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‘Agency’ and ‘limits’ are needed to promote self-regulation and creativity in children




By Michael Hawton

4th June, 2018

By Michael Hawton, MAPS

As The National Quality Standards continue to drive excellency in the early education settings, I have noticed two words being increasingly used around promoting self-regulation and creativeness in children – agency and limits.

Agency is being used as a description for how educators should assist children to explore, try hard and persevere. Educators know that children not only have to develop age-appropriate competencies, but also, they need to develop resilience and to keep trying when they come across problems. Limits are what educators use to to guide their thinking about when children need to practise restraint skills, which need to be developed over the different stages of childhood. Children need structure and they need adults around them who can help them to know limits. “It’s not ok to slap your friend, because you feel angry.”

What’s become apparent from the research in this area is that children who can manage their own limits (i.e., children who can self-regulate) end up being more creative over time. We might intuitively think that children don’t become creative if they’re ‘limited’ but in fact the opposite is true. The children who live in environments that are warm and firm are more likely to be truly creative according to Stokes, P.D (2005) in his book,Creativity from Constraints, NY, Springer.  This is also true in the parenting of children. There needs to be a mixture of the appropriate teaching and encouragement of behaviour. We should use liberal encouragement to reinforce wanted behaviour, but there is a place for setting limits so that children can learn about the boundaries to their behaviour.

As kids mature and reach later childhood, we may need to pay special attention to limiting children’s screen usage, for two reasons; first, too much use of social media is being associated with unhappiness in older children and teenagers and, second, screen usage stops a very important part of our brain from being activated.

In a landmark piece of research, it’s been found that young people’s Facebook use is leading to greater unhappiness  https://www.smh.com.au/technology/you-are-not-alone-facebook-use-linked-with-unhappiness-20130815-2rydp.html

What too much unlimited screen time does is inhibit the activation of a recently discovered network in our brains – a network of parts that needs radical downtime. Creativity can be significantly reduced in children by the overuse of smart phones as the focus required to be on a device doesn’t activate a part of their mind, called the Default Mode Network. This is a network of brain parts, responsible for being truly creative! The Default Mode Network’s function is to process the past and the future. It gets activated when we’re daydreaming, reflecting or going off to sleep. It gets interfered with, when we’re  too connected to our devices. The Default Mode Network is responsible for:

  • Storing information in permanent locations.

  • Gaining perspective.

  • Processing complicated ideas.

  • Helping us to be truly creative.

If you want to read some more about how the Default Mode Network operates - and how adults can help it to be activated in children - have a look at this book on pages 19-20. The Self driven child by Stixrud, W & Johnson, N (2018)

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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