Tonight I was watching the Gold Cup Quarter Final between the USA and El Salvador. It was not our best defensively, but it was one of the more aggressive games I’ve seen by the US Men’s National Team. If you watched, it was obvious why. El Salvador was clearly the little dog trying to aggravate the big dog. Literally, in the 57th minute, our Jozy Altidore was bitten on the shoulder while also having his nipple pinched by El Salvador’s Henry Romero. How in the world Jozy didn’t turn and punch this guy is beyond me. The ref didn’t see it, so there was no justice. Man! What is it that kept Jozy Altidore in line? Self-regulation. Like so many life skills, self-regulation takes time and practice before a person will find success. Altidore has had 12 years of practice, but my students probably have had none.
So what is it? Self-regulation is really just the ability to control yourself without needing some outside influence to guide you. No one had to hold Altidore back from Romero. He gritted his teeth and kept playing. In the real world, it means I can walk through a Target without having someone tell me NOT to steal something. I can decide for myself to pay for the things I want. In the classroom, it means students take the initiative for their own learning even if they’re not “feeling it.” When they start an assignment, they read the directions. When they get stuck, they ask questions. When they find success, they share it with their classmates. When they are trying to problem solve, the look to their classmates for support. In essence, when students self-regulate they are not dependent on a teacher for the answers.
Self-regulation can also influence others. When students are able to take ownership for their learning, it rubs off on the students around them. It is an odd affect since it is an outside influence regulating others, but since it is unintentional what is really going on is that other students are learning to regulate themselves by witnessing someone else do it. A teacher can help magnify this behavior by acknowledging it in the moment. She could even exaggerate the moment with a “Wow, so-n-so, you’ve really impressed me today! You got started so quickly!” or even drop a few tootsie rolls on a desk or two quietly acknowledging the behavior you want. Whatever it takes for students to observe and learn from the students already self-regulating is worth it because without the ability to self-regulate, students will never actually learn.
However, it cannot be expected that your students, whatever age they are, know how to self-regulate. It is a skill to be learned through constant coaching in the early stages and utilizing teachable moments when self-regulation was not practiced. For example, if I am teaching freshman in high school, I expect to have this same conversation every time I see a student:
Me: Hey, so-n-so, whatcha doin?
S-N-S: Oh… I’m working…
Me: Oh really? What specifically are you working on?
S-N-S: Umm, the assignment…
Me: Oh man, that’s great. Which part are you on?
S-N-S: Well, I just started, but I am confused.
Me: Oh really?? Man, what is confusing?
S-N-S: I’m not sure what I am supposed to be doing.
Me: Oh! Ok. Well what did the directions say? Oh, you didn’t read the directions? Ok. So, read the directions, I’ll be back in 2 minutes to check on you, and then I expect you to ask me specific questions about the directions so you can really get started.
Then what happens is I swing back by and by then the directions are read and the student has started. As the year goes on, this conversation happens again and again at different stages of the assignments. By the end of the year, most of my students have not only learned to self-regulate, but they have stopped asking me for help on topics they can Google search. I have a job as a teacher to be a guide. I cannot however be the motivation and regulation for a student when it comes to learning. Once they know how to regulate themselves, then students reach their goals often on their own. Without it, teachers and students alike will be stuck just dealing with discipline problems.