Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Teaching self-regulation

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

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.

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.

References

  1. Bargh, J. A., Gollwitzer, P. M. & Oettingen, G. in Handbook of Social Psychology Vol. 5 (eds Fiske, S. T. et al.) 268–316 (Wiley, 2010).

  2. de Ridder, D. T. D., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F. M. & Baumeister, R. F. Taking stock of self-control: a meta-analysis of how trait self-control relates to a wide range of behaviors. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 16, 76–99 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Duckworth, A. & Gross, J. J. Self-control and grit: related but separable determinants of success. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 23, 319–325 (2014).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  4. McClelland, M. M. & Cameron, C. E. Self-regulation in early childhood: improving conceptual clarity and developing ecologically valid measures. Child Dev. Perspect. 6, 136–142 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Zhou, Q., Chen, S. H. & Main, A. Commonalities and differences in the research on children’s effortful control and executive function: a call for an integrated model of self-regulation. Child Dev. Perspect. 6, 112–121 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Blair, C. & Raver, C. C. School readiness and self-regulation: a developmental psychobiological approach. Annu Rev. Psychol. 66, 711–731 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. McClelland, M. M. & Cameron, C. E. Self-regulation and academic achievement in elementary school children. N. Dir. Child Adolesc. Dev. 2011, 29–44 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Moffitt, T. E. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 2693–2698 (2011).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. Heckman, J. J., Stixrud, J. & Urzua, S. The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. J. Labor Econ. 24, 411–482 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bowles, S., Gintis, H. & Osborne, M. The determinants of earnings: a behavioral approach. J. Econ. Lit. 39, 1137–1176 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Richmond-Rakert, L. S. Childhood self-control forecasts the pace of midlife aging and preparedness for old age. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 118, (2021).

  12. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D. & Kelly, D. R. Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 92, 1087–1101 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Duckworth, A. L. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

  14. Banerjee, A. V. & Duflo, E. (Dis)Organization and success in an economics MOOC. Am. Econ. Rev. 104, 514–518 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Ng Lee Yen, A. M. The influence of self-regulation processes on metacognition in a virtual learning environment. Educ. Stud. 46, 1–17 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Huang, R. H. et al. Guidance on Active Learning at Home During Educational Disruption: Promoting Student’s Self-Regulation Skills During COVID-19 Outbreak (Smart Learning Institute of Beijing Normal Univ., 2020).

  17. Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D. & Tice, D. M. The strength model of self-control. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 16, 351–355 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jacob, R. & Parkinson, J. The potential for school-based interventions that target executive function to improve academic achievement: a review. Rev. Educ. Res. 85, 512–552 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Berkman, E. T. in Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications Vol. 3 (eds Vohs, K. D. & Baumeister, R. F.) 440–457 (Guilford Press, 2016).

  20. Baumeister, R. F. & Vohs, K. D. Strength model of self-regulation as limited resource: assessment, controversies, update. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 54, 67–127 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Alan, S., Boneva, T. & Ertac, S. Ever failed, try again, succeed better: results from a randomized educational intervention on grit. Q. J. Econ. 134, 1121–1162 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Gunzenhauser, C. & Nuckles, M. Training executive functions to improve academic achievement: tackling avenues to far transfer. Front Psychol. 12, 624008 (2021).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  23. Santos, I. V. et al. Can Grit Be Taught? Lessons from a Nationwide Field Experiment with Middle-School Students. Policy Research Working Papers (The World Bank, 2021).

  24. Pandey, A. et al. Effectiveness of universal self-regulation-based interventions in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 172, 566–575 (2018).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  25. Dignath, C., Buettner, G. & Langfeldt, H. P. How can primary school students learn self-regulated learning strategies most effectively? A meta-analysis on self-regulation training programmes. Educ. Res. Rev. 3, 101–129 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Takacs, Z. K. & Kassai, R. The efficacy of different interventions to foster children’s executive function skills: a series of meta-analyses. Psychol. Bull. 145, 653–697 (2019).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Currie, J. Early childhood education programs. J. Econ. Perspect. 15, 213–238 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J. & Munro, S. The early years: preschool program improves cognitive control. Science 318, 1387–1388 (2007).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  29. Heckman, J. J. The economics, technology, and neuroscience of human capability formation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 13250–13255 (2007).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  30. Diamond, A. & Lee, K. Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science 333, 959–964 (2011).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  31. Aizer, A. & Currie, J. The intergenerational transmission of inequality: maternal disadvantage and health at birth. Science 344, 856–861 (2014).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  32. Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P. M. in Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology (eds. Maddux, J. E. & Tangney, J. P.) 114–134 (Guilford Press, 2010).

  33. Oettingen, G. Future thought and behaviour change. Eur. Rev. Soc. Psychol. 23, 1–63 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Gollwitzer, P. M. Weakness of the will: is a quick fix possible? Motiv. Emot. 38, 305–322 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Dweck, C. S. & Yeager, D. S. Mindsets: a view from two eras. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 14, 481–496 (2019).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  36. Wang, G., Wang, Y. & Gai, X. A meta-analysis of the effects of mental contrasting with implementation intentions on goal attainment. Front Psychol. 12, 565202 (2021).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  37. Gawrilow, C., Morgenroth, K., Schultz, R., Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P. M. Mental contrasting with implementation intentions enhances self-regulation of goal pursuit in schoolchildren at risk for ADHD. Motiv. Emot. 37, 134–145 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T. A., Gollwitzer, A. & Oettingen, G. From fantasy to action: mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) improves academic performance in children. Soc. Psychol. Personal. Sci. 4, 745–753 (2013).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  39. Duckworth, A. L., Milkman, K. L. & Laibson, D. Beyond willpower: strategies for reducing failures of self-control. Psychol. Sci. Public Interest. 19, 102–129 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Frison, L. & Pocock, S. J. Repeated measures in clinical trials: analysis using mean summary statistics and its implications for design. Stat. Med. 11, 1685–1704 (1992).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. McKenzie, D. Beyond baseline and follow-up: the case for more T in experiments. J. Dev. Econ. 99, 210–221 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Dynarski, S. M. For Better Learning in College Lectures, Lay Down the Laptop and Pick Up a Pen (The Brookings Institution, 2017).

  43. Slavin, R. E. Best-evidence synthesis: an alternative to meta-analytic and traditional reviews. Educ. Res. 15, 5–11 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Hill, C. J., Bloom, H. S., Black, A. R. & Lipsey, M. W. Empirical benchmarks for interpreting effect sizes in research. Child Dev. Perspect. 2, 172–177 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Kraft, M. A. Interpreting effect sizes of education interventions. Educ. Res. 49, 241–253 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Hanushek, E. A. & Rivkin, S. G. in Handbook of the Economics of Education Vol. 2 (eds Hanushek, E. A. & Welch, F.) 1051–1078 (North Holland, 2006).

  47. Yeager, D. S. et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 573, 364 (2019).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  48. Bailey, D., Duncan, G. J., Odgers, C. L. & Yu, W. Persistence and fadeout in the impacts of child and adolescent interventions. J. Res. Educ. Eff. 10, 7–39 (2017).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Cunha, F. & Heckman, J. The technology of skill formation. Am. Econ. Rev. 97, 31–47 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Berger, E. M., Fehr, E., Hermes, H., Schunk, D. & Winkel, K. The Impact of Working Memory Training on Children’s Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills (Univ. Mainz, 2022).

  51. Cohors-Fresenborg, E., Kramer, S., Pundsack, F., Sjuts, J. & Sommer, N. The role of metacognitive monitoring in explaining differences in mathematics achievement. ZDM 42, 231–244 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Rhineland-Palatine, S. O. Allgemeinbildende Schulen im Schuljahr 2017/2018 (Statistisches Landesamt Rheinland-Pfalz, 2018).

  53. Bellenberg, G. Schulformwechsel in Deutschland. Durchlässigkeit und Selektion in den 16 Schulsystemen der Bundesländer innerhalb der Sekundarstufe I (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2012).

  54. Dustmann, C. Parental background, secondary school track choice, and wages. Oxf. Econ. Pap. 56, 209–230 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel Schunk.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Human Behaviour thanks Angela Duckworth, Dieuwer Ten Braak and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text, Figs. 1–14 and Tables 1–15.

Reporting Summary.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schunk, D., Berger, E.M., Hermes, H. et al. Teaching self-regulation. Nat Hum Behav (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01449-w

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01449-w

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing