Enhancing Social and Emotional Learning Through Self-Regulation

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Enhancing Social and Emotional Learning Through Self-RegulationEducators have taken greater interest in social and emotional learning (SEL) in the past few years. With the rise in identity-based bullying and cyberbullying, kids are experiencing more aggression and violence from peers. In our highly contentious political and social atmosphere, it is more important now than ever that we teach kids how to be more compassionate and kinder toward one another, and especially toward those who are different from us.

To increase student empathy and emotional competence, many schools are implementing an SEL program or curriculum. These programs and materials intend to teach students basic tools for getting along with others and managing their emotional responses. Working collaboratively with others and being able to “stay cool” are examples of self-regulation skills employers are seeking in employees. While educating students on social and emotional development is certainly a worthy endeavor, SEL alone does not give kids the whole picture of what it means to be self-regulated. We also need to help students learn how to learn, or become self-regulated learners.

Many years ago, I began to study the concept of self-regulation for learning (SRL). For more than five decades, SRL has been a specific field of study in psychology. Most recently, educators have begun to pay attention to SRL and have even included the ideas in educational standards. Many state standards are designed so students are college- and career-ready. According to Marie White and Maria DiBenedetto, authors of Self-Regulation and the Common Core, “Whether preparing for college or a career, academic learning must become a proactive activity, requiring self-initiated, motivational, and behavioral processes as well as metacognitive ones, all of which make up self-regulated learning (SRL).”

Self-regulation for learning is the process we go through to manage the dimensions of our affect, behaviors, and cognition to attain learning goals. These three dimensions (also known as the ABCs of SRL) are tightly interwoven and, in successful learners, work in tandem. One without the other two, or two without the other one, creates an imbalance in the learning process.

A = Affect: Emotions vs. Feelings
People will often use the term emotions when they really mean affect. Affect is defined as how we feel, or our conscious awareness of our emotions. Emotions are chemical reactions within our limbic system (a very primitive part of our brain) that are triggered by internal and external stimuli. Feelings (affect) are the emotional responses (or reactions). A vast majority of our feelings are controllable. Feelings are personal—no one makes you feel anything. You make you feel. How you manage those feelings can have a substantial effect on productivity.

Strategies to assist students in developing affect awareness include:

  • Openly discuss with students how you deal with difficult situations, stress, and feeling bad.
  • Guide kids to realize the power they have over their feelings by teaching them to recognize their feelings and sharing ways to keep feelings positive.
  • When students are feeling anxious or worried, have them talk to you or someone they trust so they know they don’t have to deal with the feelings alone.
  • To alleviate anxiety, have students consider the best and worst outcomes—and tell them the actual outcome will likely be somewhere in the middle.
  • Teach students that drawing a picture of their feelings can be helpful in figuring out how to deal with them.

Enhancing Social and Emotional Learning Through Self-RegulationB = Behavior: Behavior Is Social
Behavior is defined as the actions we perform that are initiated, sustained, changed, or developed based on both internal and external factors. Behavior can be both conscious and unconscious. In the learning process, behaviors include:

  • Skills and strategies (how to do something to be productive)
  • Communication (how to talk to someone to be heard)
  • Collaboration (how to work with others to be successful)
  • Work habits (how to get something done on your own)

Social interactions, such as getting along, working with others, following directions, listening, and so on, are behavioral. Students can and should learn appropriate social behaviors.

Strategies to assist students in developing social behaviors include:

  • Be a model for your students: demonstrate for them how you engage and negotiate with adults and students.
  • Provide students with opportunities to work collaboratively with peers who are not like them.
  • Give students roles when working in groups so all kids can be involved in the work.
  • Offer students opportunities to engage in diverse cultural activities, such as through theater, film, or field trips.
  • Support students in their positive interactions with peers by providing descriptive feedback on what went well and what needs adjustments.

C = Cognition: Cognition for Learning
The dimension of cognition plays a significant role in SRL and SEL. Cognition is the L in SEL—without thinking, there is no learning. Basically, cognition is the conscious act of thinking. It’s the mental processes students go through, from very simple or subtle processes (such as awareness of sensory input, movement at will, and recalling factual information) to very complex or abstract levels of thinking (such as critical reasoning, creative thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making). Cognition increases through learning experiences, whether they are based in repetition, practice, or discovery.

Metacognition is thinking about our own thinking. This close thinking is a reflection process we all go through throughout the day. It includes self-talk (“Why did I do it that way?”) and pondering future solutions or decisions (“If I work hard enough, I think I can ace this test”). Students who are more likely to be successful in school use metacognition to:

  • Stay positive when faced with a challenge
  • Know their strengths and limitations
  • Set and monitor goals
  • Reflect on failures as opportunities for growth
  • Reflect on successes to keep succeeding

Strategies to assist students in being cognitively aware include:

  • As the teacher, think out loud: this will demonstrate to your students your line of thinking.
  • Help kids set reasonable short-term goals—goals for the class period or lesson.
  • Have students reflect on how they felt (affect) and what they did (behavior) to achieve their goals. If they didn’t achieve the goal, have them think about what they can do better next time.
  • Directly teach students critical-reasoning and creative-thinking strategies—these tools will be helpful in problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Praise students’ efforts over their achievements—effort is the key to success!

We all want our students to be successful. Some students come to school with greater degrees of SRL, while others need more modeling and supports along the way. All students can get value from keeping the ABCs (affect, behavior, cognition) in mind while learning:

  • A = How do I feel when I’m successful?
  • B = What will I do to be successful?
  • C = What’s my goal/plan to be successful?

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

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

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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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