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Self-Regulation: The Key to Successful Students?

Self-Regulation: The Key to Successful Students?

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Updated on Apr 28, 2010

New research suggests that children who learn to mind their P’s and Q’s may also have an easier time learning their ABC’s and 123’s.  In a new study conducted by the University of Virginia’s Claire Cameron Ponitz and Oregon State University’s Megan McClelland, the researchers found that kindergarteners who had high levels of "self-regulation" in the fall did better on tests of reading, vocabulary, and math in the spring when compared to children with low levels of self-regulation.   

What is self-regulation?  According to Dr. Ponitz, self-regulation is the ability to control and direct one’s own feelings, thoughts, and actions.  It can be as simple as a child raising his hand when asking a question in class, or as complex as a child controlling her feelings when frustrated or angry.  “Self-regulation underlies our daily decisions and long-term behavioral tendencies,” Ponitz says. “When people make poor choices - for example about health, school, work, or relationships, it is usually because of a failure of self-regulation. With regard to early development, children who learn to control themselves and make good choices do better socially and academically than children who are overly angry, aggressive or impulsive.”

While the ability to self-regulate has long been considered an essential part of a child’s healthy emotional development, self-regulation is increasingly being seen as a good predictor of a child’s academic success.  According to Dr. McClelland, a number of studies have found that self-regulation significantly predicts literacy outcomes in children.  In their own research, McClelland and Ponitz found that aspects of self-regulation not only predicted literacy outcomes in preschool and elementary school, but also predicted the gains in literacy children made during that time.  In specific, they found that children who showed improvement on a simple task designed to measure self-regulation skills also showed improvement in emergent literacy, vocabulary, and early mathematics skills. “We think it's because the skills in the task-- remembering instructions, stopping yourself, and paying attention-- are also important in school,” Ponitz says.  

Good self-regulation skills are also important for a child’s social development.  “Self-regulation helps children succeed in classroom contexts,” McClelland says. “The children who can successfully navigate these learning environments have better relationships with their teachers, are more liked by their classmates, and do better academically. They are also more motivated to achieve because of these skills.”

Both Ponitz and McClelland believe parents and teachers play a crucial role in the development of their children’s self-regulation.  “Parents and teachers are critically important guides and models for children as they learn how to control themselves,” Ponitz says.  “At home and in the classroom, providing organization, consistency, and structure seem to be important predictors of children's self-regulation. For example, following through with rules provides children the chance to practice controlling themselves.”  

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