The Bumpy Road to Self-Regulation

As parents, we all want our children to find success in managing their lives and interactions.  We want them to be kind, to speak up for themselves, to take chances, to know when the risks are too great, to not be afraid to fail and to pick themselves up again if they do.  We want them to manage their time so there is a balance between what they want to do and what others may require of them.  What we want for our children is self-regulation.  It is an incredibly important life skill, particularly as an adult when the stakes of life are higher, i.e. jobs, bills, or caring for family.

So how do children learn self-regulation?  

Let’s start with the end goal.  Self-regulation is about children encountering a situation, new or old, and intentionally translating their past experiences into decision making that provides a more positive outcome than last time.  There are many expert definitions, but this is the basic idea.
Other ways to think about this question are, how do children learn to be better decision-makers?  How do children learn to trust themselves and their own experience?    
The Freedom to Experience
In order for students to be able to translate past experience into decision making that results in more positive outcomes, children must have the freedom to experience life, both in school and out.  They must have the freedom to make decisions and to see the results of those decisions.  
If we do not give children the freedom to choose, we have robbed them of the learning process.
How can a child reflect on past experiences if he or she has no past experiences of making a choice?  Or, imagine that every time a child confronts a puzzling situation, an adult jumps in an solves it for them.  The child will not learn to make decisions.  They will learn to wait for adults to save them.  A child must have the freedom to experience if they are going to have experiences upon which they can reflect.

The Freedom to Fail

A child must also have the freedom to fail and be supported in taking the risk.  If we are not allowing children to fail, we are not allowing them to learn.  And isn’t that what we want?  We want our children to LEARN self-regulation.  
So, as parents and as schools, children must be supported in taking risks that they choose and we must support them in the outcome, regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative.  
For the academicians following along here, this is the basis of David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle.

This is how children learn self-regulation.  You’ll notice that half the model is experimentation and experience.  This is how deep learning happens.                  
Trusting yourself
In order for students to trust their own experience and trust their judgment, they must be in an environment that trusts them.  John Holt expressed this challenge best:

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves… and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”
Providing a trusting environment for children is essential in order for them to develop the trust in themselves to guide their decision-making.  
At the Sudbury School of Atlanta, we know that every child at our school is fully capable of self-regulation.  There is no question.  We also know that in order to effectively self-regulate, that students must experiment, experience and reflect in order to make sense of their world.  Many times that means making decisions that their parents don’t like, making decisions that they, as students, don’t like, and making decisions that have negative outcomes.  
This is the bumpy road to self-regulation.  When a child learns to ride a bike, they must fall and scrape their knee to know where the balance point is and where it is not.  And through practice in a supportive environment, they improve with every experience.
So, let them try.  Let them fail and try again.  They are natural learners.  Support them in their risk-taking and support them regardless of the outcome.  This is how deep learning happens.  And we will know that we are successfully supporting our children when they begin to speak the words of Thomas Edison:
“I have not failed.  I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”