School fights against kids learning self-regulation

After decades of research about what makes a person happy, it turns out that self-regulation is at the top. Sonja Lyubomirsky studies every day actions that can increase our happiness and it turns out they all require self-discipline -from giving two random compliments a week to walking with a book on our head for one minute a day. Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling book The Happiness Project is her leveraging self-regulation to test out the theories of positive psychology in every day life (for example, five compliments to her husband for every criticism.)

I did my own five-year investigation of the research behind positive psychology and at the end of it, I felt that the demands on my willpower far exceeded my self-regulation abilities. So I ended up settling for an interesting life rather than a happy one. (Maybe you should pick that too – here’s a way to test yourself.)

Which brings us to schools. Schools are obsessed with self-regulation. If you live in a low-functioning school district, self-regulation means only that you don’t bring a gun to school. If you live in a rich-kid school district self-regulation means don’t eat the marshmallow that’s sitting in front of you and you’ll get put in the gifted program (because the correlation between self-regulators and giftedness is actually high.)

The problem is that the test for self-regulation is if a child will do what the teacher needs him to do.  But real world self-regulation is deciding what you want for yourself and taking steps to get it, even if that may delay gratification until later.

I love this picture (up top) because it’s my son exhibiting enough self-regulation to run an egg-selling business at age eight. This is what it looks like when he does daily egg collection from the barn: he got a friend to do most of the work, they did an egg toss with two maybe-rotten eggs, they did a little karate on the way home, and later my sold the eggs.

It doesn’t look like school. But it looks like great self-regulation to me. Because the first step to self-regulation is deciding what you want so much that you are willing to structure your life around it. And doing that has absolutely nothing to do with behaving in school, because what smart kid has as a goal to learn the list of stuff some administrator somewhere says will be good for them?

It gets worse. The New Republic has a great description of how teachers are telling parents that kids who don’t self-regulate the way the teacher wants look like trouble makers, and those kids are the first to be sent to a doctor to be evaluated for medication.

Over and over again we see examples of how the highest functioning kids in the world are the lowest functioning at school. How many of our kids will we sacrifice to this way of thinking until there’s a massive parenting intervention and rescue effort to take those kids home, where they can learn to self-regulate for real?


20 replies
  1. Judy Sarden
    Judy Sarden says:

    I love the New Republic article because it is so true. My kids attended a Montessori school where pretty much all the boys were sent to the occupational therapist because they couldn’t sit still. This is funny because I think that sort of thing was decidedly against the philosophy of Dr. Montessori.

    They would periodically host meetings where the OT could educate parents on their kids’ behavior

    When I would talk to the parents that had fallen victim to the OT, they would describe all the exercieses their kids had been prescribed and how the lack of development of muscles is what was causing their boys’ inability to sit still all day. They are ages 4-6? They weren’t MEANT to sit still all day!

  2. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I agree.

    My 16 year old daughter pulls out of our driveway 5 days of the week at 3:30 am. This is an ungodly hour for many, but she’s smiling when she does it, because she also pulls back into the driveway at 8:30 or 9:00 am, and has the entire day ahead of her. She takes a leisurely shower, makes some hot tea, and then settles into her coursework. By 1:00 she is free. She loves her freedom, and to her, this level of self-regulation IS freedom.

  3. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    This is so sad, but only because it is so true. I was the kid who didn’t eat the marshmallow and while I was successful in school all the way up through college, I found myself to be an unhappy adult. I just hated coloring in the lines and I didn’t have the skills to know what to do about it.

    I have started homeschooling my kids this year because I can’t stand what the public (or private for that matter) schools have to offer. I don’t need want to create a drone – I need to raise happy people who know how to be happy in the real world.

    I am grateful to have found your website.

  4. tcmullinax
    tcmullinax says:

    Maybe you can educate me a little! Can self-regulation be taught? Should it be? My 13 year old daughter gets better at it as she matures, but left to her own devices she wouldn’t do a single thing but play on her computer. Is there a way for me to help her, (besides modeling self-regulation)? Should I try to help her-or is this more of a “self-discovery” type of thing?

    I’m truly interested in your opinion.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Self-regulation takes practice. But people can only practice if they are internally motivated by something.

      Also, self-regulation snowballs. There is a great study about this (Richard Easterlin) where he asked kids to balance books on their head for a minute a day. The self-discipline to do that every day made them better at doing homework, eating well, and sleeping regularly.


      • tcmullinax
        tcmullinax says:

        Okay…now I’m getting it. In my case, I am internally motivated to educate my child the best way that I can-AND I’m willing to schedule my entire life around it. That’s my “thing.”

        In her case, she needs to figure out the “thing(s)” that internally motivate her-and actively do that thing.

        The rub is that I’m projecting what I want her thing to be-and I have to let her figure it out on her own. It sounds like I need to practice NOT controlling things. I would never have considered myself a controller-but, I may need to examine that a little closer.


    • Becky Castle Miller
      Becky Castle Miller says:

      What is she doing on the computer? I think my kids would leave a similar comment to yours: “All my mom does all day is play on the computer.” I AM self-regulating with my computer usage. I’m publishing an online magazine, writing, taking two online courses in marketing, learning more about social media to make my efforts more effective, and doing freelance work.

      What your daughter is doing on her computer may not be a waste of time…it may be your best possible insight into her passions and talents, that you can help her develop.

      • tcmullinax
        tcmullinax says:

        Hi Becky,

        Good point…she loves Japanese anime, and she has learned some cultural bits and pieces.

        She is active on an moderated, open chat site for teens where she is an anime character…so, she virtually shops (a bit of math), and plays games (a bit of logic)…but mostly they just try to buy the latest thing in the store so they can show off (uhhh…socialization?).

        I am wishy washy when it comes to whether or not she’s learning much from it. That said, I have purchased Manga Shakespeare books, Graphic Novels of the classics, etc., to make her interests meet her education-she really appreciates that.

        • Becky Castle Miller
          Becky Castle Miller says:

          When I was 16, I loved the TV show JAG. I spent a lot of time on a forum about the show and started writing fan fiction. I grew hugely as a writer by doing that — pushing out content, getting feedback from readers, refining my craft. And two of the other women I met on that forum are still dear friends today (I’m 32 now). So there is probably a lot of value in what she’s doing that will show later in her life. You might ask your daughter if she’s interested in writing or illustrating anime fan fic.

          • tcmullinax
            tcmullinax says:

            She does write fan fiction-I didn’t think of sharing that because she’s grounded from the site ( right now because she met a boy on there and gave him a Google map to our home!!! Our computer desk is our giant dining room table…her screen was no more than a foot away from my own, our screens facing the same direction so I can glance over every now and then.

            She is a very talented writer according to all the feedback she gets. I read all of her stories-she asks me to. I’m uncomfortable with all the sexual innuendo that runs through anime and manga…she writes it into her stories as well. At first, I freaked out when I read it, but not in front of her. Then I remembered at her age, I was listening to AC/DC, and most of the lyrics were about sex, drugs, and rock n roll…I knew every word, but I turned out okay!

            At the same time, I NEVER would have shared my address with a complete stranger-so maybe I’m not doing her any favors.

            Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. Jo
    Jo says:

    I homeschooled my kids because at 4, my son was ungroupable. He could not sit still for two minutes, he ran around all day at top speed doing ‘stuff’, and would not have had a bar of sitting down to discuss his ‘feelings’ when he hit someone else in the playground with a toy truck. The article you linked to was brilliant – it is that insidious notion that you are an inadequate person if you cannot sit still and ’emote’ correctly that undermines kids’ self-worth. At least in the old days the discipline was overt – ‘Sit still because I want you to, and I am the teacher.’ That kind of bossiness was at least easy to rebel against.
    My boy got to have a childhood doing pretty much what he wanted, which included an immense amount of running around, climbing, getting filthy, playing jousting with sticks with his friends..
    He went to school at 13, at which point he knew intellectually that school was a system, and by agreeing to go he accepted certain restraints. This is an intellectual leap that you can’t ask of a 4yo. The 4yo can only internalize that he is a ‘bad boy’ if he can’t sit still.
    My boy, at 19, is doggedly pursuing training in his chosen career, despite set backs. When he gets knocked down, he gets right back up again and tries something else. He is immensely resilient and secure in his sense of self, and I have no fears that he will be a happy, connected adult.
    He would so have eaten that marshmallow.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “The problem is that the test for self-regulation is if a child will do what the teacher needs him to do. But real world self-regulation is deciding what you want for yourself and taking steps to get it, even if that may delay gratification until later.”

    The child who will “self-regulate” his/her learning will do it in either a homeschooling or school environment. Of course, a homeschooling environment is more conducive and favorable to self-regulated learning. Even for those of us who went to school for our formal education were able to self-regulate to varying degrees … and continue to do so today outside of school. I think school over-regulates but I think there are some aspects of regulation in school that can provide structure to enhance learning. I’m not thinking of a highly structured curriculum though. Something that’s just structured enough to fit the learning style of the student. Which brings me back to homeschooling because it’s a learning environment tailored to the individual. There’s a Wikipedia entry titled “Self-regulated learning” with associated references included that I thought was interesting.

  7. mh
    mh says:

    Why should schools want children to self-regulate? Compulsory schools are about compulsion. The schools have more power if the little darlings DON’T self-regulate.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    My comment above on self-regulate and learning has to do with “self” regardless of the environment. Not all learning by the student that takes place in school is compulsory. There are going to be some subjects and activities that the student will be interested in learning in the compulsory environment of the school. How much and to what degree will vary with the student and their learning style. A lot of learning that I did in school wasn’t from the text book or the lecture. It came from questions I asked from the teacher and other students.

  9. Jo
    Jo says:

    A big part of self-regulation for the child is a stepping back on the part of the parent, but also a willingness to let the child live with the consequences of what they choose to do. Each parent draws that line somewhere different. For example, I don’t let my 8yo ‘self-regulate’ how many sweets she wants to eat, but I am happy for her choose between all the healthy food options in the house for snacks, but if she eats up all the yoghurt today, there won’t be any more yoghurt until next shopping day, and all her siblings will yell at her.
    My son chose to go to school in Grade 8, and hated learning spelling. I pointed out the difference between the spelling level of the average 8th grader, and his spelling level, and told him I would be willing to work with him every day until school started to get his spelling level up. He chose not to do that, and his first day at school, he told me he ‘died a little inside’ when he realised how far behind he was with spelling. Of course, my heart bled for him, but his choice, right? As it was, he was in the literacy support program for six months, and had to work insanely hard, but he came up to speed, which shows you don’t need daily spelling lessons for eight years!
    It has also shown him that there is generally a way to get around problems if you work at them, and there is generally a way to get help when you need it.. both good life lessons (oh, and the other one – your mother is usually right!).
    I think a big part of parenting is judging the point where you can let your kids live ‘real life’ without diving in to rescue them from their own choices, while still keeping them safe, healthy and emotionally secure.

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