Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Self-Regulation, Motivation and Enthusiasm for Academic Success in Tweens and Adolescents

One of the most fun aspects of keeping a blog is checking stats.  It sounds boring, but stats reveal facts that I, the lover of math, numbers and cultures, find fascinating. For instance, one of my first foreign visitors, after Russia, was Thailand.  Who knew?  And the French, my favorite people, why, they took some four months to find my site.  Peut-etre c'est la faute du langue?  Est-ce que vous preferez plus de francais?  I keep a country counter for this reason.  You can also see top referring sites, and for the most part, mine consists of spam and facebook. 


But the most helpful statistic is the page hits.  It turns out that a handful of my posts are much more popular than the rest.  The biggest hits seem to come from two different populations: those wanting to make an mini Arco lamp, and those wanting to motivate an unenthusiastic student.  I have now documented the process of the Arco lamp fairly thoroughly, and if I can ever figure out how to load a video, I will post the amateur video of its assembly.  But, until now, I have not described how to motivate an adolescent, primarily because precious little can be found on this topic once a child is past a certain age.  I do know that enthusiasm and ability to put off immediate gratification are involved, and an article by NPR lists many ways to increase self-regulation, including playing Simon Says, long imaginative play where the child must plan and enact a scenario, shared storybook time, self-talking, and activities that require planning.  The same article reiterates that:

"Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, "Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain."
The emphasis on "pay attention" is my own.  So, we know what to do for the little ones, which is good for me as a parent of a five year old.  But as a teacher of tweens and young adolescents, how do I motivate 90 of students, in a period of six hours a week, for ten months of their lives.  That is a different animal entirely.

Well, it turns out, a study by Gestsdottir and Lerner asserts that it is not too late.  It seems like at young ages, emotional and physiological self-regulation is indeed primarily developed, but that intentional, goal-oriented self-regulation is developed in adolescence, when the brain is cognitively prepared and the individual can picture a future for themselves, which younger children cannot.  The first step would, of course, be to turn off the tv, and to not replace it with any other screens.  Sorry, parents.  Parenthood impinges on self-actualization, so deal. 
And, as a teacher, it turns out that those maligned goal sheets will help a middle school child learn how to become more self-regulated.  Setting goals will help students develop a goal hierarchy, and they will need to select "persistence, focused attention, delay of gratification, and practice of skills" over immediate gratification.  A unsurprising result, at least to me, of such goal optimization is its correlatatopm with healthy and happy development.  A teacher of a top or a bottom class could tell you the same thing.
Your child's brain on video games.  Any questions?
So, don't give up, parents and teachers who are reaching the end of their ropes.  You can still learn self-regulation as an adolescent and even as an adult.  This subject interests me, so the more I learn, the more I'll blog.  Stay tuned.

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