Where’s the self-control? Teaching self-regulation in K-12

by Katie Dorn on September 12, 2022

The start of a new school year sparks so many emotions. The adrenaline rush of new beginnings. The joy of reconnecting with friends. So many, overflowing emotions.

For too many students, the return can trigger school avoidance, behavioral issues, or a struggle for motivation.

As educators, we dream of self-directed learners who are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning. And a critical skill is self-regulation.

Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage thoughts, emotions and attention. And it’s a skill that can be taught.

Teaching Self-Regulation Ignites Student Success

Self-regulation has been referred to as “self-management, self-control, and self-direction” and includes skills such as “goal setting, planning, self-talk, self-monitoring, self-recording, and self-evaluation,” say Lori Korinek and Sharon deFur in an article in Teaching Exceptional Children. Most educators agree that self-regulated learners take more responsibility for their learning and behavior over time as they mature.

We know that students who lack self-regulation have higher rates of absenteeism, dropping out, and underachievement. They also have a tougher time developing positive relationships with peers and adults.

Teaching self-regulation strategies is a positive step toward stronger student-student and student-teacher relationships that are supportive, cooperative and respectful — and lead to better academic outcomes.


Self-Regulation at the Elementary Level

Students thrive in a structured environment, with predictable schedules and routines. And we all know that the last few years have been anything but predictable. 

And whether we call it positive behavior, self-control, or self-management, every educator longs for students to exhibit self-control. 

Our Take Charge of Me, universal classroom curriculum (K-5) gives all students the vocabulary, skills and mindset to learn self-regulation. 

Most littles don’t yet know how to take charge of their thoughts. But guided by our superhero “Charge,”  it’s a superpower they can learn.  

At the elementary level, it means recognizing when anger, frustration, boredom, anxiety or other unhelpful feelings sneak into their thoughts. It means practicing calming strategies to self-regulate their physical and emotional response. And when taught in whole-class instruction, students learn and practice lifelong self-regulation strategies, like calming, breathing, and thinking out loud—tools that reinforce learning for even the most disruptive learner.

There is significant need to help students process and learn to overcome the feelings of isolation, hopelessness and anxiety they experienced during the pandemic. EmpowerU is an online partner that can support schools as they need, to scale, without a lot of teacher prep or special training.

“As a self-contained classroom teacher, this has been the best tool for my students to take ownership of themselves and their behaviors. It has also helped me better understand how to acknowledge behaviors in a positive way.”Stapleton Elementary teacher

Self-Regulation in Middle and High Schools

In addition to managing thoughts and emotions, a critical foundation for success in middle and high school is academic self-regulation, which focuses on behaviors that influence learning: motivation, use of time, control of one’s physical and social environment, and performance.

When we work with secondary students, we reframe the conversation. What is getting in the way of achieving their goals? We talk about their inner critic, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that can creep in, and we teach strategies for rallying their inner coach.

We know that successful students recognize, understand, monitor and regulate their behavior. They set goals, consider different strategies, develop plans, ask for help when needed, and persist if they run into trouble.

But when are these skills taught during the school day in your school?

Our Tier 1 secondary curriculum (grades 6-10) gives all students the skills and mindset to develop new habits and find success in school and life. Our turnkey digital curriculum requires minimal daily prep and is led by classroom teachers using prompts and resources inside the EmpowerU portal. Daily exercises are tailored to each grade level to reinforce classroom lessons and build self-regulation and resilience. Engaging activities help students internalize learning.

These skills form the foundation of success in school and in life. When students learn to self-regulate, they experience better outcomes, both academic and behavioral.

For students requiring additional support, our Tier 2 intervention delivers expert 1:1 support to struggling students. Our team can help identify the students who will benefit from daily online lessons and 1:1 coaching by trained EmpowerU instructors. Collaboration between EmpowerU and your school-based counseling team maximizes meaningful student support. The credit-bearing course has proven results.

Self-regulation can be taught…but it requires meeting students where they’re at. Research suggests applying a five-stage model of human behavior change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. The key to successful change is understanding the specific stage a student is in — at a personalized level — paired with activities or tasks for the student to engage in to move to the next level. In other words, personalized application and action are required to improve student behavior and drive positive outcomes.

How many students do you see who are unaware that a change is needed (pre-contemplation) or are thinking about a need to change? Lasting change and new habits form when students take small steps, with positive reinforcement over time. And those steps will be different for every student. So, how do you scale a personalized approach?

An MTSS Intervention Customized for Your School

Our highly personalized, data-driven Tier 1 and Tier 2 solutions equip students with the skills they need to be resilient, self-regulated and self-directed learners to reach their goals.

Our Tier 2 solution blends adaptive online lessons with robust embedded coaching — which expands a school’s capacity — to meet the urgent post-pandemic needs for student support and interventions.

A 3-year data study of EmpowerU measured the increase in student growth from pre-to-post intervention in each of four goal areas: emotional, personal, social, and academic. In a 12-week, credit-bearing course, students went from just thinking about making a change to actively working on their goals each day.

Students learn about themselves in order to best make personal changes and improve their quality of life. They master strategies for motivation, habits and routines. They rally their “inner coaches” over their inner critics by using realistic self-talk, and they successfully learn self-regulation and identify a community of support.

of EmpowerU students
would recommend the
credit-bearing course to a friend

Last year was one of the most difficult in the books. As schools welcome students back this fall, we know the challenges continue — academic, social, emotional, and behavioral. When I see this challenge — in districts of every shape, size and location — the school counselor and family therapist in me want to jump in and help. I know that positive change is possible.

Register For an Upcoming  Learning Session

EmpowerU is designed to help students get unstuck and reduce overwhelm. Our Do First™ Methodology prompts action through simple daily steps, a strategy proven to build long-term results. Beginning with action, we build on core concepts using evidence-based lessons, feedback, reflection and application to cement learning and create lasting change.

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EmpowerU’s highly personalized, online social-emotional learning program helps young people replace anxiety and depression with resilience and confidence, fueling student transformation without a heavy lift on staff or need for additional hires. We provide each student interactive lessons and personalized coaching, and we pair technology with brain research in a unique way that supports students and empowers them to grow. Our multi-year data makes it clear: Nobody else understands Multi-Tiered System of Supports and approaches SEL the way we do at EmpowerU.


Topics: student resilience, motivating learners, self regulation, teaching self-regulation