Teaching self-regulation early – with sustainable effects on children’s educational success

Research study by the universities of Mainz and Zurich demonstrates high effectivity in developing the ability for self-regulation in young primary school students

13 October 2022

Self-regulation, i.e., the ability to control attention, emotion, and impulses, as well as being able to pursue individual goals consequently, is a skill that we usually do not spontaneously associate with young children. However, the school closures due to the pandemic and the increased usage of digital media by children have now shown how important these abilities are, especially for children. Influential institutions such as UNESCO consider the skill of self-regulation to be essential for educational success in the 21st century. And self-regulation does not just play a key role in educational success: studies show that people who demonstrated self-regulation as children have on average higher income, better health, and greater life satisfaction. Moreover, studies show that the ability to exert self-regulation can be trained in a targeted manner already in childhood. Taking this situation into account, it is surprising that the explicit training of this basic skill has not yet been anchored in schools or in curricula.

Can the training of self-regulation skills be integrated into the basic elementary school day without taking up too much teaching time? Is it possible to already teach young pupils an abstract self-regulation strategy in a way that is appropriate for young children so that they can also use this independently on their own goals outside of school? Can the effects of improved self-regulation be demonstrated directly after the teaching unit? Does this teaching unit have the potential to improve long-term educational success? How can such a training program be designed so that it can be implemented practically and comprehensively? Professor Daniel Schunk, Dr. Eva Berger, Dr. Henning Hermes, and Professor Kirsten Winkel from the Interdisciplinary Public Policy program at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Professor Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, also recipient of the 2014 Gutenberg Research Award of Mainz University, examined these questions.

Randomized controlled study shows significant improvement in self-regulation in primary school students

Using a randomized controlled study in elementary schools with more than 500 first graders, the research team was able to show that even a short training unit led to a significant and sustainable improvement in self-regulation. The training did not just affect self-regulation abilities; the researchers were also able to show significantly improved reading ability and an improved focus on careless mistakes one year after the training, as well as a strongly increased probability of selecting an advanced track secondary school three years after the training. The results of this study have been published in the current issue of the renowned journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Due to concerns from practical experience, such as school curricula that are already very full, the study authors designed the training units in an extremely cost-effective and time-saving manner, in such a way that they can be introduced everywhere in primary schools: the training unit only lasts for five hours, teachers participate in a three-hour training session and receive completely developed teaching materials so that they can integrate the prepared teaching units directly into the regular class schedule. The training units are based on the Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) strategy, which has already been the subject of excellent research in adults and older students: the teachers present the abstract strategy in a playful manner using a picture book and the role model of "Hurdy, the hurdle jumper". In a first step, the children imagine the positive effects of reaching a goal. They contrast them with the obstacles that they might face on the way ("Mental Contrasting"). The children then identify specific behaviors to face the obstacles and develop "when-then" plans ("Implementation Intention").

Long-term effects of the promotion of key competences

"The general importance of self-regulation skills has been known for a long time. With this study, we now show how the training of this skill can be explicitly embedded in primary school teaching at an early stage," stated Professor Ernst Fehr, one of the authors of the study. "An increase in self-regulation enables children to take on more responsibility for their own learning and to set goals on their own and work on them. Comprehensive key skills of children that are of fundamental importance for a successful educational attainment and a successful later life can be improved thanks to the simple scalability of the program."

"The special feature of our study is that it shows the long-term transfer effects of a short teaching unit," emphasized Professor Daniel Schunk, also author of the study. "These effects benefit the child, and they transfer in many ways to society as a whole over the course of the child's further life cycle. The fact that early investments in such fundamental competencies not only benefit the child alone, but also society, should be given more attention in education policy."