Helping a child learn to successfully self-regulate is one of the primary tasks of both family and school.  There is persuasive research that shows that a person’s ability to “self-regulate” plays a large part in determining success and satisfaction in life.  Here is some information that may help you make sense of what self-regulation is, what it isn’t, and how to help your children or students develop this important skill.

What self-regulation is not: self-control, self-discipline, or compliance to instructions or rules.

What self-regulation is: The ability to attain, maintain and change one’s level of arousal appropriately for a task or situation. 

Self-regulation focuses on the ability to match your emotional state to the situation in which you find yourself.  In contrast, self-control involves restraining and/or repressing one’s feelings and impulses.  In simple terms self-control and self-discipline are about behaving appropriately no matter how you feel; self-regulation is about learning to adjust your feelings to maximize your ability to achieve your goals in ever-changing environment.

Or to put it another way:

Self-control concerns itself with a set of rules dictating what to do and not do, while self-regulation deals with a person figuring out what is the most effective thing to feel and do in a situation.  Much more than self-control, self-regulation emphasizes autonomy and individual choice.

Self-regulation encourages free expression of heightened emotion when the person deems this to be appropriate, something that is often discouraged with self-control and self-discipline.

We aren’t born with the ability to self-regulate, any more than we are born with the ability to speak a language.  Both most be learned.  Infants learn self-regulation through their interaction with others, particularly parents and other significant adults in their lives.  Later in life, school provides excellent opportunities for children to learn and practice the many skills needed for self-regulation.

Self-regulation is a powerful way to defuse stress.  A key component of self-regulation is to identify what is stressing you.  A key benefit is the self-regulation gives a person skills to identify and cope with stressors.  While some stressors are apparent to observers (eg. a fight with a friend), others are not.  Dr. Stuart Shanker often refers to the hum of florescent lights as a hidden stressor for some children.  Adults often can’t hear the hum at all (as we age we are no longer able to hear the high-frequency sounds that we could hear as children).  Other common classroom stressors are harsh lights and the whisper of heating/cooling system fans.  These and other hidden physical stressors can have the same effect as the buzz of a relentless mosquito when you are trying to sleep.

The best 4-word summary of the goal of self-regulation in the class-room is “Calm, Alert, and Learning”, which is the title of a book by Dr. Stuart Shanker, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and the founder of the Mehrit Centre.