Self-regulation (the way which students’ independent thoughts, feelings and behaviors are utilized toward realizing goals) not only impacts students social/emotional well being, but their academic achievement as well. It is essential that this aspect of child development be fostered because it is only after students become able to self-regulate and control the outcome of their performance that successful academic independence will occur.
Fostering the development of self-regulation within students involves helping them to take responsibility and become actively involved in their learning process. Doing so allows for them to develop an understanding of the relationship between their progress and their process. The cognitive ability of children to self-regulate, and their tendency to do so, changes over time within the adolescent years. This is to be expected given that self-regulation largely relies upon interrelated cognitive and affective elements that are in a crucial stage of development from both a biological and social/emotional perspective. It is during this stage that students’ long-term attitudes toward learning and toward themselves are shaped.
It is expected and accepted that young children will have automatic affective (emotional) responses toward things that they like as well as things that are non-preferred, or uncomfortable. With youngsters, there is minimal self-awareness, or sense of personal control toward circumstances. That is acceptable during the early stages of life, but as children develop into young adults and are expected to begin to manage multiple facets of their life independently, it becomes essential for them to increase self-awareness and actively regulate their affective responses. This is not to say that children should not express their emotions. Rather, by developing awareness and understanding of their emotions as well as healthy responses to them, students become able to take the risks necessary to progress socially, emotionally and academically. If development is asynchronous, or if for some reason student development in these areas is thrown off track then challenging issues can arise. Young adulthood is a fragile time, especially if there are special needs present, but with a caring and thoughtful approach, all students can be guided to a path of confident and gratifying learning.
Essential components of self-regulation include locus of control and motivation. Locus of control describes a person’s belief that there are factors that control the events and outcomes that occur in their life. Depending on circumstances, this individual belief can range from an internal locus of control (I determine the outcome of situations) to an external locus of control (My situation is determined by factors that are beyond my control). Student’s perception of control is directly related to their academic achievement and their motivation is impacted by whether or not they recognize a causal relationship between their behavior and the result of that behavior. Research has been conducted to investigate student’s perception of the cause of their success or failure at different grade levels. Within this research, a significant positive relationship between student perceived control and achievement was found. Interestingly, this was found to be the case more so with fifth grade students than with sixth grade students. This is perhaps because by the time students are in sixth grade; they have become more aware that intrinsic factors impact their learning. Sadly, at this stage, many students most often express a desire to change a behavior not to improve their progress or learning but instead in response to a fear of failure or appearing incapable.
It seems logical that as students mature, they become more aware of their ability to self-regulate. However, although students may become aware of self-regulation strategies during their developmental years, they often do not recognize the correlation between the impact of their use on their progress. In addition, although they may be aware of these strategies, student’s belief in themselves, and the way in which their attitudes toward learning have been shaped over time may leave them increasingly less inclined to utilize them. Additional research has demonstrated that in seventh grade, students were less apt to use regulatory strategies in spite of their awareness of them, and that there were more frequent displays of behavioral challenges when compared to their younger peers. Decreased interest in content and the perception that it was not valuable to their future were also increasingly apparent. These results are highly consistent with reports by developmental researchers, which show that students often will exhibit declines in their self-directedness and intrinsic desire to engage in learning during the early middle school years. This decline may be due to the fact that students are not equipped with the skills necessary to reflect upon their progress and adjust their learning strategies, and thus, may not feel as though they are in control of their learning process.
As students progress through their upper elementary and middle school years and become more aware of the impact of their own actions, the importance of self-efficacy enters the equation. Students may know what is expected of them and they may, in fact, have the knowledge and skills necessary to meet those expectations. However, if they do not believe that they are able, or they have an obstacle in the way, they will not be motivated to try. This is a critical juncture at which we often start to see students described with comments such as “not working to potential” or even, “lazy”. Other displays include avoidant behavior that can appear as fooling around, or even straight defiance. What is unfortunate is that these frequently misconstrued actions change the focus from the students as learners to the students as underachievers or disruptions. In response, teachers and parents often unknowingly bypass the root of the behavior and transition into a “Power” role that directly impacts student’s perception of their potential as a self-directed learner. In turn, the student’s motivation to utilize self-regulatory behaviors in order attempt to make progress can decline or cease all together.
In situations where this turns into a pattern of events, the trajectory for the child’s positive self-perception and successful academic progress can be drastically impacted. For that reason, it is essential that educators take the time to investigate underachievement and challenging behavior as their looks may be deceiving. The appearance of underachievement and challenging behavior is a sign that there is a discrepancy between what the child is being asked to do and what they are able to do. When we see that sign, it is the responsibility of the adult to consider what needs are not being met. Sometimes issues are as simple as a child not understanding directions, or feeling bored, while other issues can be more complex such as lacking self-efficacy or inaccurate self-perception, a problem at home or with friends, an avoidance of writing due to dysgraphia, or what we often see with our students, a masked learning disability, or stealth dyslexia.
Creating a safe place and line of communication where these issues can be uncovered is highly important. Further, explicit expectations, clear feedback, meaningful and relevant work and scaffolding of skills are essential so that students can take small risks and establish their confidence without feeling the need to escape through incompletion or acting out. In order for students to establish motivation toward self-regulation, they must have a belief that they are able and that there is a causal relationship between their behavior and their performance. If control, efficacy, interest and purpose are not present, students will not be motivated to engage themselves. This is particularly true for populations of students who are not interested in external praise or reward.