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Can Schools Effectively Improve Students’ Self-Regulatory Skills?

Fonagy and Target (2002, p. 307) in their paper define self-regulation as “the key mediator between genetic predisposition, early experience, and adult functioning”. This paper argues that all the key mechanisms underpinning the enduring effects of early relationship experiences interface with individuals’ capacity to control (a) their reaction to stress, (b) their capacity to maintain focused attention, and (c) their capacity to interpret mental states in themselves and others.

These three mechanisms function together to assist the individual to work closely and collaboratively with others. If self-regulation can be influenced by experience at young age, then there is a window of opportunity in early childhood to strengthen skills that will be important for multiple domains of competence. This window of opportunity happens since it is at this stage that learned skills are crucial for mastery of later learned skills.

It is at this stage of development when the mastered skills serve as stepping stone and foundation of more development. Purpose: In this study we will look at the origins of self regulation in early childhood when many of the tools for good adaptation are shaped by interactions between children and their environments. We will examine (through qualitative research) how a specific school program can provide the infrastructure for building efficient self-regulatory skills in children.

The program being studied is called Youth Empowerment and is run by a Art of Living, a non-profit educational organization, that provides stress management techniques to increase learning abilities as well as self regulatory coping skills for academic achievement and daily living. Here it will be analyzed how self-regulation is enhanced in children before and after participating in the Art of Living programs to see what impact the course has. At the same time we will study self-regulation of a similar group of children, not participating in the course, for comparison as our control group.

Background of the Study The work on self-regulation as a whole strongly suggests that these skills are extremely important for the development of competence. They begin to emerge in early childhood, and are shaped by a child’s experience as well as his or her disposition. A cranky baby may elicit different care from a parent, and a parent’s behavior may increase or decrease an infant’s proneness to distress, such that both parties influence the quality of their relationship. Their relationship in turn can then help or hinder the development of self-regulation.

(Masten and Coatsworth,1998). For example, children with insensitive, unresponsive care givers do not have these emotionally supportive experiences. They may repeatedly become overwhelmed by their emotions since at early ages self-regulatory abilities are limited. Difficulties with emotional self-control may be contributing to the non-compliant, impulsive, aggressive and/or regressive behaviors we see in some children in early childhood settings. (Sharne, 2004) This may be one example of how the brain is shaped by experience in these early years.

Moreover, if self-regulation can be influenced by experience, then there is a window of opportunity in early childhood to strengthen skills that will be important for multiple domains of competence. Children who have trouble directing their attention or controlling their impulses may not do well on IQ tests or in the classroom or may not learn to comply with rules as readily or get along well with peers. Hence, self regulation may be a factor in predict not only academic achievement but other aspects of competence as well, such as rule-abiding behavior.

For example, the findings of a recent study (Fabes and Eisenberg, 1992), supported the conclusion that socially competent and popular children coped with anger in ways that were relatively direct and active and in ways that minimized further conflict and damage to social relationships. The ability to make a successful transition to and through college is one of the most important challenges faced by adolescents and young adults. Researchers have clearly demonstrated the significance of self-regulation skills in such academic contexts. Collectively, they paint the self-regulating learner as someone who is meta-cognitively sophisticated.

Someone who can assess the requirements of the learning task at hand, and who can identify and deploy the appropriate learning strategies; the self-regulating learner is someone who is able to make appropriate attributions for success and failure, and who readily accepts responsibility for his or her own learning (Pintrich and DeGroot, 1990). However, while studies have begun to specify how features of students’ immediate learning environments affect the development and use of self-regulation skills, relatively little attention has bee n paid to the role of the family context in fostering or impeding the development of these skills.

Studies that have addressed this topic for elementary school age children have found that parental support for autonomy is positively related to children’s self-reports of autonomous self-regulation (Grolnick and Ryan, 1989), and that these parenting practices are predictive of children’s adoption of an intrinsic academic achievement motivational orientation (Ginsburg and Bronstein, 1993). Past methodologies have not “scored” well with the academic demands placed upon students, as demonstrated by New York City’s 50% four-year graduation rate.

In the past educators and social workers have attempted to change the student’s external stress factors to increase their academic performance, (e. i. federally funded school lunch programs, school social workers and psychologists). Although all of these programs serve to alleviate a student’s risk level for failure, it is the student’s perception and reaction to his environment, his coping skills, which determine the impact stress factors will have upon his performance. The Art of Living Youth Programs provides skills to improve these factors through stress management, human values, and service.

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