Research has shown that early self-regulation skills are strongly associated with academic success in children. Self-regulation refers to a set of skills that enable individuals to manage their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve their goals. These skills include things like impulse control, attentional focus, emotional regulation, and planning and organization.
According to a study conducted by the universities of Zurich and Mainz, teaching children how to manage their attention and impulses in primary school has a long-term positive effect on their later educational success.
Self-regulation, or the ability to manage attention, emotions, and impulses, as well as persevere in pursuing individual goals, is not a skill typically associated with young children. However, school closures due to the pandemic and children’s increased use of digital media have demonstrated how important these abilities are, particularly for children.
According to studies, people who demonstrated self-regulation as children have a higher income, better health, and higher life satisfaction. They also show that the ability to exert self-regulation can be targetedly trained in childhood. How can self-regulation skills training be integrated into a typical elementary school day without taking up too much teaching time? Is it possible to teach young students an abstract self-regulation strategy in a suitable manner? Is it possible to improve long-term educational success by teaching such skills?
Our study has shown how the training of this skill can be explicitly embedded in primary school teaching at an early stage. 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 toward them.Ernst Fehr
Self-regulation improves even with short training units
These questions were investigated by an international team from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich (Switzerland) and the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (Germany). The research team was able to demonstrate that even a short training unit resulted in a significant and sustainable improvement in self-regulation using a randomized controlled study in elementary schools involving over 500 first graders.
The training had a significant impact on the children’s reading ability and focus on careless mistakes one year after the training, and they were also significantly more likely to be admitted to a selective academic secondary school (Gymnasium) three years after the training.
“Our study has shown how the training of this skill can be explicitly embedded in primary school teaching at an early stage. 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 toward them,” says Ernst Fehr, professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich. According to the last author, children’s comprehensive key skills that are of fundamental importance for good educational attainment and a successful later life can be improved thanks to the simple scalability of the program.
Easily integrated into the regular timetable
Due to previous practical experience, the study authors designed the training units in such a way that they could be implemented in any primary school setting: the training unit lasted only five hours, and teachers participated in a three-hour training session and received fully developed teaching materials that they could integrate directly into the regular class schedule.
The training modules were based on the MCII Strategy (“Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions”), which has already been the subject of excellent research in adults and older students. The teachers used a picture book and a hurdle jumper role model to present the abstract strategy in a playful manner. In the first step, the children imagined the benefits of achieving a goal. They compared them to the challenges they might face along the way (“Mental Contrasting”). The children then developed “when-then” plans and identified specific behaviors to overcome the obstacles (“Implementation Intention”).
Positive effect on society
“The unique aspect of our research is the long-term ripple effects that this brief training unit can have. These effects benefit the child and are passed on to society in a variety of ways over the course of the child’s life “Daniel Schunk, professor of public and behavioral economics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, is the first author. “The fact that early investments in such fundamental skills benefit not only the child but also society should receive more attention in education policy.”