Combining language and self-regulation for lifelong outcomes

Issue: Volume 100, Number 2

Posted: 25 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAHFo

A four-year nationwide study aims to measure the impact of supporting enriched oral literacy and self-regulation in early learning settings.

combining language and self-regulationsA nationwide study named Kia Tīmata Pai (To Begin Well), funded by the Wright Family Foundation, kicked off at the beginning of 2021 and involves trialling and assessing interventions at approximately 140 randomly selected BestStart early learning centres around Aotearoa.

A coalition of academics including Professor Richie Poulton, director of the Dunedin Study, along with early childhood education practitioners, has been developing the four-year research project for the past year.

The academics from Auckland, Otago and Victoria Universities make up Emotional Regulation Aotearoa New Zealand (ERANZ), along with Dunedin-based Methodist Mission Southern (MMS) and BestStart early learning centres, says Clair Edgeler, Pou Whakahaere Mātauranga (National Education Leader) for BestStart.

Coalition of partners

“It’s a coalition of partners who are deeply interested

and invested in the idea that self-regulation has a

significant impact on life outcomes. They have a shared commitment to looking at things that we have come to understand in terms of oral language and the skills of self-regulation that can enhance a child’s emotional regulation,” says Clair.

“A lot is also known about the importance of oral language in early childhood education. We know that self-regulation is key to better adult outcomes. Furthermore, we know that these skills can be taught. We’re setting out to measure the effects of supporting both oral language and self-regulation together on a very large scale, and in real-world settings,” she says.

A broad range of assessment tools will be used, including behaviour tools, video, physical measures and qualitative feedback from parents and teachers.

Kaiako and chook

World-leading research

Good self-regulation means having a flexible range of emotional and behavioural responses that are well-matched to the demands of any environment.

It’s hoped the research will deliver a confident answer to the question of the best way to support children’s oral language and self-regulation development in early childhood settings.

“Researchers right now are really interested in the relationship between oral literacy and self-regulation,” says Clair.

“We think developing those oral language and self-regulation skills are strongly related, but until now, it hasn’t been done in the same way where you are putting those two interventions together and looking at whether oral language potentiates self-regulation.

“There’s never been a high-quality study that attempts to strengthen both oral language and self-regulation in this age group. This will include kaiako and children with a broad age range – 1600 children at 140 centres over four or five years, potentially longer. That’s what makes it world-leading,” she says.

Getting started

Getting startedTo ensure the research meets the ‘gold standard’, and results in real-world impacts, research design has included kaiako from BestStart centres who are part of an expert group providing feedback about the assessment tools being used, along with professional learning and development (PLD).

“A lot of our teachers are looking at the areas of self-regulation and supporting children’s social learning and their ability to regulate. We’re going out and checking with a number of centres so that when we do take it out further, it will hit the sweet spot with teachers and families,” explains Clair.

The randomly chosen centres will be put into four research groups: one group will trial ENRICH, a language enrichment programme; one group will trial ENGAGE(external link), a play-based self-regulation programme; one group will trial ENGAGE and ENRICH together; and there will be a control group where there will be no intervention.

“The idea is to find out whether those two programmes together enhance both oral language and self-regulation outcomes. MMS’s data analyst, Dr Matt Healey, will work with the researchers,” says Clair.

“If children have a good ability to communicate, understand and articulate their own emotions, make decisions and have that emotional control – it stands to reason that will have an impact. But that’s what we are going to find out.”


ENRICH, developed by psychologist Professor Elaine Reese (University of Otago) and MMS aims to enhance rich interactions that support quality communication between teachers and toddlers to improve their oral language.

“We’re looking at the Serve-and-Return-type interaction. It’s seeking to understand the effect of these interventions from the age of 18 months, which is considered a particularly rapid period for oral language development. There will be an advanced version of ENRICH [ENRICH+] that’s designed around supporting oral language for three- to five-year-olds,” explains Clair.


The Methodist Mission Southern (MMS) is currently implementing the ENGAGE self-regulation initiative with children aged 3 to 7 in early learning centres and primary schools in Auckland. The programme was initially developed by Associate Professor Dione Healey (University of Otago), who continues to be involved in the initiative.

ENGAGE develops children’s self-regulation skills through games grouped into three domains: emotional (feeling), cognitive (thinking) and behavioural (doing).

Research trials with a range of whānau and early learning participants show that the initiative has demonstrated statistically significant improvements in children’s self-regulation skills, including reduced hyperactivity, aggression and peer problems, and improved attention, effortful control and emotional regulation – with gains maintained for extended periods post-intervention.

“Teachers will play games which are designed to be fun and aimed at developing children’s thinking, decision making and recognition of their emotions. What I love about them is they are games that a lot of teachers know already, but it’s really targeting within the games the teaching strategies that support children’s emotional regulation,” says Clair.

Engage / Enrich

Nationwide PLD

Jimmy McLauchlan from MMS heads up the ENGAGE project and, along with a team of facilitators, works closely with the University of Otago on ENGAGE and ENRICH. This team will help facilitate the PLD for kaiako around Aotearoa.

Clair says a small group of BestStart practice leaders will facilitate PLD among staff nationwide during the four year project.

“We’ve really had to look at how we make sure that all our teachers are able to know, understand and take forward the learning around those interventions and we can do that by supporting them well in PLD,” she says.

What’s next?

Clair says BestStart eventually hopes to share the research with the wider education community in New Zealand. While there could be opportunities to take the research further, a key goal is to create tools and a shared kete of knowledge that has a positive impact in the real world.

“We want to be able to look at what tools have been created and how they could be shared to enhance all of our understanding and how that kete of knowledge could be impactful in the sector for teachers in supporting children’s learning and development,” she says.

“We hope to roll out the programme to all our centres. If the research is successful, this information could inform ECE curricula in New Zealand and around the world. This could create positive change for generations, as well as ground-breaking changes in the way we teach.”


   Clair Edgler is excited about the four-year research project into the relationship between oral literacy and emotional regulation.

  Clair Edgler is excited about the four-year research project into the relationship between oral literacy and emotional regulation.

The Dunedin Study

Professor Richie Poulton is director of the Dunedin Study(external link), which involves a cohort of children born in 1972-73 and has been described as the most comprehensive long-term study of human behaviour in the world.

Oral literacy and self-regulation have been identified as key skills that help build positive relationships, good mental health and life choices. Children exposed to high levels of stress, deprivation and trauma in the early years of life typically underperform in these critical self-regulation skills; however, these children also benefit the most from effective, play-based interventions.

“The Dunedin Study learnt about the importance of self-regulation,” explains Clair. “The more skilled we are in self-regulation in general, the better the life outcomes. There were correlations for self-regulation across a whole lot of life outcomes.

“We are using what we’ve learned to go further and explore how can we support children to gain those skills in the real world by applying specific interventions to have a positive impact.”

Resources to support oral language and social and emotional learningSocial and emotional learning

He Māpuna te Tamaiti is a new resource(external link) aimed at supporting kaiako in early learning services to develop children’s social and emotional competence, engagement, and learning. It is available on Te Whāriki Online. You can read more in Education Gazette Issue 4, 2020(external link).

Talking Together, To Kōrerorero: a new online tool(external link) that supports kaiako to grow and connect their knowledge base of oral language with effective teaching practices. The resource supports the implementation of Te Whāriki so that all children experience a language-rich environment where they develop verbal communication skills for a range of purposes. It is available on Te Whāriki Online. Read more in Education Gazette Issue 18, 2020, Talking Together, Te Kōrerorero(external link).

The Incredible Years Teacher programme(external link) helps teachers and kaiako to better support children with behavioural challenges and create a positive learning environment for children aged 3–8 years. Read more about this initiative on TKI.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:42 AM, 25 February 2021

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