Self-Regulation: Just as Important as Learning Your ABCs and 123s

Most adults think the focus should be on academic skills, such as counting or knowing the letters of the alphabet. However, it is just as important to teach children to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behavior.
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Co-written with Vinaya Rajan, Ph.D

One of our wonderful postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Vinaya Rajan, wrote this piece with us. And with school about to start....

During story time, Emily had trouble paying attention to the teacher and squirmed and wiggled in her seat. She noticed a blue jay sitting on a nearby tree branch and spent most of her time looking out the window. During a group activity, Emily spoke out of turn many times and barely allowed the other children in her group a chance to share their work with the class. Later in the day, when her teacher asked all the students to help clean up after art class, Emily put away some of the painting supplies but then quickly moved on to play with a puzzle and never finished cleaning the rest of her work station. When the teacher asked Emily to stop playing with the puzzle, she immediately started crying and fell to the floor in frustration. Emily's story is one that many kindergarten teachers (and parents!) across the country can certainly relate to.

When it comes to success in the school environment, what are the important skills children need to master? Most adults think the focus should be on academic skills, such as counting or knowing the letters of the alphabet. However, it is just as important to teach children to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behavior. Self-regulation is an important skill for children to develop. Kids with good self-regulation can pay attention to classroom activities and ignore distractions, remember the teacher's directions long enough to carry out a task and resist impulses. All of these skills may give them an advantage to succeed in school. In fact, kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as one of the most important skills for school readiness. Unfortunately, these teachers also report that many of their students struggle with low levels of self-regulation once they enter school. The more kids a teacher has like Emily, the harder it is to manage.

Self-regulation comes in different forms. Emotional self-regulation is important for helping children manage how they express and experience emotions. In Emily's example, the problems she experiences managing her frustration may make it hard for her to concentrate on school-related activities. The next time Emily is placed in a frustrating situation, it may be useful to teach her how to walk away and cool down rather than having an emotional outburst. Behavioral self-regulation helps children demonstrate control over their actions. Simple games, like Simon Says, have been shown to help children control their impulses. Behavioral self-regulation will help Emily learn to resist the desire to shout out the answer to a problem when it is someone else's turn to speak. Cognitive self-regulation helps children follow rules and plan out the appropriate response (such as listening during story time). For some kids, school may be the first time they practice these skills and learn to regulate themselves.

When do these self-regulation skills develop? It starts in infancy when babies learn to self-soothe. Something scary happens and 12-month-old Lilah pops two fingers into her mouth. Parents help their kids develop self-regulation by explaining why they have to wait for something or why they have to take turns. During the preschool years children make remarkable gains in self-regulation. In fact, high levels of self-regulation in preschool predict kindergarten reading and math achievement. This association of self-regulation and positive academic outcomes continues into the elementary and middle school years. In fact, these skills may be even more important than measures of general intelligence. Teaching children how to regulate their own behaviors may be just as important as teaching academic skills. A child like Emily could use some help but all is not lost. Researchers have found that self-regulation skills can develop with practice and can be taught in the classroom.

Take a second and think about how these skills relate to your own life. Are you able to resist distractions while at work? Can you exert control and inhibit the impulse to reach for that triple layer chocolate cake since you are trying to cut back on sweets? Can you skip an immediate reward (such as heading out to a dinner party) in order to stay in and study so you can eventually earn an A by the end of the semester? Just from these few examples, it is easy to see that how regulating your thoughts, emotions and behaviors is crucial for success in school, work and life in general.

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