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Teaching self-regulation


Children’s self-regulation abilities are key predictors of educational success and other life outcomes such as income and health. However, self-regulation is not a school subject, and knowledge about how to generate lasting improvements in self-regulation and academic achievements with easily scalable, low-cost interventions is still limited. Here we report the results of a randomized controlled field study that integrates a short self-regulation teaching unit based on the concept of mental contrasting with implementation intentions into the school curriculum of first graders. We demonstrate that the treatment increases children’s skills in terms of impulse control and self-regulation while also generating lasting improvements in academic skills such as reading and monitoring careless mistakes. Moreover, it has a substantial effect on children’s long-term school career by increasing the likelihood of enroling in an advanced secondary school track three years later. Thus, self-regulation teaching can be integrated into the regular school curriculum at low cost, is easily scalable, and can substantially improve important abilities and children’s educational career path.

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Fig. 1: The effects of self-regulation teaching on reading and finding careless mistakes.
Fig. 2: The effects of self-regulation teaching on inhibition, attention and overall self-regulation.
Fig. 3: The long-term effects of self-regulation teaching on children’s enrolment in advanced secondary school track.
Fig. 4: Introducing generic components of MCII to first graders with the help of an emotionally involving story about Hurdy, the hurdle jumper.
Fig. 5: Applying MCII to the goal of improving reading abilities.

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Data availability

The data for this publication have been collected in a project that has compiled a large set (and combination) of children’s abilities, preferences and family (sociodemographic) characteristics (Supplementary Sections 1.3 and 1.4) and thus represents highly sensitive data. This dataset cannot be made available for data protection reasons. In addition, parental consent for data usage only covers strictly scientific purposes. The restriction to scientific purposes was also necessary to comply with data protection requirements, and use of the data for strictly scientific purposes cannot be guaranteed if the dataset is made (publicly) available. Not all the data collected in this project are analysed for this publication; see Supplementary Section 1.4 for details. Researchers interested in replicating our findings can get access to the dataset after filling out a research agreement with us. We confirm that in the paper and the Supplementary Information, we have reported all measures, conditions, data exclusions, and how we determined our sample sizes.


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We thank all teachers, schools, and educational authorities as well as all parents and children for their participation in the project. We are also thankful to countless excellent research assistants who made this field study possible. Moreover, we thank M. Wolf for support and provision of code in conducting the multiple testing correction. We are grateful for generous financial support that allowed us to conduct this project: All authors acknowledge support by the Jacobs Foundation (project 2013-1078-00). E.F. acknowledges support from the University Research Priority Program of the University of Zurich on Equality of Opportunity (project U-302-01-01). D.S. acknowledges support by the university research priority programme ‘Interdisciplinary Public Policy’ at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (project FI 2/2014-2016). E.M.B. acknowledges support by the German Research Foundation (BE 5436/1-1). H.H. acknowledges support by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and the Research Council of Norway (FAIR, project 262675). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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E.F. and D.S. initiated and supervised the study throughout all stages. E.F., D.S., E.M.B., and K.W. conceptualized the study and all authors developed the field design. E.M.B., H.H., D.S., and K.W. developed intervention materials and outcome measures for the study. H.H. conducted the field experiment with input from E.M.B., E.F., D.S., and K.W.; E.M.B. and H.H. performed the data analysis with input from E.F., D.S., and K.W.; all authors were involved in the interpretation of the results and all authors wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Daniel Schunk.

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Schunk, D., Berger, E.M., Hermes, H. et al. Teaching self-regulation. Nat Hum Behav 6, 1680–1690 (2022).

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