Self Regulation: A Key To Success In School And Life

Self Regulation: A Key To Success In School And Life


My last column discussed emotional self-regulation, the ability to control impulses and behave in a way appropriate to the circumstance. By developing this skill, children become more productive and socially competent. 

There is a cognitive aspect to self-regulation as well, which helps children overcome their reluctance to engage in challenging school activities. Again, children initially need lots of help from adults. They need encouragement to keep trying even when the activity is difficult or unappealing. 

As a simple example, many nursery school children do not like to participate at clean up time. The classroom is a mess, the task can seem overwhelming, maybe they are not used to cleaning up at home. They just don’t want to. Non-participation will not be a good thing. Other children will tattle on the non-cleaner, the teacher will not be pleased, and the child will get a reputation for not cooperating. By making small, reasonable requests at first, and acknowledging the value of the child’s help, the teacher can set him or her on a path to cooperation with clean up. The teacher also needs to explain, gently and often, why cleaning up is necessary, and why everyone has to be part of the process. Studies show that when children feel a request is reasonable and makes sense, they are more likely to acquiesce. Eventually clean up becomes part of the child’s daily routine and is done without constant prompts and praise. The child internalizes the notion that everyone has contributed to the state of the classroom and everyone has to clean up. He or she has taken another step on the road to citizenship. 

Doing homework, or working on writing one’s name is an example of self-regulation. The child may prefer to do something less rigorous, but has learned (or been told) that these tasks are necessary and in time will bring their own reward.

Delayed gratification is part of the self-regulation concept. The child learns to postpone what he would like to do until he has finished what he has to do. In a young child, that could mean not leaving the writing table to play with the trucks until he has written his name correctly. In elementary grades, it could be not watching TV until homework is done. In teen years, it might be foregoing a party to study for an all-important test the next day. Self-regulation is what helps a young adult say no to an experience he or she feels will be unproductive or even dangerous.

Adults are always helping children develop self-regulation skills by guiding, explaining, encouraging and celebrating their efforts. Kindergarten teachers consider self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness. When this crucial skill is internalized, the child is on the way to not only success in school, but later on in career and in life.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years experience in working with young children.