The early childhood education (ECE) setting plays a significant role in successfully preparing children for the transition to formal schooling. It is now well known that successful school transitions require strong self-regulation;1,2 which generally refers to the capability of controlling one’s cognitive focus (thoughts), emotions (feelings), and behaviour (actions). Without good self-regulation children struggle to focus and engage with learning material at school. This is evidenced by numerous study findings indicating that self‐regulation predicts academic achievement3–8. Poor self-regulation in early childhood has also been linked to later unemployment, criminality, poverty, and mental and physical health difficulties9.
Early childhood settings are an opportune environment for teaching self-regulation as many young children are enrolled in at least some form of early childhood care, providing the opportunity for population-based approaches. ECE settings are generally heavily play-based and focused on child-directed learning. Children learn self-regulation through play. For example, many games involve turn-taking, remembering rules, focusing on what others are doing to keep up with the game, plan their next move, and manage frustration when things are not going well in the game. Hence, play is an ideal forum in which to teach self-regulation.
Several studies have examined game-based approaches to skill development within the preschool setting. For example, Tominey and McCleland10 have developed a programme focused on improving preschoolers’ executive functioning, a core component of self-regulation. Their programme is called Red Light, Purple Light (RLPL) and involves 6 different circle time games played twice a week over eight weeks, in groups of five to eight children. The games increase in complexity over time and focus on improving attention, working memory and inhibitory control. Several studies have trialled this intervention and found that it leads to more improvements in the targeted skills (ie., attention, working memory, and inhibitory control) and academic achievement when compared control conditions involving the early education curriculum as usual10,11,12. Keown, Franke & Triggs13 conduced a randomized controlled trial of RLPL with similar results to those of the studies mentioned prior; but this study also measured changes in more general self-regulatory abilities within the classroom to indicate generalisability of skills. Results indicated no statistical differences between the RLPL and control groups in generalisable self-regulatory skills, as measured by teacher ratings on the Child Behaviour Rating Scale. It is possible that the interventions narrow focus on six games and three core skills limits generalisability. This is in line with the findings from computer-game based interventions for training working memory (e.g., Cogmed14) which have led to improvement in the targeted skills but these improvements have not transferred outside of the practiced tasks15
To broaden the intervention focuses through a more wholistic approach to self-regulation, and improve generalisability of treatment effects, Healey and colleagues16,17 developed a play-based intervention aimed at fostering the development of self-regulation in pre-schoolers; namely ENGAGE (Enhancing Neurobehavioural gains with the Aid of Games and Exercise). The programme focuses on skill building by identifying areas of development, selecting games that utilise the target skills, and then systematically playing the games at increasingly challenging levels. Games are focused on the three areas of self-regulation (emotional regulation, cognitive regulation, and behavioural regulation; see Table 1 for examples of games within each domain). For instance, puzzles require planning and focused attention. For children who struggle to complete puzzles, the first stage may be complete a simple puzzle over a few days, teaching the children how to approach puzzles. They might find the 4 corner pieces in the first session, then the remaining edge pieces in the second session, then fill in the middle over subsequent sessions so that after 4 or 5 days the puzzle is complete. The next week the aim would be to complete a puzzle over fewer sessions, then in one session, then to complete more complex puzzles. The focus of the intervention is on structure, consistency, repetition, scaffolding and building complexity. Any games can be used within this programme – the focus is on teaching skills through play, not on being required to play any specific games. ENGAGE does include an array of examples of games that target specific skill areas, along with ways in which to make each game simpler and more complex in order to meet the children’s skill areas. The intention is to pitch the game at a level that is slightly challenging for the child but not too difficult, in order to maintain enthusiasm and engagement and to incrementally build skills over time.
ENGAGE has been successful in improving self-regulatory abilities of hyperactive pre-schoolers when administered in a home-based setting. Here, parents played games with their children for half an hour a day over an 8-week period. An initial open trial of the intervention showed that regular, targeted, incremental game-play lead to significant reductions in hyperactivity (behavioural regulation), aggression (emotional regulation) and attention problems (cognitive regulation) following the 8-week intervention16 A randomised controlled trial comparing ENGAGE to the well-known parenting behavioural management training programme, Triple P (Positive Parenting Programme) also indicated that it led to significant reductions in hyperactivity, aggression and attention problems as rated by parents and teachers. There were no significant differences in treatment effects for ENGAGE and Triple P indicating that while they address self-regulation skill development very differently, both result in similar improvements in self-regulation. The study also found that there were no significant improvements in self-regulation during an 8-week waitlist period, suggesting improvements were the result of the interventions17.
Given its effectiveness within the home setting, and the fact that the ECE environment is likely to capture the largest sample of the population, the aim of this study was to explore whether ENGAGE could be successfully implemented in a group setting with all children within an ECE, and whether it would lead to improvements in self-regulatory abilities in these children.