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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


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Sit Still, Be Quiet, and Raise Your Hand to Speak: Self-Regulation in the Classroom

By: Mia Daucourt

Imagine that you are a teacher for a third-grade homeroom class. You have more than 20 kids in your class, and they are all very different, but you somehow have to manage the classroom and make sure everyone learns the “important stuff.” You have two students that stand out for different reasons, Seth, who is a model student that does well on his tests and assignments and never gives you any problems, and Sara, who is a disruptive student who seems to be unable to follow classroom rules and complete her assignments at all. Self-regulated students, like Seth, focus on classroom tasks and keep track of and apply what the teacher is saying, like being given an addition problem out loud, solving it in their heads, and raising their hands and waiting to be called on to provide their answers. Conversely, students like Sara, who struggle with self-regulation, tend to chat when they are supposed to be working, blurt out answers without waiting to be called on, and have trouble listening to the teacher’s lessons because they are distracted by other things of interest in the classroom, like a poster on the wall. We often take self-regulatory behaviors for granted and simply expect students to engage in them, but there are a lot of individual differences in how kids are able to handle classroom demands, and without self-regulatory ability, it is very difficult for children to succeed in a classroom setting.

The three main skills that make up self-regulatory ability are working memory, inhibitory control, and attentional flexibility. Working memory is our ability to hold information in mind and do something with it, like being able to remember the components of an addition problem while solving the problem in our heads. The second component of self-regulation is inhibitory control, which refers to our ability to stop an automatic response in favor of a more adaptive one. An example of exercising inhibitory control would be when a student wants to blurt out an answer, but instead, raises his/her hand and waits to be called on by the teacher to speak (something Seth would do!). The third self-regulatory skill is attentional flexibility, which represents our ability to focus and shift our attention, while blocking out any unwanted sounds or distractions. This enables students to focus on what the teacher is saying, even when their classmates are moving around, or for students to switch easily from quietly reading to engaging in a group activity based on the reading. You can probably see why these skill would be very important for classroom interactions and student learning and absolutely vital for keeping order in a large group of students!

A recent study by Day and Connor (2017) aimed to create and test a new self-regulation measure, called the Remembering Rules and Regulation Picture Task (RRRP), which would be more accessible and easier to use than many of the self-regulation measures currently available. Their goals for the RRRP were for it to be easy to administer to any child without a clinician, for it to be based on direct observation, instead of asking a respondent to recall past events or behaviors, and it for it to measure all three components of self-regulation simultaneously so the way the coordination of all three components would also be captured. With these main criteria in mind, they also wanted to see, if and when, they successfully measured children’s self-regulation ability, if that measure could then be used to predict children’s academic achievement and growth in reading and math. For their study, they administered the RRRP to a sample of 282 third-grade students from 34 public school classrooms across Florida.

So, what does the RRRP assessment look like? The RRRP is an interactive assessment made up of 10 items, for which a child is given a set of different colored blocks and a picture of park setting. Based on a tester’s verbal instructions, the child is asked to place the blocks on familiar objects in the picture, after the command is read entirely and the tester says “Go.” Meanwhile, the child is expected to listen to each command, remember which color blocks to use, and which objects, in which order, to place the blocks on. An example item would be, “Put a blue block on the squirrel by the rock. Go.” Halfway through the assessment, the rules switch, and the child is instructed to switch the block color in the command for another color (i.e., switch blue blocks for red blocks and vice versa). Thus, if the child is instructed to place a blue block on the squirrel by the rock, the child must instead place a red block in the designated location. The items on the RRRP are meant to tap into all three components of self-regulatory ability. Remembering the detailed instructions until the child is able to act in response to the commands captures working memory, waiting to respond to the commands until the tester says “Go” captures inhibitory control, and the ability to switch between the rules for the block colors captures attentional flexibility.

Overall, the researchers found some that the RRRP measured up! Compared to other measures of self-regulatory ability, the RRRP was effectively capturing children’s self-regulatory skills and it’s components of working memory, inhibitory control, and attentional flexibility. They had created an easy-to-administer self-regulation assessment. Next, the researcher’s used the RRRP scores to see if they could predict how children would perform in reading and math. For this second goal, they also found that the RRRP measured up. Different parts of the RRRP mattered for different reading and math skills, but overall, the RRRP scores were effective in predicting how children would do at the end of the year and how they would grow over the school year. Although self-regulation may not traditionally be thought of as an academic skill, self-regulation is crucial for learning in a classroom setting. Thus, the present study serves as an important first step in creating a new easy-to-administer self-regulation measure that can help us gauge which children may need extra help developing their self-regulation skills and which children are likely to do well and grow in their reading and math skills over the school year.

Day, S. L. & Connor, C. M. (2017). Examining the relations between self-regulation and achievement in third grade students. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 42(2), 97-109.