Research Lessons: Self-Regulation

Child jumping into a puddle

As adults, we self-regulate so often that it can become subconscious to us. Someone cuts us off in traffic? We count to ten to keep our cool and ensure our own safety. A friend cancels plans at the last minute? We try to take that friend’s perspective. But what happens when we assume children innately have the same capacities for self-regulation as adults? In a recent article(link opens in new tab/window), Harvard researchers Rebecca Bailey, Emily A. Meland, Gretchen Brion-Meisels, and Stephanie M. Jones highlight that neglecting to teach and foster self-regulation skills can lead to school-wide and structural inequities.

Self-Regulation, “No Excuses” Policies, and Children’s Futures

Bailey et al. (2019) explain that “no excuses” schools often adopt zero-tolerance attitudes towards misbehavior (e.g., losing focus on the teacher, disrupting a lesson) with good intentions; these schools aim to emphasize that nothing will get in the way of student achievement. Bailey et al. also point out, however, that “no excuses” approaches fail to address young children’s limited capacities for self-regulation. Negative effects of “no excuses” discipline models can include decreased self-respect in students, hampered student-teacher relationships, and disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions towards marginalized populations.

What Can We Do? 

So, what does child development research tell us to do instead of implementing “no excuses” approaches to discipline, both in school and at home? Bailey et al. shared these specific tips:

  • Explicitly teach self-regulation skills to young children. While children are not born with the self-regulation capacities of adults, they can learn effective self-regulation skills. At home, teaching your child to self-regulate can take many forms, including modeling your own self-regulation routine (e.g., taking a deep breath and/or going for a walk), as well as coaching your child through difficult moments. At school, teachers can foster self-regulation in students through research-based SEL (Social Emotional Learning) and Executive Function curricula, such as SMARTS.
  • Prioritize positive relationships. Instead of solely prioritizing power dynamics in adult-child relationships, invite children to voice their needs. Co-creating rules and boundaries can help children develop the communication skills they need to thrive at school and later as adults.
  • Shift to a positive discipline approach. School-wide discipline systems that clearly define and reward students for positive behavior, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)(link opens in new tab/window), have been repeatedly proven to decrease negative behaviors and increase student achievement. Parents can also implement aspects of PBIS at home by outlining what positive behavior looks like and acknowledging children’s positive choices.

We highly recommend educators and parents read Bailey et al.’s full article: Getting Developmental Science Back Into Schools: Can What We Know About Self-Regulation Help Change How We Think About “No Excuses”(link opens in new tab/window)!

  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development: