Student Well-Being

Is Self-Regulation Lost in Translation?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 04, 2013 4 min read
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Are self-regulation and grit about being able to independently set and focus on goals, or just about sitting still and being well-behaved in class?

I’m sure some advocates of social-emotional learning in schools are gnashing their teeth at The New Republic‘s cover story, “In Defense of the Wild Child: American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How.” Author Elizabeth Weil takes a broad swipe at schools’ increasing focus on self-regulation, social-emotional learning, theories of emotional intelligence, and “no excuses” charter schools, arguing that efforts to improve students’ “grit” undermine creativity. “Though widely embraced by progressives,” she says in the article, “the grit cure-all is in many ways deeply conservative, arguably even a few inches to the right of Amy Chua and her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”

From a research perspective, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to lump everything related to social-emotional learning in general and self-regulation in particular into one bag, and Weil does little to make the case that self-regulation or grit impedes creativity (Some research finds the opposite.)

For me, Weil’s personal experience points to a more interesting problem of how the somewhat technical terms of “self-regulation” and “grit” are translated into school language and policies. She’s introduced to “self-regulation” during a conference with a teacher who wants Weil to put her 2nd grade daughter in occupational therapy to learn to sit still and raise her hand before speaking. The teacher admits he has not attempted to discipline Weil’s daughter for speaking out of turn, passing what she calls “some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them.”

Translating Terms

Depending on who’s defining it, self-regulation is the ability to focus attention on a task, to delay more immediate gratification in pursuing a longer term goal. Grit, as coined in 2007 by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, seems to combine self-regulation and persistence to involve “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

The contrast between the research definitions of self-regulation and grit and Weil’s experience of them calls to mind a study by Princeton University researcher Joanne Wang Golan, previewed at the American Psychological Association meeting last month. “The Promise and Perils of Teaching Social and Behavioral Skills at a ‘No Excuses’ School” (still forthcoming) analyzed some of the conflicts and unintended consequences of schools “explicitly and systematically try[ing] to teach the soft skills, social and behavioral skills, to working-class minority children.”

During months of observations, Golann found “self-control was the topic I heard most about: The teachers talked about self-control, the students talked about self-control.”

In practice, though, Golann found “self-control” was primarily taught through classroom discipline practices, involving many detailed rules and rapidly increasing sanctions for breaking them.

She recalled one 5th grade student, “Darren,” who explained his view of it this way: “Self-control is when you’re able to talk, when you know to talk at the appropriate time. And it’s important because you can get a really bad consequence, and I do, I really show self-control, because I don’t talk at all in class. When the teacher tells me to talk in class, I do, to answer a question, and otherwise I don’t talk at all in class.”

Overall, Golann found the school’s approach to teaching social-emotional skills led to orderly classrooms and students with good study and work habits associated with high self-regulation—but not the sort of autonomy, self-motivation, and goal-setting also associated with self-regulation and grit.

The focus on self-control as defined specifically by following rules prevented students from gaining autonomy and taking on more adult leadership roles, she said. “Middle-class students develop a sense of ease with adults; they talk to adults as though they were adults themselves. In contrast, at the no-excuses school, the boundaries between teachers and students were emphasized rather than blurred ... and they lost ‘middle-class skills’ of ease, flexibility, assertiveness, and leadership,” Golann said. “Because students didn’t get these things, they started to lose their motivation, especially at upper grades.”

Golann’s findings, though not a representative sample of all schools that try this approach, do highlight a danger for other schools trying to teach social and emotional skills explicitly. Terms like “grit” and “self-regulation” are still evolving in the research community, and it can be difficult to translate them into effective classroom practice—and even more difficult to explain them in ways that seem reasonable and fair to parents and students.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.