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Self Control is not Self-Regulation; An Educator's Perspective

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

Editor's Note:

This is the first Edushift article from Education Consultant Sue Neilson - see below.



Many trends and new ideas permeate Ontario’s schools, but few take root and become scalable. The reason is, except in Kindergarten, we fail to teach children the fundamental skill to learn and a have successful life or a happy one. This skill is self-regulation.


Self-regulation is irrevocably intertwined with executive function and has been described metaphorically as the ‘air traffic controller’ of our brain. It allows us metacognitively, to step back, analyse context and determine a pathway that best meets the needs at hand.

Self-regulation is not merely self-control. Self-control is about maintaining control of our behaviours and has nothing to do with selecting viable options to achieve a purpose. Self-regulation is not compliance. Compliance is a passive behaviour in which children release their personal regulation to that of another person. In the education system, we teach compliance when children are very young, removing opportunity for children to learn to pursue curiosity, problem solve, make balanced decisions and chart their own personalized pathways through the fields of learning. In industrial era classrooms students sit in rows, with hands in the air to answer questions.

Ironically, we continue to espouse to staff, parents, community and other stakeholders that we are compelled to produce students who will be successful in the 21st century world, who are resourceful, self-directed, collegial and creative. What we are doing in reality is the opposite, providing systems, structures and programs to teach compliance, and therein denying children the opportunity to be independent, self-directed learners. Instead of valuing a classroom in which students, in various manifestations of self-regulation, are engaged, we value classrooms where classroom ‘management’ – students working quietly at their desks – is paramount.


What has a profound – and deleterious – impact on student learning and student achievement is that many educators operate under the misconception that self-regulation is the same for all students. In fact, the opposite is true. Some students are self-regulating when they sit quietly and focus on the teacher, but in many cases, this is simply not true. Students may well sit quietly and compliantly, but many are not learning. We as educators continue to believe in the incorrect assumption that good classroom ‘management’ means quietness and self-control.

For many children, self-regulation, and therefore learning, requires physical movement and side bar conversations, which are not the behavioural norm of the ideal classroom. When a child is excited and ‘shouts out’ an answer, they are quickly hushed up in preference for the raised hand. As for the child whose hand is not up, but we call on them to answer, we inspire stress because they are not , despite their best intentions, in the zone of learning. Calling on them inspires anxiety, not a reminder to ‘get back on task’. Being caught not knowing an answer is merely public humiliation, particularly for children with learning disabilities, but true for most students.


It is frustrating when we as educators are called upon to teach children ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fail early and fail often’ forgetting that if children do not understand how to self-regulate (because others are forcing their compliance and making the decisions) that neither of these are possible. How can you tell a child to have a growth mindset when their ability to think independently is limited, or when the teaching strategies have not met the child’s profile?

I am not arguing against the concept of children experiencing failure. However, they have to know what learning feels like, feel the flow, to understand when meaning is breaking down. They must have tools at this point to change up the strategy and get back to learning – but what if the teacher is the owner of the toolbox? If there is no toolbox, and no knowledge of how to use a toolbox, then student options are limited – bad behaviour, class clown, increased anxiety and depression. Also, and very worrying, is the inability to initiate. When students’ school experience is frustrating at best, they also stop initiating. They do not ‘fail early and fail often’, they fail all the time. So why try?


Self-regulation is the cornerstone to students engaging and enjoying learning and is ultimately the skill that leads to a successful life. It is vital that we ‘back up the bus’ and give our students the skill to learn from kindergarten and beyond.


Sue Neilson is a former teacher, principal and currently works as an education consultant and passionate advocate for educational change.



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