Self-regulation needs a goal

David Streight
Resident Scholar, Heart of Character

I spent some time at a school last spring where a team of teachers had spent three full days with a consultant. Their focus was how to counteract the debilitating effects of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) like divorce, neglect, abuse, and family members’ drug use or incarceration. The more ACEs one encounters, the more debilitating are the resulting social, emotional, and academic effects.

The goal in this case was student self-regulation. The consultant leading the group stressed the importance of getting dysregulated kids to calm down before trying to proceed academically or socially with them. Good point, I completely agree.

What the consultant seemed to miss was the chasm between “regulating” children and fostering children’s self-regulation: the difference between “give a man a fish” and “teach a man to fish.” The first requires skill on the part of the educator. The second requires teaching valuable skills to children, and giving them a chance to practice.

Nor did the consultant seem to be aware of all of self-regulation’s three components. Self-regulation only becomes an issue when we are supposed to be doing something (component 1), but would rather do something else (component 2); or maybe we can’t help but do something else. Virtually all definitions of self-regulation make note of component 3, however: the importance of a goal. If the biggest thing on my mind—my goal—is getting out of my last period class and avoiding the fight that Bluto and his friends have “scheduled” for me right after school, but the teacher’s “goal” for that day to to have us master the distinction between direct and indirect object pronouns, my lack of cooperation with the teacher’s agenda could not really be called a lack of self-regulation. I have a goal that takes precedence.

Most definitions mention the importance of a self-selected goal, rather than just a goal. It stands to reason: under what conditions is a student more likely to keep focus, even under distracting circumstances:
• when he has chosen the goal, or when someone else has?
• when she has a certain amount of interest in the goal the teacher has selected, or when she finds the teacher’s goal completely boring?
• when the day’s lesson was planned by a teacher he really likes, or by a teacher he can’t stand?
• when she realized her skills are growing by doing this assignment, or when the point of the assignment seems completely useless?

The fact is that students are disposed to attempt regulating their attention and efforts—to self-regulate—to the extent
• that they feel a certain amount of autonomy in the selection of the goal
• that they feel a positive connection to the person who has chosen the goal
• that they see the goal as enhancing their personal sense of competence

The self-regulation problem is not completely solved by the selection of a meaningful goal, it’s just that the key elements of self-determination theory are essential in smoothing the path. Good self-regulation entails a few emotional and executive function skills, too, which kids either have already or they need more help learning. I’ll address what seem to be the six most significant of these skills in my next post, and explain the roles they play in helping students stay on track with goal-focused behavior.

Categories: self-determination