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April 1, 2019

Self-Regulation Linked to Being a Better Reader

Two students have the same grades, but one is more likely to be held back a year due to something parents won’t see on their report cards: self-regulation.

Self-regulation may conjure scenarios of biting your tongue when the boss suggests an awful idea, but for young children, having it means they’ll be better readers, according to the recent paper “Self-regulation and the development of literacy and language achievement from preschool through second grade.”

For developing children, self-regulation includes focus and being able to manage frustration without an outburst. As they grow, it’s a set of skills that enable them to direct their own behavior toward a goal.

In this case, reading.

Although previous research has maintained the link between higher literacy scores and increased ability to self-regulate, what made this study different was that the children, more than 300 of them, were looked at during eight different points in time – in the fall and spring of each year they were enrolled in the study.

“What we saw is a relationship between every time point. The children with developed self-regulation at a later age read well at a later age, and those who developed it earlier also read well earlier,” said Lori Skibbe, associate professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University and lead author of the study.

The study also noted, “children with lower self-regulation are more likely to be retained a grade than students with higher regulatory capabilities, even when literacy scores are fairly comparable.”

Previously, most studies measuring self-regulation in children took a snapshot, like the famed marshmallow test viewed millions of times online.

The video displays how a young child weighs a simple yet daunting choice. Left alone with a marshmallow, they can choose to either eat it immediately and be done, or wait, and get two.

While the original test – there have been several remakes – fails to take into account some of the reasoning behind why a child might choose to eat the marshmallow rather than wait, it opened up a conversation about how context and environment can affect self-regulation.

“It may not be as straightforward as we thought. It looks like kids may have really good reasons to eat it right away because they don’t know when or if they’ll get to have another. Now we know this is more complicated and we need to study context,” said Skibbe.

Biological factors and environment play important roles in the development of self-regulation, and that means there are ways to nurture this proven predictor of positive academic outcomes.

“We can encourage it, by making our classrooms predictable and making transitions short and smooth. It also helps to mix children with different levels of self-regulation together,” Skibbe said.

At home, parents can help too.

According to the Child Mind Institute, don’t avoid challenging scenarios, but coach kids through them until they can handle them alone. They also have some advice on how to do that.

Transitions: Sudden interruptions in activity can be difficult for young children to navigate, but breaking the chain into small steps allows children to build self-regulation skills in manageable increments. If a child melts down when asked to stop playing a video game, practice transitioning away from it by telling them they can play a few minutes longer and then turn it off. If brushing teeth is a problem, focus just on putting toothpaste on the brush. After a few times, add the next step and so on. Similarly, if getting out the door in the morning leads to meltdowns, set the goal to be dressed by 7:15 a.m. Once that’s mastered, set a target time for breakfast, and add on from there.

Support: When transitions work, praise and reward with kind words or a hug. Don’t get discouraged when things don’t go well the first time. Consistency and baby steps are key. Also, keep in mind it’s difficult to self-regulate when basic needs aren’t met.

Adequate rest and nutrition: Lack of sleep, dehydration or hunger can derail kids. Sometimes a tantrum is a cry for a snack or a nap.

Move and play: Provide opportunities for outdoor play. Exposure to green spaces and at least one hour of physical activity a day benefit everything from physical to mental health. On rainy days games like Simon Says and Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders require using self-regulatory behaviors.

Breathe: Blowing bubbles is an easy way to practice deep breathing, which can have a calming effect. When you blow bubbles too quickly or slowly, it doesn’t work. Yoga is another great way for kids to connect with their bodies and use self-regulation.

Read: Read books about emotions as a way to discuss feelings. Books like “What Should Danny Do?” and “The Kids’ Guide to Staying Awesome and in Control” are good examples.

Get musical: Songs can help children remember self-regulation strategies. Check out Daniel Tiger’s song about, taking turnsCookie Monster’s song about patience around cookies and many more.

This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at

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