persist with a task even if 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’ part of the human self-regulatory system. Specifically, they are cognitive processes that serve to control an individual’s behavior and cognition:- they 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 the ability to effortfully 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. We have all met the child who finds this a challenge. 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 hold these in their head as they go about performing the tasks 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 below).

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 (2011) compared a group of 3-4-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 / 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 hospitalized 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).


Ideas for music activities to support self-regulation


Kodaly (a well known Hungarian musicologist and founder of a complete school of teaching philosophy) believed that starting singing with babies was best done as early as possible. When asked ‘How early?’ he famously replied ‘Nine months before the birth of the baby’s mother’.

Newborns are completely other-regulated. That is, they are completely reliant on adults to soothe them. Children must then experience co-regulation with a caregiver before they can become self-regulated. When the parent or carer sings gently and rocks the baby it soothes and calms and assists the baby to learn strategies to calm and regulate him/herself.

Der Galumph

Freddy our green frog puppet ‘tells’ the children he is very nervous about them tossing him on a parachute. We use the song ‘Der Galumph to gently and slowly toss Freddy to the first part of the music in the minor key (der galumph went the little green frog one day…). In the second part of the song, in the major key, (we all know frogs go…) we toss him more quickly but still gently. The skill is in the listening to the two very different moods of the parts of the song and the children restraining themselves (inhibition) from moving the parachute quickly until the second half.

Backwards Open Shut Them

Most people know open, shut them, open, shut them, give a little clap. But can children do the reverse action to the words they are singing? That is, can they shut their hands while they sing ‘open’ and open them when they sign ‘shut them’? This is quite tricky and requires children to inhibit the natural and usually ‘correct’ response, then use their working memory to reverse the information and display the opposite action, while avoiding distraction and ‘giving up’ (attentional regulation) and trying not to get too frustrated with the demands of the task (emotional regulation). What a tricky game!

Music and Movement for Brain-Body Connection

Many of the activities known to improve the executive functions in children have in common a coordinated movement element – dance, martial arts, yoga. Music activities with a dance or action component are likely to improve brain-body neural connections in children which will support their self-regulation development. Examples are Heads, Shoulders, Knees, Toes, Hokey Pokey, and there are lots of many others. A simple activity where you sing “Everybody do this, do this, do this” and model a range of actions (like patting knees) that include crossing the midline (opposite hand to opposite knee) and different patterns of movement (e.g. heads, shoulders, knees) will also support these connections.


So what are non musicians to do in the face of the overwhelming positives related to developing self regulation through music activities? Our suggestion would be to be purposeful and mindful about why and how you are using music in your teaching practice. Kodaly believed choosing good quality music for children was as important as choosing good quality food. ‘For the very young, only the best is good enough.’ Active music participation provides an invaluable context in which you can observe children’s self-regulatory skills and support them to develop new ones. What are the components of self-regulation that you are supporting in the musical activities you are already doing? There is bound to be plenty. Happy musicking.


Blandon, A. Y., Calkins, S. D., & Keane, S. P. (2010). Predicting emotional and social competence during early childhood from toddler risk and maternal behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 22(1), 119-119-132.

Brown, E. D., & Sax, K. L. (2013). Arts enrichment and preschool emotions for low-income children at risk. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 337-346.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

Malloch, S., Shoemark, H., Črnčec, R., Newnham, C., Paul, C., Prior, M., . . . Burnham, D. (2012). Music therapy with hospitalized infants—The art and science of communicative musicality. Infant Mental Health Journal, 33(4), 386-399.

McClelland, M. M., Ponitz, C. C., Messersmith, E. E., & Tominey, S. (2010). Self-regulation: Integration of cognition and emotion. In W. F. Overton & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), The handbook of life-span development, Vol 1: Cognition, biology, and methods. (pp. 509-553). Hoboken, NJ US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Nicholson, J.M, Lucas, N., Berthelsen, D., & Wake, M. (2012). Socioeconomic inequality profiles in physical and developmental health from 0-7 years: Australian national study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66(1), 81-87.

Pasiali, V. (2012). Supporting parent-child interactions: Music therapy as an intervention for promoting mutually responsive orientation. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(3), 303-334.

Sanson, A., Letcher, P., Smart, D., Prior, M., Toumbourou, J. W., & Oberklaid, F. (2009). Associations between early childhood temperament clusters and later psychosocial adjustment. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: Journal of Developmental Psychology, 55(1), 26-54.

Williams, K.E. (2014). Pathways to self-regulation from birth to age seven: Associations with parenting, and social, emotional and behavioural outcomes for children. (PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology).

Williams, K. E., Berthelsen, D., Nicholson, J. M., Walker, S., & Abad, V. (2012). The effectiveness of a short-term group music therapy intervention for parents who have a child with a disability. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(1), 23-44.

Winsler, A., Ducenne, L., & Koury, A. (2011). Singing one’s way to self-regulation: The role of early music and movement curricula and private speech. Early Education and Development, 22(2), 274-304.


Not another researcher telling us how to parent and teach!!!

Well no, I wouldn’t presume to…. But yes, I will make a strong case for parenting and educational research and its role for all of us no matter how far removed from said ‘research’ we might feel.

How do we know how to parent in a way that isn’t going to completely ruin the little tacker and allows us to maintain some sense of mental health as parents? Oh the longing for a guide book that covers every child and every parent in every situation. Well that is never going to happen. So what do we do?

Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants is one option which many of us use on a regular basis I’m sure.  Tit bits of advice and information from family and friends subjected to trial and error until you find something that fits with your family is another way (and actually you are doing parenting research of your own there…. gotcha!) “I go my own way, I know what’s best for my family” is another approach. Yet another one is “by the book”…. but which book? I guess one that speaks to you. These are all incredibly valid ways of learning on The Job.

In fact, undertaken in an environment where your partner, family and friends are waiting in the wings to congratulate you, or pick up the pieces, or offer up the next morsel of advice to be trialled…. these probably work pretty well. Put these together with strong parental mental health, a child who is on a pretty average developmental path, and availability of some sort of group of peers (parent-child group, daycare, kindy or school) where any really troubling developmental concerns will become obvious, and we’re on a winner. Add a parent who is willing and able to seek additional professional advice if things go really astray, or they have concerns for their child and hey….. I’m out of a job. Let’s forget parenting research. Let’s forget the professions assigned to supporting parents and families, we’re doing just fine thank you very much!

The only trouble is, we’re not all doing just fine…..parents and children alike. And certainly no one is doing just fine every hour of every single day… are we?

Many parents do not have any of these things that make taking on The Job and trusting in learning along the way a real possibility. I spent many years working with parents who had not ever experienced a role model of parenting that was effective. They weren’t parented with respect and care themselves, were often socially isolated, lacking in confidence to discuss issues with others, reluctant or unable to access professional advice, and literally flying as blind as you can imagine. It’s hard to imagine actually.

When these families do access services how do the professionals charged with supporting these families share knowledge? Which knowledge? Do we gather up the crumbs and memories of what worked for us as parents and offer them up with a ‘good luck mate’?

Would you have your GP offer up a drug to cure your child that she had cooked up in her kitchen and tried on her nephew to no ill effect so let’s “give it a burl”. No, we expect our medical treatments to have been through rigorous ‘research’ and therefore our doctors deliver them, and we accept them, with due confidence…. even though they don’t work in every instance (more on that later).

Like doctors, parenting support professionals and teachers also deserve this kind of confidence to share knowledge and advice. They need a strong evidence base of what does and doesn’t work for child and parental wellbeing. For this reason, if not for many, many others, this is why we need research. High quality, rigorous and oft-replicated research.

have provided us with the knowledge that having books in the home and reading to children are some of the strongest predictors of positive educational outcomes for children. So here is some advice that we now give and seem to accept without question…. if there’s nothing else you do with your young child, read to them. How wonderful to have earned that faith through years of countless and careful research studies. Let’s keep working hard and funding research that earns us more of that confidence and faith in what we’re all doing to grow happy and healthy children.

Here’s another one for you… look after the mental health of woman as future mothers or current mothers, as it really, really matters to child wellbeing and development. More on that another time.

Now you could argue that many research findings such as these simply reflect ‘common sense’. Sure, perhaps. But some are also surprising. And when was the last time you heard of health, family support or educational policy developed from the basis of ‘common sense’? What about additional funding for reform provided on the basis of ‘common sense’? Unlikely. What speaks is numbers, and that means stats, and that means research.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that research evidence holds all of the answers for every parent, every teacher, and every child. In fact for every research finding that I myself make I can think of at least one child just in my modest circle of family and friends to which this developmental ‘truth’ doesn’t seem to quite fit.

A great statistician once said that statistical models will only ever be an approximation of ‘the truth’ and should never be sold or lauded as ‘the truth’. I couldn’t agree more. But we have to start somewhere right? By starting with advice to parents and teachers that is derived from high quality, large sample research we will be best poised to positively effect the development of most children in many circumstances. But never all children in all circumstances.

So next time you read about child development or parenting research restrain the eye roll and critically consider what it might be contributing to our society even when it does not speak to you personally.  Heck, I don’t even go on holiday these days without researching hotel reviews and checking security warnings. Why would I tackle The Job without at least some research up my sleeve?

We might be doing pretty well with our own parenting using the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants model with a dash of instinct, but do we want teachers working from that place too? Surely not. Do we expect all members of society, even the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged to rely on trial and error? I don’t think so. Sometimes the cost of the error is just too great.


Introducing me…. the early childhood researcher

I am a really avid reader – of almost anything of quality, but particularly of opinions and research around early childhood development, education and parenting. Not to mention music therapy and related areas given my first careers as music teacher and then music therapist. Yet, other than the hefty tomes of my Masters and PhD theses (read by a select few for which I have great gratitude), and a few journal papers….. I haven’t really put anything out there in the truly public domain. Is this fair that I greedily consume, consume, consume the writing of others with never a hint of reciprocation? I’m not sure, but it does feel as though now might be the right time to flirt with some less academic writing. Welcome to my blog.

Not that there isn’t enough out there already on education, early childhood and parenting.  It feels as though there haven’t been many editions of our national weekend newspaper recently without a child care or education headline on the front cover…. but then I do have a target fixation on these kinds of pieces. Not only because of my professional interest of over 10 years but my role as half of a team currently parenting a 5- and a 7-year-old.

And rightly so should these topics be front and centre given the steep and dramatic cliff of development that soars through the first eight or so years of life. Aaah, the pressure. The pressure to ‘get it right’. Not just as parents but as a society. And a society that also of course must spend due time and effort grappling with other critical contemporary issues – the environment, globalisation etc.

For my part, I’m beginning to carve out a small piece of the puzzle that is early human development. I plan to dive into it, wallow in it, stretch it about a bit and dance a long and invigorating dance with it. It is SELF-REGULATION.

What is self-regulation? I was once asked this by a fellow academic and replied “the root of all evil and the genesis of all good”…. to which she guffawed, but I was only half joking.

Self-regulation is the ability (or not) that each of us have to control our own emotions, thoughts and behaviours in such a way as to be able to learn, function, relate, love and live optimally. When we are born we are almost completely other-regulated, as opposed to self-regulated. We need to be fed, soothed, and rocked to sleep by another. But then as very young infants we begin to look away from faces or objects of interest when we are tired or becoming over-stimulated. This change of gaze direction is one of our first self-regulatory behaviours. Soon we might thumb suck or stroke a soothing object like  a ruggy or favourite toy – again we are self-regulating.

Toddlers – well they are really grappling with this issue. You only have to witness a full-blown toddler tantrum to know what the opposite of self-regulating (or dysregulation) looks like.

But then you can see it in adulthood as well of course. The gambler, the short-fused, the quick-to-succumb to emotional outbursts, the incredibly intelligent family member who just can’t stick with any one course or job long enough to become skilled. And the opposite – what about the musician who might not have stood out as a ‘natural talent’ but just focussed and worked so bloody hard that they shone?

This is my area and one I’m passionate about. We know so much already including how self-regulation skills develop rapidly and crucially in the early years and about how important they are for lifelong success, and I mean success in the broadest sense. Most of this research has been undertaken in America or Europe and it is my vision to develop an Australian understanding of self-regulation and to bring together the sometimes disparate paradigms of self-regulation research into a more useful real-world understanding of the phenomenon.

Most importantly, it is my intent to engage with the children, educators and parents of today and the future, in dialogue and practice that supports self-regulatory functioning. There’s no one  ‘cure’ for all of our societal, parenting and developmental woes of course, that would be too easy and frankly boring. But I reckon that I, along with a generation of astounding international researchers and practitioners that have come before me,….. I reckon we might be on to something here.