In my column, "How Can Learning Problems Affect Children Emotionally?," I highlighted the debilitating effects of academic failure on children’s emotional adjustment. In this column, I will discuss skills that children can develop to help them deal with academic demands more effectively. These skills form the basis of what is called “self-regulation.” Self-regulated learners understand the important links underlying what they think, what they feel, and what they do (or don’t do).
Let’s begin with cognitive skills, because thinking drives self-regulation. What do self-regulated learners think about when they are presented with an academic task? Generally speaking, they are aware of their thoughts; they think about thinking!
This awareness allows them to:
analyze a task.
assess their strengths and weaknesses, relative to the task.
set realistic short-term and long-term goals for completing the task.
monitor their progress toward reaching these goals and, if needed, make changes.
evaluate the results.
This sequence is a strategy that can be applied to a wide variety of situations. Yet many children, especially those who struggle academically, may not be aware of this sequence and other learning strategies. Or if aware, they may not be skilled at implementing the components. Therefore, it is essential that children receive detailed instruction in using these learning strategies, be encouraged to practice them, and get feedback on their progress. As part of teaching, teachers can model various components of a learning strategy by “thinking aloud”—talking about what they are thinking as they confront problems inside school (e.g., researching a report) and outside (e.g., planning a vacation).
Researchers have also stressed the importance of teaching learning strategies to help children become self-regulated. Here are two varied examples.
Visual aids have been used to teach seemingly simple, but often neglected skills for academic success. One approach used a small chart with pictures of a stop sign, an eye, and an ear to signify stop-look-listen when a teacher asks for attention. This visual aid helps children to remember to stop whatever they are doing and sit still, look at the teacher, and listen to what he says. Most important, it breaks down a request into several specific behaviors. In other words, it analyzes a task! Over time, these prompts can be eliminated as children internalize the specific behaviors involved and the process becomes automatic.
The distinction between reading and studying has also been highlighted. Some children think that all they have to do to learn material is read it—once. Others may not use strategies for learning beyond rereading material. Both practices assume learning is simple, but it’s not. Learning is a complex process, and utilizing strategies to learn material is crucial for struggling learners. Such learners can be taught to break down their reading assignments paragraph-by-paragraph (or even sentence-by-sentence), summarizing each paragraph aloud before proceeding. If they cannot summarize it, they should reread the paragraph and try again. If they still can’t summarize it, they should seek help to determine what they have and have not grasped. By developing questions for the learners, or helping them develop questions, parents and teachers can help learners determine if they grasped the information.
The important point of these examples is that we need to teach many children to learn how to learn. They need to know that there are strategies for dealing with challenging tasks, and they can learn how to use them effectively. They also need to realize that these strategies will help them to use time and energy productively and, thus, avoid unnecessary stress.
Dr. Gary G. Brannigan is a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. A licensed Clinical Psychologist and a certified School Psychologist with numerous publications, he recently received the State University Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship. He and Dr. Howard Margolis will soon be publishing a book for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.