S is for Self-Regulation


S is for Self-RegulationBy Sarah McKibben

More often than not, patience pays off. In the May 2013 EL article, “Teaching Self-Regulation Has Long-Term Benefits,” Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller share interesting data on the “latent” effects of early childhood intervention programs. Although programs such as Head Start and HighScope have been shown to improve academic achievement among participants, the gains tend to fadeout over time. However, research shows that the participants rebounded again later in life (with higher graduation rates, less dependence on social welfare, and higher income earnings) because the programs helped them develop and sustain self-regulation skills.

As Goodwin and Miller emphasize, research suggests the need for “cognitive and social-emotional self-regulation skills in school” to help students appropriately interact with peers, learn how to problem solve, and succeed academically. And self-regulation skills in preschoolers have even been linked to their SAT scores.

The case for self-regulation isn’t a new one, but it has certainly gained new steam. Self-regulation is so crucial to students’ future academic success that the term is making its way into our mainstream lingo, moving well beyond the scope of education. Case in point: In a very purposeful attempt to teach young kids how to develop self-control and manage their behavior, PBS’s Sesame Street enlisted its beloved characters to model and teach self-regulation skills to viewers in its latest season.

In one of my favorite clips, “The Hungry Games: Catching Fur,” Cookieness Evereat (Cookie Monster) is stopped by a group of monkeys in the woods who won’t let him through until he figures out a hidden pattern in a nearby table of fruit. As he approaches the table, he instinctively shoves the fruit into his mouth, but his pal Finnicky reminds him to “stop and think” before he acts. Cookie spits out the fruit, sets it back on a plate, and soon solves the elusive “apple, banana, apple, banana” pattern.

In another clip, “The Waiting Game with Guy Smiley,” Cookie Monster finds himself at the center of the show’s own version of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, given the choice between eating one cookie immediately or waiting a few minutes to get two cookies. With the help of a little singing as a distraction, Cookie withstands the temptation to “eat cookie now” and ultimately gets his prize.

Although Sesame Street’s programming is geared toward toddlers and preschoolers (and some nostalgic adults), the skills it teaches are inarguably foundational. In this case, self-regulation is something that can be supported and taught from preK all the way through high school. In Self-Regulated Learning for Academic Success (ASCD, 2013), Carrie Germeroth and Crystal Day-Hess share instructional strategies that can guide students of all ages through the phases of self-regulated learning—forethought, performance, and self-reflection.

According to the authors, teachers can help build self-regulation skills by giving students feedback based on processes, not outcomes. For instance, in middle and high school, feedback should be constructed to help students monitor and make adjustments to their own learning strategies.

Germeroth and Day-Hess share additional feedback strategies in this month’s Education Update. As they suggest in their book, modeling appropriate self-regulation strategies—such as targeted feedback—can go a long way toward “creating supportive yet academically challenging learning environments” well beyond the “ideal window” of early childhood.