Self-regulation covers a lot of things that kids need to succeed inside and outside the classroom, ranging from the ability to have positive interactions with others, the capacity to avoid inappropriate or aggressive actions, and the ability to carry out self-directed learning. Cognitive processes contributing to self-regulation are often referred to as “executive function” and can include impulse control as well as the ability to direct or focus attention, adapt flexibly to changes, and retain information.
For the current study, researchers examined data from 49 previously published studies with a total of more than 23,000 children and teens who were randomly selected to receive an intervention to improve self-regulation or join a control group that didn’t get this help.
Most of the interventions were associated with improvements in kids’ ability to appropriately adjust their behavior and emotional responses to fit different situations, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics. While many things appeared helpful, the most effective approach involved training teachers to incorporate self-regulation education into their routine classroom activities.
“Self-regulation skills can be a powerful predictor of positive health, educational, financial and social outcomes,” said lead study author Dr. Anuja Pandey of the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health at the University College of London in the UK.
“While interventions to improve self-regulation mostly target pre-school and primary school age, our study findings show that such interventions can be effective even during adolescence, thus providing an extended window of opportunity to improve self-regulation,” Pandey said by email.
Children and teens who struggle with self-regulation may be prone to behavioral problems and emotional outbursts that make it hard for them to maintain friendships, enjoy sports and other group activities, and meet academic expectations in school. These kids can also have difficulties concentrating on tasks and lose interest in daily activities.
Researchers found consistent improvements in self-regulation in 16 of 21 interventions that were incorporated into school curriculums, making this the most successful approach.
However, many other options worked at least some of the time, including four of six exercise-based interventions, four of eight yoga and mindfulness interventions, and four of six interventions targeting social and personal skills.
In some instances, these interventions were also associated with improved academic achievement and reductions in substance abuse, school suspensions, depression, conduct disorders and behavioral problems.
One limitation of the study is that the many smaller experiments included in the analysis tested a wide variety of approaches and had different ways of measuring any improvements in self-regulation, the authors note.
Another drawback is that even though study participants ranged in age from two to 17 years old, the average age was six, and few of the studies focused on older children and teens.
Still, parents should be encouraged by the results, which suggest that self-regulation is a teachable skill and that many approaches to these lessons may work, said Laurence Steinberg, author of an accompanying editorial and a researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“What’s surprising is that so many different types of activity – meditation, physical exercise, yoga, executive function training programs – are reasonably effective,” Steinberg said by email.
“This matters for parents because it indicates that there may be different routes to the same goal, and that parents ought to be able to find some approach that suits their child,” Steinberg added.
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