The Essential Skills of Self-Regulation

In my previous blogpost I noted key components of self-regulation, emphasizing one component ubiquitous in self-regulation definitions: the importance of a goal—more specifically, the importance of a self-selected goal. There’s not much motivation to pull out of a funk, or to calm down from a fit of anger, if there’s nothing to achieve. Nor is there much motivation if what we “need” to achieve is someone else’s goal for us. Self-selected goals mean autonomy, of course; the more autonomously selected the goal, the more motivation there is to achieve it. The link between autonomy support and the development of self-regulation is thus clear.

Self-regulation itself, however, belongs largely to the realm of competence, to the realm of having the skills to meet the challenges of life. Maintaining optimal regulation—gearing ourselves up when a situation needs our energy, or dialing ourselves down when we know things are getting out of hand—is a challenge that can be crippling if it is not mastered. Let’s look at the six skills most often identified in the self-regulation literature:

1) Control of Attention

This is where having a self-selected goal is most important. The more intrinsic the goal, the more intrinsically motivated one is to keep the “eye on the prize.” We all have many things that require our attention, not all of which are chosen by us. It takes practice, some strategizing, and some occasional hard work to hold attention. I’m not sure attention can be controlled one hundred percent, but there are strategies for building the skill, and practice does help.

2) Control of Impulses

While attention-control implies that we have time to veer off course and still pull ourselves back, impulse control is, by definition, a matter of right now. Given the current theory on impulsivity—that it may be a biological issue to some extent—control of impulses may be more of a struggle for some students than others. Nevertheless, Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiments have shown that even young children can develop strategies and use skills to control impulses.

3) Working Memory

Classrooms have rules and expectations that are different from playground rules or rules at home. The “skill” of working memory involves keeping one’s eye on the goal, but also having other important factors at one’s disposal. Working memory keeps track of the setting (this is the classroom, not the playground), the time limit, the steps in which things need to be completed (I need the answer to part one before I can go on to part two) and—specific to self-regulation—past beneficial and ineffective behaviors: “when I blew up last time and the ref kicked me out of the game, we lost the game and my teammates were mad at me.”

4) Planning, Organizing, Sequencing

Planning is an executive skill, and includes the subskills of prioritizing and sequencing. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare (authors of Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, and Coaching Students with Executive Skills Deficits) refer to planning as the roadmap: the goal is our “destination,” but to reach it we need a mental map for where we’re going first, what we’ll do after that, and perhaps even how much time we’ll need for each segment of the journey. If the goal is getting the kitchen clean, mopping the floor is best done after the dishes are washed; and mopping is more effective if it follows sweeping. If one has only a certain amount of time before mom gets home, it’s best to begin with the task she’s most likely to notice, just in case that’s all the farther we get.

5) Self-Monitoring of Performance

Self-monitoring overlaps with many of the skills above. It requires the ability to keep the goal in mind (working memory does this), but also to stop at intervals (control of impulses) long enough to estimate where one is, how successful one is being, and what still remains ahead (sequencing, planning). Despite all those, self-monitoring is a different skill, requiring experience in looking back and looking forward, estimating what percentages of tasks are completed, and what still remains.

6) Mental Flexibility

This sixth skill on the list refers to the ability to switch easily from one task to another, or from one area of thought to another. When the first strategy used hits a wall, when the best laid plans fail to work, do we give up, or try a new strategy? Those with mental flexibility plot a new route on their mental roadmap. Carol Dweck’s concept of process praise (praising the effort or the strategy, including praising a child’s willingness to switch from one strategy to another) is recommended precisely because it fosters both persistence and mental flexibility. A growth mindset says that “just because what I tried did not work, that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. Let me see if I can think of a different way.”

The list above is largely indebted the many authors who contributed to R.H. Hoyle’s Personality and Self-Regulation, and  includes the contributions, also, of authors contributing to Brian Sokol’s Autonomy and Self-Regulation, to Leah Kuyper’s Zones of Regulation, and to the important writings of Barry Zimmerman.