Self-Regulation and Academic Learning in Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Links to School Engagement and Levels of Autism Characteristics




Early childhood education plays a vital role in setting the foundation for a child’s lifelong learning journey. This is especially true for preschoolers diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). New research published in March 2024, titled “Self-Regulation and Academic Learning in Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Links to School Engagement and Levels of Autism Characteristics,” explores a crucial factor that can significantly impact the academic success of preschoolers with ASD: self-regulation.


Understanding Self-Regulation: The Building Blocks


Self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively. It encompasses a range of skills that are essential for learning in a classroom setting. The study focused on three key aspects of self-regulation:

  • Executive Function: This includes skills like planning, organizing, focusing attention, and controlling impulses. Imagine a child being able to map out the steps needed to complete a project, stay focused on the task at hand despite distractions, and resist the urge to blurt out an answer before it’s their turn. These are all aspects of strong executive function.
  • Effortful Control: This refers to the ability to maintain focus and resist distractions to complete a task. Think of a child who can stay on track while working on a worksheet despite interesting noises or movements happening around them.
  • Emotion Regulation: This involves managing emotions effectively and appropriately in different situations. For a preschooler with ASD, this might involve calming themselves down when feeling overwhelmed by a change in routine or expressing frustration in a constructive way.


The Link Between Self-Regulation and Academic Skills


The research delves into the relationship between these self-regulation skills and academic learning in preschoolers with ASD. The findings reveal some interesting connections:

  • Literacy and Emotion Regulation: The study found a significant association between emotion regulation and literacy learning. Preschoolers with ASD who demonstrated stronger emotion regulation skills were found to be more successful in acquiring literacy skills like reading and writing. This suggests that being able to manage their emotions allows them to focus better on learning tasks and retain information more effectively.
  • Math and Multiple Executive Functions: For math learning, the research suggests that multiple executive function skills play a crucial role. These skills include inhibitory control (resisting distractions), attentional control (focusing on relevant information), and working memory (holding information in mind to use it later). Imagine a child needing to remember multiple steps involved in solving a math problem while focusing on the teacher’s instructions and resisting the urge to look at a captivating butterfly outside the window. All these skills come together under the umbrella of executive function, and the study suggests that stronger executive function skills are linked to better progress in math learning for preschoolers with ASD.


Engagement Makes a World of Difference


The study goes beyond simply identifying the link between self-regulation and academic skills. It also explores the role of school engagement in this relationship. Interestingly, the research found that a child’s level of school engagement strengthens the association between emotion regulation and literacy learning. In other words, preschoolers with ASD who were more engaged in classroom activities benefited even more from strong emotion regulation skills in terms of their literacy development. This suggests that creating a stimulating and engaging learning environment can further support the positive impact of self-regulation on academic achievement.


Autism Characteristics Don’t Hinder the Bridge


The researchers also investigated whether the severity of autism characteristics influenced the relationship between self-regulation and academic learning. The findings suggest that the level of autism characteristics did not play a significant role in this connection. This is an important takeaway because it indicates that regardless of the severity of their ASD diagnosis, preschoolers can benefit from strong self-regulation skills for academic achievement.


Building the Bridge to Success: Strategies and Support


This research highlights the critical role of self-regulation, particularly emotion regulation, in the academic success of preschoolers with ASD. It also emphasizes the importance of fostering school engagement to promote literacy skills. Here are some ways educators and caregivers can support the development of self-regulation in preschoolers with ASD:

  • Create Predictable Routines: Provide clear schedules and structure to help children anticipate transitions and manage changes.
  • Break Down Tasks: Divide complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps to promote focus and completion.
  • Offer Visual Aids: Utilize visual schedules, pictures, and timers to support understanding and reduce anxiety.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Acknowledge and reward desired behaviors to encourage positive self-regulation strategies.
  • Social-Emotional Learning Activities: Integrate activities that teach children how to identify and manage their emotions in a healthy way.
  • Collaborative Learning Environments: Create opportunities for collaboration to foster social interaction and communication skills.


By incorporating these strategies and creating a supportive learning environment, educators and caregivers can support the academic journey of preschoolers on the autism spectrum.



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