On Self-Regulation

As the Oregon winter wends on we have been treated with a few bright sunny days where the east wind scoops up the remaining leaves, swirling them away down the dry streets. Yesterday we had the return of cold winter rain, the kind that chills you to the bone, rain that promises to stay for a few days. I know for those of you in other parts of the country our mild Oregon winters hardly qualify as winter. But regardless of where we live, I think we are all eagerly awaiting signs of spring, at least I know I am.

One of those signs is the light that now lingers into the very early evening. I especially like this time of year with the bare trees back lit by the deep blue sky just before the sun goes down. And yesterday, as I walked down the hill I thought I could almost see little buds starting to form on bare branches, and I definitely could smell the winter Daphne drifting by on a gust of wind.

What has this mid-winter weather report to do with self-regulation you ask? Well, the slowly emerging signs of spring made me look forward to getting back out in my winter-worn garden and cleaning things up. Unlike so many things I do that seem to take a long time to come to fruition, working in the garden is a form of instant gratification for me. I can spend a couple hours, and stand back and immediately take in the fruits of my labor. I love that moment!

Instant gratification. That is a term we probably use quite often, and frequently in a negative sense. The implication in the negative use of this term is that someone wants something instantly at the expense of a possible greater reward. The classic study of this concept in children is the Stanford Marshmallow experiment where a researcher puts a marshmallow on a plate and tells the child that he or she can have 1 marshmallow now, or if the child can wait until the researcher returns, they can have two marshmallows instead. Then the researcher leaves to see what happens as the children are filmed struggling with delaying gratification for a bigger reward.

Fast forward forty years and we have learned a lot about the connection between self-regulation (one form of which is the ability to delay gratification) and healthy youth development. The children in the Marshmallow study who were able to delay gratification were followed over time, and found to have higher SAT scores, lower obesity and substance abuse, and could handle stress and pressure better than those children who ate the marshmallow immediately.

However, more recent studies have failed to find these connections once other factors were taken into consideration. The result of this rather conflicting science is a growing understanding that self-regulation is not a state (either you have it or you don’t) but rather a trait that can be developed over time, especially through interactions with contexts that promote it. So here is where we as youth development professionals come in!

Self-regulation is considered to be one of the key ingredients for success in health, career, and life, which is why, particularly as it relates to goal setting, it is one of the thriving indicators in the 4-H Thriving Model. Self regulation is also developmental, meaning it changes as a child grows into an adolescent. Very early on, say before or around 2 years of age, self-regulation is really about impulse control, and responding to the commands of adults “Hot! Don’t touch that.” But around age three there is a gradual shift from external to internal control, as the child begins the long development of learning to regulate his or her own behavior and choices. For self-regulation skills to do their magic, they have to come from inside the young person, not from other people.

As we start this adventure of exploring self-regulation more deeply, take a minute to observe the youth with whom you work- where do you see illustrations of internal self-regulation? Where do you see examples of external self-regulation? What things do you do in your 4-H program that help youth develop this important skill?

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

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