Self-regulation. What is it? Why is it important for student success? What is needed in order to support the development of self-regulatory skills within oneself?
Self-regulation is defined as regulation of the self, by the self. It monitors conditions to maintain optimal arousal for a given task. A lack of the regulatory forces that govern our organization and behaviour can have detrimental effects on a child’s academic and socio-emotional success.
There are a broad range of mental and physical problems that are not caused by difficulties with self-regulation, but are often accompanied by it. Self-regulatory skills are typically not seen in isolation. According to Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Calm, Alert and Learning, there is a high comorbidity for self-regulatory deficits to occur with Autism, ADHD and high anxiety, to name a few.
It is critical to accommodate students with complex profiles because these children are at greater risk. Teachers can help improve self-regulation in students by modelling and scaffolding good self-awareness and self-regulatory skills, by making their environment more conducive to self-regulating behaviours and by providing a stable and predictable routine.
Like motivation, self-regulation is not always automatic or internalized by individuals, particularly young children or those with Executive functioning disorders. For a student who lacks internal motivation we may provide stickers or a token economy to externally motivate, with hopes that these are only part of the scaffolding that will eventually lead them to become internally motivated. It is the modelling and scaffolding that is the structure of this support.
For students lacking self-regulation skills, we can use externally organized environments, routines and strategies to assist them in finding their own self-awareness…, self-monitoring… and ultimately… self-regulation.
Mindfulness or self-monitoring of arousal level is paramount in determining if there needs to be up- or down-regulation in order to match the task with the appropriate state of arousal. Students need to be aware of their arousal level before they are able to regulate it. Adults can facilitate the process externally until the awareness and regulation is internalized. Child-friendly strategies like use of meditation and purposeful, calming movement are a few ways for a child to attain mindfulness.
A person’s environment is a very important aspect of their education. Everyone benefits from purposeful changes in the physical setup of a classroom. Children who are easily overwhelmed by auditory or visual stimuli, benefit from a environmental makeover in the classroom to provide external help with self-regulation.
The third teacher, the environment, should be utilized to assist students in regulating themselves.
Addressing the arousal level of the students through use of a calming environment, such as that expressed by the teachings of Reggio Emilia, is essential in order to provide students with different strategies to up or down regulate themselves. This approach involves a calm atmosphere, interaction with the environment, communication with others, and self-constructed learning.
The Reggio Emilia teachings provide an ideal environment to foster self-awareness and monitoring.
Research in this area finds that children concentrate better with a reduced number of visual distractors. Use of fidget toys, neutral colours around the room and secluded areas for breaks are some examples that one may consider to support the development of self-regulation skills.
Auditory stimuli are by far the most powerful of all distractors. Strategies that can be employed to help decrease anxiety and provide predictability include… chimes instead of bells, use of visual timers, and the use of songs, drum beats or other soothing sounds to signal transitions within the classroom.
Visual supports such as schedules provide students with predictability within their classroom environment. Once students have an established schedule that they are comfortable in following, they are aware of what is next in their routine. This predictability in routine allows children to up- or down-regulate in preparation for upcoming activity. This strategy fosters a sense of self-awareness.
When the external organization system is strong, the strategies will be transferred and generalized to high school, post-secondary education and beyond to the work place. For students to be properly regulated for learning, our goal as educators is to reduce the demands on the sensory system. This includes satisfying the needs for certain types of sensory stimulation while helping to avoid others. Optimal self-regulation is achieved when one is calm and focused.
Given the current realities of the significant increase in student needs in our schools, it is imperative that parents, staff and community partners learn, model and teach self-regulatory behaviours in order to improve the success of all children. Dr. Stuart Shanker states, “the better we understand self-regulation, the better we can implement educational strategies that enhance
students’ capacity to learn and develop the skills necessary to deal with life’s challenges.”