Self-Regulation in the classroom


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. calm alert learningAccording 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

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.

organizedAuditory 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 sock drawerhigh 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.

thinking cap

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.”


Lazy Kid Syndrome?

Lazy Kid Syndrome?

Probably not…

In general, children want to please. They want to make us happy and be rewarded with praise and attention. It is a basic human need that we all experience.

What many parents and teachers see as a lazy child is usually a distracted or confused child. Kids with Executive Functions disorder are often mistaken as lazy. These are kids that are seen as intelligent by parents and teachers but are often mislabelled as lazy or lacking motivation. They simply do not have the skills necessary to complete the expectations independently. Executive Functions includes regulation of goals, organization, flexibility, planning, prioritizing and reflection.

 Individuals with Executive Functioning deficits will experience problems in the following areas:

  • Getting started on their work

  • Seeing work through to completion

  • Writing essays or reportsPost-Frustrated-Boy

  • Working math problems

  • Being punctual

  • Controlling emotions

  • Completing long-term assignments

  • Planning for the future

Although Executive Functions Disorder can be a challenging learning disability, depending on the severity, it is manageable. Many strategies and accommodations can be put in place to assist kids with the scaffolding necessary to get them through a task, transition or social situation.

Parents and teachers can both take advantage of and teach strategies that help with organization of space, time and materials. A couple of excellent books that is a wealth of ideas and further resources for teachers are:




 Some useful strategies include:

  • Breaking tasks (assignments or chores) into steps, with a written plan for completing assignments. Provide directions written and orally

  • Use of agenda, calendar or daily planner to help organize special dates, assignments, classes, etc. Create a visual calendar to help with time management. Sometimes a month-at-a-glance calendar is more visual and helps with longer-term time management.

  • Use of watch or cell phone alarm for reminders. Use of visual timers if necessary

  • Provide transitional time between activities or tasks. This could just include a brief, “heads up…we are going to be leaving for recess in 5…” or, “I’m going to ask you to clean up your stuff in 5 minutes and then we are going to get ready to go.”

  • Use of “to do” lists and checklists. There are great apps for this purpose.

  • Create a working area at home that is organized and free of clutter and distractions. Regularly schedule times to reorganize this area.

  • Ensure there is good communication between home and school to prevent any missed assignments, papers to be signed, etc.

The most important advice I would give as both a teacher and a mother (of a child with executive function deficits) is to keep it organized and consistent. A good role model is important. Those with executive function deficits have little internal organization. Learning how to organize their world will help to make them more successful. Knowing where to find things, when to be somewhere and what to expect will reduce the amount of meltdowns associated with poor emotional regulation.

Ideally, all this hard work will pay off. Children learn quickly that these little things are necessary for their own success and eventually adopt the strategies that help them the most.

Some great websites on Executive Functions include: