The Importance of Self Regulation – Reflections by Our Director Dr. Lisa Reid

Elementary school age children

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.

Lessons From the Past: Reflections by Our Director Dr. Lisa Reid

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Albert Einstein

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“Human beings cannot live below their level of capacity without disturbance. You may call it a matter of conscience; for conscience is the instinct of self-preservation applied to the mind.”

– Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected EssaysBy Rudolf Arnheim

During an interview with one of my prospective students last month, I asked him to tell me about his favorite subject in school. “History!” he exclaimed. I followed up, and asked him to tell me why history was his favorite. The response from this insightful 8-year-old was, “Because I think it is interesting to see when we have learned from the past, and all of the times that we have not.” This wisdom is certainly something to consider as we realize that much of what works for our gifted learners is something that can be uncovered, rather than discovered.

In his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson referred to Albert Einstein as “The patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere.” A few years ago, in a Los Angeles Times article, he went on to explain how many traits of the young Einstein in academia, like his being a slow reader, have caused much speculation over the years about how one of our world’s most famous brainiacs may have struggled with a developmental disorder. Of course, those of us in the land of twice-exceptional children find this conclusion perfectly natural.

Einstein struggled in school like many gifted kids. From an early age, he was quite frustrated by the rigid discipline imposed upon him and throughout the course of his speckled educational career, his rejection of what he came to expect from “school” as an institution grew. Later in life he stated, “The worst thing seems for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the healthy feelings, the integrity and self-confidence of the pupils. All that it produces is a servile helot.” Perhaps the only positive result from the majority of Einstein’s formal educational career was the development of a sense of skepticism and the willingness to challenge existing notions.

While most people are aware that Einstein had a troubled early educational career, many people do not know that he did, in fact, have a school experience toward which he felt fondly. This took place at Aurau where the school instructional philosophy was based on the teachings of educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who felt it was important to appreciate the “inner dignity” of each child.

Pestalozzi began his quest to improve education out of a concern for the social conditions that existed during the late 1700’s and he strived to establish equal opportunity through education. He believed that the resources necessary when obtaining an education were within the reach of every individual, as they exist in the natural world, which surrounds all of us. His philosophy supported achievement of balance in life and a belief that individuals should focus on their minds, bodies and souls equally and with regards to instruction.

In the classroom, Pestalozzi promoted hands-on activities and experimentation, along with keen observation and reflection. He opposed methodical lessons and a focus on “correctness,” which had been traditional in curriculum. Overall, he firmly believed that children should be free to learn through experience, both socially and through their activities. He believed that the acceptance of children and their individual natures encourages self-confidence, allowing them to feel secure enough to explore and develop their own education and ideas about the world. Similar to Montessori in some ways, his goal was to develop a learning process in which students make observations, reason independently and arrive at their own conclusions based on personal experiences, both cognitive and physical. His understanding was that through these experiences students develop personal responsibility as opposed to responsibility toward the expectations of others. This was in place of the traditional process of education which existed at the time which he felt planted the thoughts and habits of others in the minds of children, thus stifling their individuality altogether.

It was at Aurau, while under the umbrella of Pestalozzi’s philosophies, that Einstein is thought to have developed his first genius visualization of the speed of light and it has been said that Einstein truly enjoyed his learning experience there. That is powerful, given that he was a young man who had grown to detest school and who many assumed would amount to nothing.

So, what can we learn from young Einstein, and the past?

  • Our most challenging children are often the most brilliant.
  • Skepticism and the willingness to challenge existing notions may be signs of genius.
  • The most important tool for effective instruction is making sure that students know that they are respected and cared for as individuals.
  • The potential of our young learners is an extension of their individuality, not their ability to conform to the thought framework of others. An authoritarian, fear based environment is damaging/does not support success.
  • As individual confidence increases through successful independent experiences, so does intrinsic motivation toward learning as well as the desire to develop personal responsibility.

Smart Shaming – Sorry, But Your Child is Too Smart to Qualify for Help

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“Yes we see that he has trouble reading fluently and has trouble with writing and has been diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, but he is meeting minimum grade expected levels…”

“We agree that your daughter has challenges with focus and attention and was diagnosed with ADHD but she is doing fine compared to other kids in her class. We have so many who struggle so much more…”

“I understand that your child has Asperger’s Disorder and has trouble with social skills and transitioning but he is doing fine academically…”

Sound familiar? Dr. Dan Peters of Summit Center has written an extremely meaningful article for Huffington Post on Smart Shaming and its effects on the twice-exceptional community.

Read the full article here.