Attention and regulation are building blocks for social and emotional development, cognition and school readiness.

Attention is described as achieving and maintaining an alert state, and is crucial for learning, concentration and language development.

Self- regulation is also an important skill, essential for social-emotional development and early learning. Regulatory skills cover many different areas, but include our ability to manage all our different body systems such as breathing, and sleep and awake cycles, so that we can interact and respond to our environment and the people in it.

Attention and regulatory skills go hand-in-hand, and contribute to emotional responses, activity level, school readiness, and cognition.

Both attention and regulation are part of our executive functioning.  The executive functions are a complex collection of interrelated psychological processes involved in the management of action, and thought processes that contribute to cognitive performance, behaviour, emotional expression and social relations (Aylward, 2005). The development of executive function and self-regulatory skills continues to expand and mature throughout childhood, with progressions in the ability for planning, organisation and focused attention which facilitates success at school (Blair, 2000).

To attend we need to:

  • gain and maintain an alert state (regulate);
  • orientate to sensory stimuli;
  • engage our attention so that we can shift between, and maintain focus on ourselves, others, events, objects and tasks.

The ability to attend and focus re-shapes the brain. Where we direct our attention stimulates brain development and growth, making new neuronal (wiring) connections, creating memories, and promotes learning of new skills. Development of regulation and attention networks begins in early infancy but takes until early adulthood to fully mature.

Early regulation of arousal (i.e. sleep/awake states), and physical responses, is the starting point for attention. From birth, infants begin to register stressors, (i.e. maybe too much noise or light) and react in a way that supports or engages others to assist in helping them manage their environment. This in turn supports sleep/wake cycles, crying, digestion of food, alertness and the ability to orientate and attend to human and environmental stimuli.

Why does EiSMART have an Attention and Regulatory thread?

The Attention and Regulation thread addresses the fundamental requirement to understand the role of regulation and attention in the early and ongoing development of the child. 

Development of self-regulation and attention has many implications and consequences for the child’s future. How successful individuals are at influencing their attentional and regulatory processes can dictate their subsequent emotional health, academic achievement, language development and behavioural development.

Difficulties with regulation and attention accompany many challenges seen by therapists such as:

  • Difficulties with dealing with sensory stimuli – maybe being under or overly responsive;
  • Disturbances in sleep;
  • Difficulties with feeding;
  • Difficulties with mood regulation;
  • Anxiety or fearfulness.

Children born preterm are at higher risks for these difficulties.

How can parents apply the Attention and Regulatory thread, to support their high risk infants?

Regulation is the way we are able to regulate all of the systems in our body including breathing; temperature; how we respond to the environment and the people in it. This is something babies will be doing from the minute they are born.

In the early weeks and months of life, babies need help from their care givers as they adjust to their new world. With help, over time, babies will develop their own ability to regulate their responses to the world – such as crying, sleeping and maintaining an alert state.

Parents play a key role in their child’s development by promoting attention and regulatory skills. Learning how to read and interpret an infant’s behavioural cues will encourage parents to be attentive and tuned into their child’s needs. Parent-infant relationships are the environment that will help to regulate the infant in the first instance. The ability of parents to read their infant’s regulatory state, through their behavioural cues, will enable them to provide sensory and motor experiences that will help the infant to become regulated into a sleep state or an alert state, and support the infant to smoothly transition between states.


As a baby’s attention develops, it allows them to spend longer periods engaging in social interaction and play. When a baby is engaged in play, they are learning many new skills. Babies learn in the context of a relationship, so giving a baby or young child a phone or screen to play with is not felt to the beneficial to early development, and may in fact be harmful. Some studies show early exposure to screen time may be detrimental to attention and language development.

Some babies, including those who have spent time on the neonatal unit, may need extra help to develop their attention and regulation skills.


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