On the Importance of Self-Regulation

Thought Leader Thursday

By Guest Bloggers Megan McClelland, Alexis Tracy and Jasmine Karing

Oregon State University

One afternoon, Carlos and Olivia are playing basketball during PE. They have been playing for about 15 minutes and doing well taking turns with the ball. When Lucas asks to play, Carlos and Olivia welcome him but soon realize he is not taking turns or playing fair. Carlos and Olivia ask Lucas to play fair but he continues to hog the ball and not follow the rules of the game. The children begin to argue loudly over whose turn it is for the ball. Ms. Shauna steps in and calmly suggests they play a new game where they can all have a turn with the ball. Before she can finish talking, Lucas grabs the ball out of Carlos’ hands and throws it across the gym. Ms. Shauna pictures herself yelling at Lucas for doing that, but instead takes a deep breath and addresses the conflict between the children calmly.

This scenario represents a breakdown in self-regulation between Lucas and the other children, but shows a self-regulation success for Ms. Shauna!  This is just one example of situations that children face at home, at school, and in social interactions with friends and adults. Without adequate self-regulation, children may struggle socially, and academically, and as a result, gradually disengage from school and learning. The upside is that research has found self-regulation skills can be taught, practiced, and improved.

In fact, children’s self-regulation skills at the beginning of elementary school predict their academic achievement and school success throughout childhood and into adulthood. One study found the children with strong self-regulation at age four had nearly 50% greater odds of completing college by the time they were 25 compared to children with weaker self-regulation. Thus, promoting these skills early in life can reap great benefits!

As one example, The Red Light, Purple Light Self-Regulation Intervention (RLPL) is a classroom-based self-regulation intervention for children that includes a series of games that are typically played in large groups over 16 sessions. The games explicitly focus on the three components of self-regulation (i.e., working memory, attentional shifting, and inhibitory control) and allow children to practice self-regulation with others. An example of one game is called Red Light, Purple Light, which is a variation of the traditional childhood game Red Light, Green Light. In this game, the teacher acts as a stoplight and holds up different-colored circles to represent stop and go. Children respond to specific color cues (e.g., orange means clap hands, purple means stop) and then, to make the game more complex, opposite cues with a variety of actions are introduced over time (e.g., purple is stomp, and yellow is stop). The game targets children’s self-regulation in that children are required to listen to and remember instructions (i.e., working memory), successfully switch from one rule to another (i.e., attentional flexibility), and resist the natural inclination to engage in one action in favor of the correct response (i.e., inhibitory control). The research on this intervention has shown that young children participating in the games show significant improvements in their self-regulation and also show improvements in their reading and math skills compared to children in a control group.

Developing strong self-regulatory skills early in life sets the stage for these skills later in adolescence, like being able to set and follow through with goals. Moreover, the information gained from applied research like this can be used by educators and practitioners to make a positive difference in the lives of children and youth.

Megan McClelland, Ph.D. is the Endowed Director of the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families and the Katherine E. Smith Professor of Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University.


Alexis Tracy, M.S. Alexis is the Research Project Coordinator on the Kindergarten Readiness Project at Oregon State University.


Jasmine Karing, M.P.H Jasmine Karing is a Faculty Research Assistant on the Kindergarten Readiness Project at Oregon State University.

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