What It Takes to Be Successful: Self-Regulation

Part of our Cash in on Learning Series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

What does it really take to be successful in school today? Most would say it takes a combination of early learning experiences, natural acumen for learning, and a supportive home environment. While all of those characteristics can be helpful in learning, the essential tool for school success is the ability to regulate yourself.

I’ve written about self-regulation in the past as it relates to homework. In this post, I’m going to share background and ideas about how to strengthen students’ own self-regulation through daily practices in the classroom and at home.

Dale Schunk and Barry Zimmerman, authors of Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research and Application, define self-regulation as the process by which learners personally activate and sustain cognition, emotions, and behaviors that are effective toward achieving goals. The learners’ skills and abilities do not fully explain student achievement. We see this with gifted and advanced students who underperform or underachieve; we know gifted and advanced students have the background knowledge to do well in school, but by the time some of them reach middle school, they are in severe underachievement mode. These students have not acquired the strategies and techniques needed to manage distractions, put effort forward, persist at rudimentary tasks, and so on.

© littleny-dreamstime.comThe same is true for many students who struggle in school. They have not developed effective tools to work at a task that may seem meaningless, know how to stay focused on the task at hand, or know how to do this thing we call “school.” Schools are a bastion of rules, structures, and order. For many students living in poverty, the rules are punishments for not knowing what to do and how to do it; structures are foreign because they lack structure at home; and order is senseless because they lack the order at home to learn how to make good choices.

Therefore, both advantaged and disadvantaged students can benefit from learning effective tools for self-regulation.

Zimmerman and colleagues (1996, 1997) state that self-regulation is developed in four phases:

Phase One: Modeling and Observing
Students need to see others using self-regulation to manage thinking, feelings, and behaviors. In some cases, students coming from disenfranchised backgrounds do not have role models at home using effective self-regulation strategies. The parents and other adults in their lives may not be modeling for the child positive strategies for developing self-regulation. In fact, the adults may be modeling ineffective strategies, which may show up in the classroom.

As teachers observe these students’ lack of effective strategies or use of ineffective strategies, we may misidentify the root issue. We may blame the victim by saying “he isn’t motivated,” “she won’t stay on task,” “he is lazy,” and so on. In reality, they don’t know how to manage learning, their feelings, and the use of appropriate behaviors attuned to the situation. At this stage we need to model positive strategies toward self-regulation, such as how to filter out distractions, work at something for an amount of time, reward ourselves for accomplishing a task, and reflect when we don’t achieve a goal.

Phase Two: Copying and Doing
Once students have role models for self-regulation, they need to begin using the strategies and be held accountable for the use of those strategies. A strategy is a conscious action, which means you know when to use a strategy and you’re aware that you’re using it. This is a step many teachers forget to emphasize in learning. Whether we are teaching strategies in math, reading, science, or self-regulation, we need to constantly reinforce with our students the strategies that we use. We also should be checking in with the students to find out what strategies they are using to solve problems, manage behaviors, stay on task, and so forth. Our job at this phase is to state out loud the strategies we use to be self-regulated, have kids copy our strategies, reinforce those strategies, and then request that students use the strategies as they have learned them.

Phase Three: Practice and Refinement
Now that the students have amassed some strategies for being regulated, we now should be providing experiences where they are required to use them. Make the situations academic and affective in nature, and include behavioral management. What this means is that we have to put students in learning situations that include emotions and will take some time to solve. For example: When investigating the pilgrims coming to the “new world,” ask kids to think about how people felt being crowded on the small boat for the eight months it tookMayflower Wikimedia Commons to cross the Atlantic ocean. Ask students to think about leaving one home for a new uncharted place. Try to link the pilgrims’ experience to the students’ experiences. Ask when they felt like they were leaving one secure place and going to an uncharted place. How might it feel to be with people they don’t know for eight months? Have they ever been in a situation where they were in a small space with people they didn’t know very well? How have they learned to deal with people who are not like themselves? Linking the curriculum to feelings and how we manage those feelings is a very effective way to have students practice and refine their self-regulation.

Phase Four: Independence and Application
At this stage, students should be independently putting to use the strategies of self-regulation. This means they have made the strategies a part of who they are and can do them without being asked or coached. Students at this level will need constant support and encouragement about their use of the strategies. An idea at this stage is to use reflection tools, such as a journal, diary, or blog to document their personal learning development. We want to keep students focused on goals and what it takes to achieve those goals. As Dr. Carol Dweck says in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “Effort is the key to success.”

After studying much of the research and writings on self-regulation (see the resources at the end) and what it takes to be successful, I’ve created four steps to achieving self-regulation.

Step One: Mobilize Your Resources

  • Teach students that everything is possible as long as you believe in yourself. Having a strong self-belief is the most powerful tool anyone can possess when building toward success.
  • Teach students to use the supports of others. Tell students that your role as teacher is not one of authority, but rather as a partner in their learning and success. Also show them how other classmates can be supportive and useful in areas where the child may not be as strong. If I am not the best at math, I may want to partner up in math class with a student who is strong and willing to assist me in my learning. Knowing the strengths of others and accepting help is a wonderful life tool. Also, be aware of the other adults around who can provide support.
  • Teach students to use the materials available. So many times in my classroom, I found that students did not know what materials were required on a daily basis or where to find materials when they needed them. I learned very early to repeat what tools were needed on a daily basis (pencil/pen, paper, text, notebook, etc.) and if they didn’t bring them to class, where in the room these materials were found. This seemingly simple act of coming ready to learn is a huge barrier for unregulated learners.
  • Teach students to ask questions or ask for help. Again, what seems like a simple idea is in fact an overwhelming struggle for many students. Asking questions may make you look ill-informed or even stupid. However, questioning is how we learn. So many students are reluctant to ask questions for fear of the opinions of others in the room. For gifted kids, asking questions may threaten their identity as gifted. Asking questions is a powerful tool in learning and should be the expectation in the thinking classroom.
  • Teach students how to advocate for themselves. Knowing when you need something, and how to go about the request in an acceptable fashion can benefit the child throughout life. For learners who need more support, they need to be able to ask for more help, assistance, or clarifications. For advanced learners, they should be able to request greater challenges rather than more work to do.

Step Two: Remember that Motivation Is Personal

Goals, public domain graphicWe are all motivated by positive and negative beliefs. Positive beliefs drive us, including things we are passionate about, rewards that make us feel good, and goals we set for ourselves. Our negative beliefs are what we fear, things that make us anxious, challenges that seem overwhelming, and our own feelings of limitations. Intrinsic motivation is developed when we rely on positive beliefs and overcome negative beliefs.

We must help students identify those things that are positive about themselves and acknowledge those things that inhibit them. Focus the student on the positive beliefs and set goals that are rewarding or have a meaningful reward when the goal is achieved.

It’s important that we know and recognize our negative beliefs, so that when these beliefs creep in, we can address them and override them. When you are frustrated that a goal was not met, focus more on what you can do better next time, rather than focus on why you didn’t meet the goal. Help students do the same.

Step Three: Live a Growth Mindset

In Dr. Dweck’s book she identifies two ways people perceive the world—through a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their intelligence and talents are a fixed trait that cannot be changed or enhanced. People in a fixed mindset measure their success or failure by the amount of intelligence or talent they possess. People with a growth mindset believe that most skills and abilities can be learned. Therefore, success or failure is due to how much effort you put forth and what strategies worked or didn’t work to accomplish a goal.

Many students come to school in a fixed mindset, because so much of what we do to students is based on testing and documentation of abilities and skill attainment. The overuse of testing to measure success secures the fixed mindset for both struggling learners and advanced level learners. Fixed mindset students never learn how to struggle intellectually, nor do they learn how to put effort forward.

Teachers can help kids develop a growth mindset by:

  • Providing accurate constructive descriptive feedback that focuses the learner on specifics for improvement.
  • Praising effort, not ability. Say things like “I’m impressed at the level of effort you put forth to achieve your goal,” “Even though you didn’t achieve your goal, I can see you worked your hardest at it,” or “What might you change about the way you approached this task, to ensure you make your goal next time?”
  • Teaching challenges worth solving. So often the materials and problems we give to students have no relevance to their real lives or lack meaning in their immediate situations. Use real-world problems and situations where students are then focused on using strategies they have learned in class.

Step Four: Create a Classroom of Structure

Classroom Structure BlackboardMany students who are unregulated come from home and family backgrounds that lack structure. Children crave structure; they need and want to feel secure. Structure provides students with a safe environment for learning. Follow the rule of 3Cs in developing structure: Consistent, Concise, and Concrete.

Classroom guidelines, policies, and procedures should be posted around the room and reviewed on a routine basis. Tell students often that success, intellectual risk-taking, and collaboration are the expectations in the classroom. Have schedules posted and easily accessed. If there are changes to the schedule, make sure students are prepared for the shifts in the schedule. Unplanned events can be difficult for the unregulated student.

Discuss and frequently review the rules and directions of a productive classroom. Share with the students both the rewards for following the rules as well as the meaningful consequences for not following the rules or directions. Consequences don’t always have to be a punishment. They can be the delay of gratification such as waiting a longer time for “choice time” (a time during the day when the students can select what they would like to do).

Bonus! Download the Strategies to Develop Self-Regulation List from Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.



Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Advancing Differentiation

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Suggested Resources
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin
No Mind Left Behind: Understanding and Fostering Executive Control—The Eight Essential Brain Skills Every Child Needs to Thrive by Adam J. Cox, Ph.D.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research and Application edited by Dale H. Schunk and Barry J. Zimmerman
Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life by Robert Sternberg
Wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity Synthesized by Robert Sternberg
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
“Investigating Self-Regulation and Motivation: Historical Background, Methodological Developments, and Future Prospects” by Barry J. Zimmerman, American Educational Research Journal, 45, 166–183.
Developing Self-Regulated Learners: Beyond Achievement to Self-Efficacy by Barry J. Zimmerman, Sebastian Bonner, and Robert Kovach
“Developmental Phases in Self-Regulation: Shifting from Process to Outcome Goals” by Barry J. Zimmerman and A. Kitsantas, Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 29–36.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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