When a student with a learning disability struggles academically, it’s logical to think that the issue is related to the student’s deficit in a specific ability. And while that may be true, there might be more to it. Students with learning disabilities often encounter academic difficulties, at least in part, because they don’t have effective strategies for working through challenges.
One effective tool that students can use to improve academic performance, regardless of ability, is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the process by which students take charge of their own learning, monitoring their behavior and progress and making adjustments along the way to get from idea to execution. It’s the transformation of thought into purposeful action. Here are several strategies teachers can introduce for use in the classroom and at home:
Goal setting is an important part of self-regulation and can be foundational to other self-regulation strategies. When used effectively, the process of goal setting gives students an opportunity to observe their own behavior and pinpoint areas for improvement. It helps students identify what they need to do, lets them see how they are progressing, and motivates them to act productively.
Students should set goals for themselves that are specific and challenging, but not too hard. A goal should be quickly attainable so students can experience a sense of accomplishment and move on to tackle the next one. For example, when two students are struggling with homework, each might need to set a different goal to see improvement. The first student might identify time management as a problem and decide to cut out a leisure activity in order to achieve the goal of completing homework before dinnertime each day that week. The second student might realize that he needs to bring his class notes home from school every day so he has the information he needs to achieve his goal of completing all of his homework assignments for the week.
Students self-monitor by asking themselves whether they have engaged in a specific, desired behavior. Building on the goal-setting examples above, our students might ask themselves, Am I using my time in the right way to complete my homework by dinnertime?Or, Did I put all of my homework assignments in my backpack to take home?Students may find it helpful to self-monitor for behaviors like paying attention, staying on task, following strategy steps, and meeting performance expectations such as completing all homework problems or spelling 8 of 10 spelling words correctly.
Self-instruction is also sometimes called “self-talk” and is part of normal development for many younger children. It can also be quite powerful when used by students of any age to purposefully self-regulate and direct learning behavior. For example, a student who is struggling to comprehend a challenging text might think, I need to look up the definitions of these unfamiliar words and read this page again.
Students can use self-talk to remind themselves to focus their attention, to take positive steps when faced with difficulties, to reinforce positive behaviors, and more. Teachers can model effective self-talk, but should allow each student to create and use her own statements. A little advance planning can be helpful here. Coming up with the right phrase in the heat of the moment – when focus has been lost or frustrations are running high – is unlikely to help. But taking a little time to write out some useful statements before starting a new project or beginning a homework assignment can enable students get themselves out of a tight spot.
Self-reinforcement occurs when a student chooses a motivating reward and then awards it to himself when he achieves a milestone. Self-reinforcement can be used over shorter and longer timeframes and can tie into goals. Our student who has identified time-management as an issue, for example, might decide, I can go to the movies on Sunday because I finished all of my homework before dinnertime every night this week.
Self-reinforcement can also work well in the classroom. Teachers and students can select rewards together and teachers can let students know how to earn them. Once a student has met the criteria for a reward, she can award it to herself – say, by selecting a sticker for her journal after completing the day’s writing assignment and getting her teacher’s approval.
Becoming a better self-regulator isn’t a panacea for academic difficulties, but students with learning disabilities who learn effective self-regulation strategies will have some advantages. They will have tools in their toolbox that they can try out in a variety of situations before seeking outside help, or when help is not immediately available. They will understand how their behavior influences their results. And they will understand that their learning is a purposeful, active process in which they play the leading role.
Best of all, these self-regulation strategies can benefit all learners, not just those who are struggling. Why not give them a try?
Reid, R., Lienemann, T.O., & Hagaman, J.L. (2013). Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities,(2nd ed.) .New York: Guilford Press.
Self-Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cehs.unl.edu/csi/self.shtml