Preschoolers' self-regulation embodied in motor action : exploring high-volume data, conceptual clarity, and within-child variability
Children’s self-regulation is a foundational life skill and educators increasingly wish to support it. Self-regulation is an internal process that researchers cannot directly observe, though it manifests in observed behaviors. I argue that, in the preschool period, children’s motor activity is a primary window into their self-regulation. Training our attention on motor activity can improve our conceptual understanding of self-regulation and give researchers new ways to study it. My dissertation had three aims. The first was to explore the idea that children’s self-regulation is embodied in their motor action. I collected an intensive time series of preschoolers’ motor behavior, assessed objectively during regular school days. I extracted dimensions of movement amount, onset, intensity, and duration that could reflect internal regulatory processes of reactivity and control. Using machine learning approaches ideal for high-volume data, I found that children’s motor behaviors at school were strong predictors of teacher reports of children’s self-regulation but not meaningful predictors of children’s executive functions assessed via tasks. My second Aim was to understand how different measures capture different aspects of children’s self-regulation. Children’s self-regulation in everyday situations at school appeared distinct from children’s performance on executive function tasks. There was some evidence of differential predictive validity among these measures and partial support for the hypothesis that self-regulation underlies children’s school readiness, though it did not predict growth in pre-academic knowledge or behavioral adjustment over the school year. My third Aim was to use repeated observations of children’s motor activity to examine fluctuations in children’s self-regulation. I found substantial variability in children’s behavior across days and partial support for the hypothesis that children with greater self-regulation showed greater consistency in their behavior across days. Children showed a great deal of variability in their motor behavior across parts of the school day, adapting their behavior to expectations for that context. My findings underscore the embodied nature of self-regulation and how internal processes of reactivity versus control manifest in young children’s motor behavior. The methods open the door to more within-child studies, which could work toward identifying solutions or practices that help individual children regulate their behavior.