How do children learn most effectively?

If we focus on what children do best we can take the strengths of human behaviour and with knowledge of theory and practice help children become confident life long learners. Research shows that children can take responsibility for their own learning in a way not thought possible 10 years ago.

Encouraging children to be independent learners means knowing much more about how children learn rather than what they learn. Children who become able to take control of their own learning – even in the early years – become much more successful in later life – self-regulated learners become the high achievers. It’s not what you know – it’s how much in control of your own learning you are.

As children develop further they become aware of how they learn and can control their own learning in a more conscious way. This is called meta-cognition – a sort of thinking about thinking. To understand more about self-regulating in this way there are some psychological principles that we need to know about because they are the bedrock that self-regulation needs to thrive.

The first essential is emotional security and warmth. This starts at birth as secure attachments with close carers begin to develop and give the child a safe base from which to explore. Warm secure attachments come from the quality and consistency of early relationships. The first type of self-regulation the baby learns to develop is emotional regulation. As the baby’s brain develops the neuron pathways that fire most become strengthened and others gradually wither away. As adults support babies to regulate their emotions the brain develops in a way that will let the child become self-regulating as these pathways in the brain become well used. The importance of warm and supportive attachment relationships continues when children start nursery or school – attachments to key people lead to children feeling free to be themselves and play and explore from a safe base.

Warm secure attachments come from the quality and consistency of early relationships


Babies are motivated by several key concepts. It is thought that they have a number of innate drives: One is the need to have some control over what happens to them. When they learn that what they do has an effect on what happens in their lives they’re motivated to do things to make things happen.

They’re also motivated by challenge and will strive to find interesting things to stimulate their developing brains. Babies are also born with an explanatory drive, making us highly motivated to be curious and notice patterns in the world and search for explanations. They learn best when they are trying to make sense of things or do something that’s almost too difficult for them. (Vygotsky)  This is often helped, by having just enough adult support – what Bruner called scaffolding. Knowing when to sensitively withdraw the support leads to independence.

Perseverance and keeping on trying are components of becoming self-regulated and this motivation is essential if children are to learn how to learn.

Social learning

Human beings are social creatures and are adapted to learn in social contexts. As Vygotsky emphasised most learning occurs through socialising so having good communication and social skills is important for self-regulated learning.

As time goes on being able to speak about their own thoughts becomes important to children in developing the ability to regulate how they learn for themselves. Speaking thoughts out loud as children talk themselves about how they are doing things gradually leads on to internal thought processes. Early on this is not conscious but gradually children can be encouraged to be explicit about their own learning.

So children’s self-regulatory development is very much enhanced where there is:-

  • Emotional warmth & security & feelings of control
  • Appropriate levels of cognitive challenge
  • Lots of opportunity and encouragement to speak and reflect on their own learning

Given these basics, babies are highly motivated to learn. Babies live in the moment and don’t worry about embarrassment. They don’t think it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies stretch themselves daily. They want to learn – it comes from within them selves. This high degree of motivation and a willingness not to give up but to persevere when things get difficult often seems to diminish, as children get older. What is it then that often puts a damper on the exuberant learning we see in babies?

What usually makes the difference is interactions with others as children are encouraged to push themselves and keep going. Children who don’t have this support often loose the motivation to succeed. Children need to be encouraged to keep trying at things and try different strategies so that they eventually succeed. They need to be helped and scaffolded by their close adults. Perseverance and keeping on trying are components of becoming self-regulated and this motivation is essential if children are to learn how to learn. They need to have some control and be able to make their own choices. Adults can encourage them to do this.

What children feel about them selves is the basis of the whole thing and knowing you can succeed if you keep persevering is key. They need to be involved and able to concentrate on what they’re choosing to do. The human brain takes a comparatively long time to develop, hence our long childhood. It needs time to develop the ability to think and learn effectively. The long childhood has an evolutionary purpose. Overall control of thinking – or meta-cognition – develops slowly in the frontal lobes of the brain. The connections here proliferate hugely during the second year and gradually over many years the connections become strengthened and others gradually fade away.

Play fulfils a lot of the conditions that are needed for children to become self-regulated learners


There’s more than one way that children learn but one of the things that give children choice and highly motivates them is play. The evidence that play is so significant for development and learning, is now overwhelming.

Play fulfils a lot of the conditions that are needed for children to become self-regulated learners.  It often encourages them to push themselves to the limit of their abilities – their proximal zone of development. They’re often highly motivated to reach their own goal. This is not a goal set out by adults but an intrinsic goal within themselves that makes them want to achieve something. It doesn’t rely on general praise from an adult, which can stunt self-regulated learning. They feel in control and can be highly involved either by themselves or with others. They can try and try again with different strategies and persevere without the feeling that they might be failing. The social side of play is motivating in itself and the important role of communication in learning is at the forefront as language is a prime tool for thinking. The self-regulated learning skills fostered while playing are transferred to other learning situations.

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How to join in

Adults scaffolding play need to be sensitive in judging when, if any, is a good time to join in with children’s play. They need to take the child’s lead, and trying to move the play on needs to be done carefully – the child really does need to stay highly motivated. Adult-led activities can be successful if they use a playful approach. Practitioners who do involve children in playful ways tend to be the most successful in terms of outcomes for children. This applies to teachers in reception class as a well as nursery aged children. When children are engaged in the classroom it means there will be much less ‘switching off’ – they will be involved and more self-regulated, more able to be in control of what they are learning. Self-regulation is not to do with following instructions and doing what you’re told – it’s about being able to learn to learn. And playful approaches can encourage it in powerful ways.

So for practitioners to encourage children to become ever more self-regulated there are many tactics that can help. A practitioner’s own behaviour and ways of doing things set an example and model for children to see in action. They can get things wrong and try new approaches while they talk about what they are doing and thinking. They can encourage children to talk about why they do things and how they think things are going. They can model approaches to tasks and make suggestions. They can provide ever more challenging situations in a playful way. Encouragement and praise is best given in a specific way as children get feedback on exactly what they did well that helped in the success of a task.

Written by Dr. Wendy McEvoy, Published in Early Years Educator