Self-Reg Vs. Self-Control: Evolving Thoughts As A New School Year Approaches

It’s August now, and as camp comes to an end soon, I realize that it won’t be long until we head back into school. I’ve already had a couple of those “back-to-school dreams” that other educators can surely relate to. I also have that nervous, excited, ready-to-throw-up feeling that comes with the uncertainty and thrill of a new year, especially one full of changes. As these back-to-school thoughts begin again, I often reflect on what’s important to me. A recent experience has me thinking some more.

I was chatting with a few educators the other day, and they were comparing schools. They mentioned how the needs of children in one school compared to those in another. One person said, “The children at ________ school are so much better at self-regulating. They can wait in line, follow instructions, and sit still for long periods of time. The kids at _________ school can’t.” Others began to murmur along in support of what she said. That’s when I replied with, “Are they better at self-regulating or are they better at complying? Maybe this is a case of Self-Reg versus self-control.” Everyone stopped talking at this point.

As a new school year begins, I think we need to consider the Self-Reg versus self-control paradigm.

  • What do we want from kids? Why do we have these requirements?
  • When are we asking children to line up and sit down and listen, how long are we asking that they do these things, and are these requests always necessary?
  • What instructions are children unable to follow, and why are they unable to follow them? Would delivering them in a different way at a different time make a difference? Do kids always need instructions from us?

I keep thinking back to my first year of teaching, over 18 years ago. I was at two challenging schools, teaching two different grades, multiple subjects, and travelling at lunch. I was sharing two classrooms, never connecting with fellow educators in either space, and barely holding on. I can’t help but reflect on two specific students that I taught that first year: one at either school. I would have told you that year that these children had “behavioural needs.” They would argue, hit, kick, scream, and defy all requests. Years later, I now think about Stuart Shanker‘s questions of, “why this child? Why now?”

  • I’m now thinking about the social and cognitive stressors around two different educators and two different sets of expectations.
  • I’m thinking about the biological stressors associated with the chaotic room environments, multiple messes (piles of paper, boxes of materials, etc.), bright colours, and loud noises.
  • I’m thinking about the cognitive stressors stemming from the work requirements that were always too challenging for these two students, and never really allowed them entry points to learn. 
  • I’m thinking about how I never took the time to build strong relationships with either of these children, and maybe help change trajectories.
  • I’m thinking about how I never got to learn what helps up-regulate and down-regulate these two kids (from sensory play to gross motor play), and if learning this information, might have helped me better address their needs: allowing them to be ready to learn.
  • I’m also thinking about the number of transitions that I had in both of these half-day positions: more than triple what I have now in a full day. No wonder these two kids never felt as though they were settled.

I wish that I could go back now and do things differently, but I can’t. My only hope is that both of these children found teachers that considered these questions and changed their lives. 

As a new school year begins, I will be thinking about these past students. I had never heard of the term “self-regulation” back then, but if I did, I probably would have argued that the rest of the class could self-regulate, while these kids could not. In reality, the other students had great self-control, and these children never got the chance (at least with me) to learn what would help them self-regulate. Learn more. Do better. I know that my teaching partner and I will be talking Self-Reg as we begin to consider our environment and our flow of the day. How do you support a self-regulated start to the school year? How might further analyzing the Self-Reg versus self-control paradigm change our thinking around classroom environments and student learning? Just imagine the impact that the answers to both of these questions might have on kids.



6 thoughts on “Self-Reg Vs. Self-Control: Evolving Thoughts As A New School Year Approaches

  1. Absolutely! I clapped when I read your response. I agree that there is a difference between compliance and self-regulation (especially as we see the goals in our Kindergarten Program). I always say my goals are for students to be able to have enough practice, guidance, and support (and encouragement to try these skills independently in a safe environment) so they can continue to use these skills as they grow older. Our Kinders have our own yard with fewer children, lots of supervision, and a lot of loose parts collected; next year, they will be on a yard that is much more hectic (plus, we are a trauma-informed school). I’m hoping they feel confident speaking up for themselves and attempting to resolve small social problems before they turn into big issues (hurting bodies and feelings, etc.). *fingers crossed* I’ve tried to sit back before becoming involved in arguments – and asking “Have you said __” or “Have you tried __” when the eventual student comes up to tell/tattle. When kids can do it themselves, I’ve found it to be A LOT more successful in the long run!

    There are a few good clips of Channel 4’s “The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6-year-olds” on YouTube that support what you say in this blog post. Well-written and good questions to be asking ourselves as educators!

    • Thanks for your comment, Amy, and for sharing what you do! I think that trying to build and support this independence in kids is so important. Last year, Paula taught me that just because a child comes to you with a problem, doesn’t mean you have to solve it. Sometimes it’s our question or wonder back to the child that makes the difference.

      Thanks for sharing about the YouTube clips. I will definitely check them out!


      • Would be interested to learn about, explore, and read how our connections with families comes in on this. Lots of littles with big emotions. I think your videos and questions and reflecting on student learning and interactions are a wonderful tool.

        • Thanks Amy! Your family question is an interesting one. I think that our connection with home can be key in also learning more about our kids and how to best support them. This is when parent engagement definitely comes into play!


  2. Love this post! I have very similar memories of my “impact” on student self-regulation in year 1 and how I grew to make more effective choices over time. It would be great if teachers read this and reflected on their own practice to determine where they can grow, in order to change the learning story for even one student this year. I will be sharing widely because the reflective prompts are excellent thinking questions and conversation starters. Imagine a staff spending time in these discussions at the opening PA day. Regardless of the age of students, self-regulation is always a key to learning. We all need to have a common understanding of what it really means and how to support it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Krista! I love the idea of using these questions as prompts for discussion starters at a staff meeting or on a PA Day. What a great way for us to push each other’s thinking, delve deeper, and hopefully all come away with some new ideas. Starting the year with this might even help change some trajectories in the coming months.


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