Friday, January 30, 2009

Self-Regulation: Floating the Balloon

Self-regulation shows its influence in unusual ways. For example, a recent study found that adults who could brush their teeth with their non-dominant hand for a month were also more successful at sticking to a diet than those who could not make it through a month without brushing with their dominant hand. Why? Self-regulation, self-discipline, stick-to-itiveness.

As mentioned in previous postings, self-regulation plays an influential role in student achievement. How can we help students develop this nonacademic but critical capacity?

  • Exercise the “muscle” of self-regulation. By engaging students in activities that require delayed gratification or perseverance, we provide a self-regulation workout. Just like exercising yields slow but steady results, gradually increasing the amount of self-regulation required for tasks slowly builds self-regulation capacity.

  • Teach students stick-to-it and wait-for-it strategies, such as self-talk. The messages we consciously “speak” to ourselves influence our thinking, and our thinking influences our actions. In several recent studies, researchers have found that motivational and instructional self-talk has “small but significant effects” on “physical exertion…[and] performance” and help us stay “focused.”

  • Teach students “cognitive transformation.” Cognitive transformation involves distracting the mind by shifting the focus. For example, in the famous “marshmallow test,” some children managed to avoid eating the marshmallow by imagining it as something else—a cloud, a table, a chef’s hat. This “distraction” prolonged their ability to resist eating the marshmallow.

  • Engage students in attention training, such as listening for details, observing closely, and solving complex puzzles. Again, increasing the level and duration of attention required for success can strengthen the self-regulation “muscle.”

  • Implement a school FITNESS program. The emphasis needs to be on fitness, not on competition or learning a specific sport. Students engaged in regular physical activity score higher on self-regulation measures. When I taught in a middle school, I noticed an anecdotal correlation between high achieving students and members of the cross-country team. I always wondered what about running could influence achievement. In addition to more efficient brains, these students probably possessed high self-regulation capacity.
Self-regulation empowers potential fulfillment. While nonacademic in nature, its influence on academic achievement makes it a worthwhile classroom emphasis. It is like hot air in a balloon; the more there is of it, the higher the balloon (and student) can fly.

Sources: Duckworth, A. L. (2008). Self-discipline, IQ, and academic achievement. Presented at Learning & the Brain: Using Emotions Research to Enhance Learning. Boston (Fall 2008).

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