Stop, Think, and Act: Scaffolding Executive Function and Self-Regulation Skills During Large-Group Time

By Shannon Lockhart

Does your large-group time look like this, and all you want to do is scream?

Illustrations by Heather Sky Fulton (Evans, 2007)

If so, you are not alone! Large-group time causes anxiety for many preschool teachers. What if the children don’t listen or pay attention, goof off, run around, or — even worse — start pushing and shoving the child next to them?

Children can also feel anxious about large-group time. Some children need active engagement and attention and want to feel a sense of control, while others are not comfortable being in large groups and have a hard time transitioning to and participating in large-group activities. It’s no wonder that many teachers end up losing their own self-regulation skills by the time large-group time is over!

Why Is Large-Group Time Important?

You may wonder if large-group time is even worth the effort, but it is. When teachers and children gather for large-group time, they are building a sense of community, encouraging all involved to be members of a group sharing in common experiences. In addition, large-group time provides opportunities for children to take on child-size leadership roles and share their ideas and understanding of being in a larger group by hearing others and trying out different ideas.

For children to be successful with these shared experiences, they need to develop skills that assist them in participating in whole-group activities. Among the primary skills children need to engage successfully in large-group times are executive function and self-regulation, which help them pay attention, listen to others, understand instructions, share ideas, sit with others in a whole group, and participate in group discussions.

What’s Executive Function and Self-Regulation?

Executive function refers to a group of skills that helps us manage multiple streams of information, focus on the information that’s important to us at that time, make decisions in light of that information, and revise plans as needed (Center on the Developing Child, 2011; Epstein, 2012). The components of executive function include working memory (the ability to hold specific pieces of information in our minds and use them over short periods of time), inhibitory control (the skill we use to filter our thoughts and impulses so we can resist temptation and distractions, enabling us to pause and think before we respond or act), and mental flexibility (the ability to switch gears and adjust to changed demands, priorities, or perspectives). Self-regulation comprises these components of executive function.

According to experts, self-regulation is the “conscious control of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions”; it is the “ability to stop, think, then act” (McClelland & Tominey, 2016, p. 4). Self-regulation processes play an important role in how children learn to regulate behaviors. Both intentional and automatic processes contribute to children’s responses and, when these systems are in balance, children respond appropriately (Center on the Developing Child, 2016). For example, an automatic self-regulation would be when an infant cries to get her needs met. An intentional self-regulation would be when a child chooses to pay attention to what the teacher is saying rather than talking to another child. As children grow and learn to self-regulate their behaviors, they become intentional in their thinking, reactions, and interactions. The word to emphasize here is intentional; that is, they develop the ability to consciously regulate their responses to outside stimuli.

How Do Young Children Develop These Skills?

As children participate in consistent routines, engage in positive interactions with others, and increase in language abilities, they increase their self-regulation and executive function skills (Williford, Vick Whittaker, Vitiello, & Downer, 2013). Through thoughtfully planned large-group time activities, children can develop their executive function and self-regulation skills by learning to stop, think, and then act on their ideas and their peers’ ideas.

Let’s take, for example, a child at large-group time who is listening to instructions on how to listen to the music and move her body to fast and slow music. She then participates in this activity by sharing her ideas and following others. This child is listening and paying attention (intentional self-regulation) instead of interacting with other children or disengaging; interpreting and following instructions in light of past experiences (working memory); and stopping her actions and following another child’s actions (inhibitory control and mental flexibility). By developing these skills at large-group time, she’ll be able to carry these skills to other parts of the daily routine.

Children learn and develop executive function and self-regulation skills gradually, in the same way they develop many other skills. Preschool teachers, in turn, can support this development by first using foundational strategies during large-group times and then adding in more complex strategies that further develop children’s executive function and self-regulation skills.

The Nuts and Bolts: Foundational Strategies for Large-Group Times

The following are fundamental large-group-time strategies teachers can use to encourage children’s active involvement and help them connect their movements to the music, song, fingerplay, story, or activity.

  • Participate on children’s physical level. You might, for example, observe a child moving on her belly on the floor and say to the group, “Keena says she is crawling through the jungle like a snake; I’m going to move like a snake with her” and then get down on your belly and follow the child’s lead.
  • Copy and imitate children’s movements. Copy and imitate movements of several children. For example, if a child is jumping up and down, you can jump up and down too. Then copy other children’s movements.
  • Acknowledge and label children’s movements. Describe a child’s movements by saying something like “Jayden, you are swaying your body from side to side.”
  • Ask for children’s ideas and clarify their actions. You might ask, “Ada, how do you want to move?” If Ada responds by twirling and then jumping, say “Tell me what you call that movement.” If Ada responds, “Circle jump!” acknowledge her response by saying “Ada is calling her movement circle jump!”
  • Listen to and respect ideas from children even if an idea is repeated. If a child suggests a movement that’s already been done, acknowledge and repeat the movement. Children get ideas from other children, so repeating movements and other ideas helps to increase each child’s understanding.
  • Let children choose to be leaders or followers. Some children like to be leaders and others do not; respect each child’s individual engagement skills.
  • Connect children’s movements to aspects of the music, song, fingerplay, or story. You might say, for example, “Your body is moving really fast — this part of the song has a fast beat.”
  • Choose a material for children to use and move to music. Suggested ideas for materials include instruments, fabric (for scarves), plastic lids and rhythm sticks, shakers, a parachute (or a flat sheet that can be used as a parachute), and Slinkys.
  • Model self-talk. Self-talk helps children talk themselves through situations throughout the day. This skill develops outwardly and then becomes internal speech. As you participate in large-group time, model self-talk by describing what you are doing (e.g., “I’m going to move like a bear”; “I’m listening to Jennel for the next instruction”; “I’m going to put my scarf in the bucket and then jump to wash my hands now that large-group is over”).

Adding to Your Strategy Repertoire: Improving Children’s Working Memory and Mental Flexibility

Adding a change or new challenge to a well-known large-group activity helps children develop their mental flexibility (the ability to stop, think, and then act). As children learn and repeat songs, movements, and other large-group activities, they may start to get bored (teachers become bored as well!). This is when teachers tend to lose children’s interests and attention, which can result in children’s impulsive behavior — the opposite of what we want to build in intentional self-regulation. To avoid this, once you’ve had lots of experiences using the strategies listed above and children are familiar with your classroom’s large-group activities, you can build in changes to the activities.

The following strategies are simple ways you can begin to support children’s working memory and mental flexibility and give them choice during large-group activities.

  • Change the pitch, volume, or speed (tempo) of a song. When singing a familiar song during large-group time, sing with a high pitch and then with a low pitch (or a soft voice and then a loud voice). Ask children how a song might sound if they sang it with a “mouse voice,” a “monster voice,” or a “sleepy” voice, and ask children to offer their ideas for how they want to sing. Sing a song very slowly, and then repeat it, singing it a little faster each time. Encourage children to join in.
  • Add new words or actions. Create a new version of a favorite song by changing key words or actions. For example, change the words of “wheels on the bus” to “wheels on the bike.” Ask children to name other vehicles to sing about. Or, instead of singing “Old MacDonald had a farm,” sing “Old MacDonald had a jungle” or “Old MacDonald had a zoo.” Again, ask children for their ideas.
  • Plan activities that require children to stop, think, and then act.
    • Play simple games such as Mother may I or Simon says. For the game of musical chairs, have children choose different movements each time the music begins and change up the length of time between each stop. (Be sure there are plenty of chairs [even extra ones] to avoid conflicts.)
    • Have children “freeze” their bodies in different ways when the music stops. Tell the children that they’ll be listening to a song that starts and stops and then starts and stops again. Ask the children to choose how to move their body and then to select another position when the music stops. Have the children move for about 15 seconds and then say “Freeze.” Repeat this a few times and then try it with the music. Once the music starts again, they can move again. After children have repeated this activity several times, give them chances to be the leader.
    • Have children move their bodies differently to different refrains in the music. Choose music that has only two to three different refrains. Help children recognize different refrains in the music by listening to the song and pointing out each refrain. Then have children think of two to three movements and decide what movement they will do for each refrain. After children have had lots of experience with this activity, ask two to three children to choose a movement for each of the refrains. Write their ideas on chart paper/whiteboard and then play the music and follow the sequence of movements that children have given for the refrains.
    • Have children move their bodies to specific instrument. Tell the children that they’re going to listen to a song that has an instrument called a _____ (add the applicable instrument). Ask the children to listen to the song to see if they can hear the instrument. After you stop the song, ask them to think of a movement to do when they hear that instrument. Acknowledge children’s ideas, imitate their movements, and then try it with the music. After children have repeated this activity several times, give them opportunities to lead.

Building On: Scaffolding Children’s Mental Flexibility

This last set of strategies asks children to do the opposite. To do the opposite of what they’ve typically done, children first need to stop their bodies, think through the music and their reactions, and then act accordingly. These skills are vital to children’s social-emotional learning and conflict resolution so that they’re able to stop hurtful actions, think through the problem, and then act on a solution. Children must have lots of experiences in participating in these activities the correct way before you ask them to do the opposite way.

  • Do the opposite movement. After children have had lots of experience of practicing moving their bodies in different ways to loud music and then soft music, ask them to do the opposite. Have them move their bodies to the loud music the way they would to soft music and vice versa. You can also do this with fast and slow music.
  • Freeze when the music plays. After children have had lots of experience moving when the music plays and “freezing” when it stops, ask them to freeze when they hear the music and move their bodies when the music stops.

The above strategies for large-group times are ways teachers can build in choice for children along with scaffolding their executive function and self-regulation skills. Through thoughtful planning, large-group times will change from a time of high anxiety to enjoyable intentional engagement. As our fears lessen, so will children’s and then children — and teachers —  can more fully enjoy this part of the day together.


Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s “air traffic control” system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function (Working Paper No. 11). Retrieved from

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2016). Building core capabilities for life: The science behind the skills adults need to succeed in parenting and in the workplace. Retrieved from

Epstein, A. S. (2012). Creative arts. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope Press.

Evans, B. (2007). “I know what’s next!” Preschool transitions without tears or turmoil. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope Press.

McClelland, M. M., & Tominey, S. (2016). Stop, think, act: Integrating self-regulation in the early childhood classroom. New York: Routledge.

Williford, A. P., Vick Whittaker, J. E., Vitiello, V. E., & Downer, J. T. (2013). Children’s engagement in preschool and the development of self-regulation. Retrieved from


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