EFD: Raise Self-Regulated Learners

By Peg Dawson, Ed.D, NCSP, with Eve Kessler, Esq.


For parents of teens with weak executive functions, helping your kids improve these skills takes a concerted and intentional effort, some of which may not come naturally • Applying these strategies can help you find the balance between too much support and not enough

With the best of intentions, parents often jump in to solve their child’s problems. It’s fast, easy, gets the job done, and enables the child to succeed at the task at hand. But it’s really the parent—not the child—who’s being successful. By providing too much support, parents risk creating a child who is dependent on the adult’s executive skills, instead of a child who is capable of developing her own. On the other hand, by providing too little support, the child may fail.

How do you find the “sweet spot”— the minimum support necessary to succeed while still allowing your child to develop her own executive skills and become an independent, self-regulated learner? Following are a set of practices to help you achieve that goal.

Let your kids make mistakes. Effective interventions are successful 75-80% of the time. Take the task of remembering to bring homework to school, for example: If your child is successful independently 4 out of 5 days, that’s an accomplishment; if she’s successful all 5 days with your help, ask yourself how you can pull back. Although your instinct might be to bail her out if she forgets, instead try giving her fewer (or different) cues to see if she can become successful on her own. The gain in skill development is worth the short-term loss of credit on one or two assignments.

Don’t micromanage homework. Research shows that when parents help kids with homework and give them opportunities to work independently, they persevere longer and do better in school. In contrast, when parents give kids concrete help by sitting with them nightly and reviewing each assignment, they are less persistent.  Provide a time and place for your child to work and let the teacher address mistakes.

Engage your teen in decision-making. If you believe the decision is one your teen can make (e.g. how to spend her weekend), give her all pertinent information and let her play a role in the outcome: “It’s your call. I’m confident in your ability to make informed decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.”

Use motivators that encourage independence. Teens are motivated by being treated as full partners in a conversation: making their own choices, having their opinions valued, and deciding what rules to apply and how. When appropriate, give your child a voice in discussions that impact her directly.

Ask yourself, “What do I want my child to look like by the time she graduates from high school?” Prioritize the tasks you’d like your teen to be able to do independently: put herself to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up at the appropriate time; manage academic work; complete and hand in homework on time; hold a part-time job; make and follow a daily plan; regulate use of cellphones/videogames, etc. Knowing what you want to achieve will help you optimize learning opportunities along the way.

Ask your teen to reflect on her own performance, especially when she’s successful, and ask questions that will encourage her to use her executive skills. While we often debrief kids when they do poorly, we don’t often ask them to think about what went well and why. The more they can verbalize their strategies, the more automatic those strategies will become. “What worked for you today?” “Why do you think it worked?” “You did so well on that test; what strategies did you use?” “What’s your plan for your science project?” “What’s your goal?” “How long do you think that will take?”

When complications arise, share your observations in a non-judgmental way. It’s hard to keep emotions at bay when addressing problems. But the more emotional you become, the more volatile your child will be. If you keep your voice calm, she’s more likely to remain reasonable and engage in a thoughtful conversation.

Brainstorm strategies. When your child is faced with a challenge or a new situation, work together to list possible strategies to deal with it; ask her to pick one; and make a game plan for trying it out.

Help your teen build goal-directed persistence concerning things important to her.  Support her in setting and achieving small goals related to things that matter to her (sports, saving money, getting a driver’s license), not just academics. Over time, small accomplishments will add up and build self-confidence.

Praise effort—not just outcome. “Wow, you stuck with it and figured it out.” “I know that was really important to you and you worked really hard.”

Emphasize your child’s goals, not yours. Be willing and able to separate your hopes and dreams from your child’s hopes and dreams.

Serve as a role model. If your child sees you set a long-term goal, make a plan to reach it, follow through, resist temptations, persist and achieve the goal, it will make a positive impression.

Executive Skills

Improving these executive skills can help your teen become a self-regulated learner.

  1. Response Inhibition: To think before acting, resist the urge to say/do something, and evaluate a situation and how your behavior might impact it.
  2. Working Memory: To hold information in memory while performing complex tasks and apply past learning/experience to new situations.
  3. Emotional Control: To manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete complex tasks, or control or direct behavior.
  4. Sustained Attention: To maintain attention to a task/situation despite boredom, fatigue or distractibility.
  5. Task Initiation: To begin projects without undue procrastination, in an efficient/timely fashion.
  6. Planning/Prioritization: To create a “roadmap” to reach a goal/complete a task while deciding what’s important to focus/not focus on.
  7. Organization: To create and maintain systems to keep track of information/materials.
  8. Time Management: To understand that time is important and estimate how much time you have, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits/deadlines.
  9. Goal-Directed Persistence: To have a goal, follow through to its completion, and not be hindered or distracted by competing interests.
  10. Flexibility: To adapt to changing conditions and revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information or mistakes.
  11. Metacognition: To stand back and take a bird’s-eye view of yourself, evaluate how you problem-solve, and monitor how you’re doing.

This article is based on the presentation, Self-Regulated Learners: Helping Kids Grow Their Own Executive Skills, by Peg Dawson, Ed.D., NCSP. Dawson is a psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders, in Portsmouth, NH, and a member of the Smart Kids Professional Advisory Board. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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