What is Self-Regulation—Really? Shared understandings and language matter


Did you hear the one about two psychologists and a philosopher who searched The Google for the true meaning of self-regulation and found 447 definitions?

This is not the first line of a bad joke. It actually happened. Back in 2014, Jeremy Burman, Christopher Green and our own Stuart Shanker set out to disentangle the ambiguity around the meaning of self-regulation, an important term in the lexicon of both psychology and education. Yet, as Burman et. al. pointed out in a widely discussed article, self-regulation has multiple meanings, all of which “are being acted upon as if each were its sole scientific meaning.” (italics mine). 

So everybody agrees that self-regulation is important. They just can’t agree on what it is. That’s a problem. Common language and understandings are important when we’re talking about what makes people tick and learn, and how to help them tick and learn better, especially when we’re talking about the development and learning of children.

The authors actually did identify 447 different meanings, although many of them were quite similar. So they distilled these definitions down into six conceptual clusters:

Self-Control (including emotional regulation)

Learning/Learning Strategies (Metacognition)

Self-Monitoring/Self Management

Agency/Self Determination, Locus of control

Social Behaviour

Self-Monitoring (including Reflectiveness and Self Perception)

Interestingly, the definition of self-regulation that TMC uses—how we respond to stress, whether in a manner that promotes or restricts growth, learning and well-being— which is based on Walter Cannon’s ground-breaking work on the brain/body adaptive systems of animals, doesn’t really fit into any of those six categories. So if Self-Reggers talk to other folks about self-regulation we’re almost always going to be talking to people whose conception of self-regulation is different from ours.  Most often they will be thinking of some version of self-control – being able to monitor and manage our thoughts, emotions and behaviour through conscious decisions and willpower. 

So I think we have to get beyond simply acting as if our definition of self-regulation is the correct one, and assuming that most people will understand and agree with us. We need to do a better job of explaining why our definition is the most useful one, if we want to understand why some kids (and adults) have so much trouble learning and behaving the way we’d like them to.

I see numerous problems with using self-regulation as synonym for self-control. For starters, self-control is a well-understood term. It’s a thing. Pretty much everybody agrees on what it means. What’s the point of having another name for it, especially a fuzzy one that has such varied meanings in different circles?

Secondly, the self-control-based conception of self-regulation is mostly cognitive. It’s based on the premise that self-control happens when people use their cognitive faculties to make good judgements and decisions, and exert the effort needed to control emotions, thinking and behaviour. This cognitive approach ignores human functioning in other domains of experience: what’s going on in our bodies (biological), our emotions, our interactions and relationships (social) and our moral sensibilities (prosocial).  What’s happening in those domains impacts our ability to try hard, concentrate, make good decisions, and make nice.

Third, but no less important, the self-control model sees self-regulation as a normative skill, one we have to teach children. Thus, when there’s a “self-regulation” problem, it’s the child that needs to change, rather than the conditions around the child. Self-Reg looks at factors in the child’s life and environment that impair or outright block children’s self-control: the stressors, the relationships, the way we regard and interact with the child, even the pedagogy we employ to teach them.

And lastly, human beings suck at cognitive self-control a lot of the time, and, very often, our attempts to fix that are similarly prone to failure.

When self-regulation as self-control fails, what are we left with? Well, we’re left with trying harder (and often failing again). We’re left with concluding that there’s something “wrong” with the child. Perhaps they need more practice or training in self-control. Or perhaps they need some sort of punishment or strong discipline strategy that will teach them a lesson, motivate them or force them to exhibit self-control. Ultimately, we’re left with concluding that the person with chronic poor self-control is weak, inadequate, defective or just plain “bad.” 

Moreover, when our attempts to encourage, build or force self-control are unsuccessful, we often start to look down on the child even more (i.e. label the child a “bad kid.”). Thus, kids with self-control problems get far more than their share of negative interactions with adults as they grow up. Under these conditions poor self-control seems more likely to become entrenched rather than improved.  What’s more, our failures as interveners make us look down on ourselves as well. We feel like inadequate disciplinarians or teachers. Relationships suffer. Our sense of self-efficacy is diminished. This is not helpful to anybody.

Last, but by no means least, our definition of self-regulation offers a better, more far-reaching framework for addressing equity and inclusiveness in child development, education and in society in general. If we presume that self-regulation means self-control then certain people will be disadvantaged in life. It is abundantly clear that some individuals have greater difficulty controlling emotions, thoughts and behaviour for various reason including bio-genetic differences in brain wiring, or heightened levels of stress due to life circumstances, or various developmental or psychological disorders or challenges. If we fail to recognize and address the extra stress caused by these conditions or challenges, they will not have an equal opportunity, indeed, the freedom, to realize their full human potential nor choose the life path they truly want.

Therefore, we need a concept of self-regulation that looks at human behaviour and it’s influences in a holistic way: a concept that includes everything, not just how to change the child—their character, motivation or skill level. And, as we know, one of the missing puzzle pieces is excess stress and how it affects us beneath the surface.

This is why the Self-Reg definition of self-regulation is based on Cannon’s work, rather than studies on how to modify behaviour. Cannon was one of the first scientists to really pull together the science on the various ways the brains and bodies of humans (and other animals) work to regulate themselves in the face of myriad changing conditions, including various kinds of stress and danger. In his 1929 book, The Wisdom of the Body, one chapter was entitled Self-Regulation of the Body. Cannon talked about “adaptive stabilizing arrangements.” These are the brain body systems, which enable organisms, including humans, to “continue to live and carry on their functions with relatively little disturbance,” even when “confronted by dangerous conditions in the outer world and by equally dangerous possibilities within the body.”  

Sounds like self-regulation in the biological domain, doesn’t it? So let’s connect a few of big dots. All this time we are thinking, deciding and acting in attempts to exhibit the self-control and mastery required in various situations, there is all this other stuff going on inside us, as our brains and bodies react and respond to what’s going on around us. Our nervous systems are working to maintain the balance, the homeostasis, the stability we need in order to use our executive functions, make good moral decisions, curb impulses and think straight. And, as Cannon and other scientists who followed in his footsteps have shown very clearly, those inner resources can be thrown out of whack by an overactive stress system.  

So if, in helping children develop, learn and grow, we focus only on “changing the child” through cognitive strategies aimed at improving effortful control, we’re ignoring the other elephant in the room, which is stress. Stress that disrupts our brain body self-regulatory systems and monopolizes our energy. That simply cannot be ignored if we want to help children (and adults) thrive, contribute to society, or even just develop better self-control. A conception of self-regulation rooted in understanding and managing stress helps us see how the environment, the interactions and relationship are affecting the child, and what we can do, on both a macro and micro level, to create the conditions that enable all children to use their full capacities to learn and grow. 

That’s why Dr. Shanker’s definition of self-regulation is the most useful one. It looks at the bigger picture, while opening up myriad new possibilities for helping (rather than controlling) children (and adults for that matter). In my next blog I’ll attempt to illustrate the difference this can make in practice.

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