Self-Regulation In Childhood Research Paper

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Self-regulation has several meanings in the psychology literature, some of which have conceptual links with each other. Three definitions of self-regulation are provided below, but only the first is the theme of this research paper.

1. Definitions

Self-regulation refers to the development of children’s ability to follow everyday customs and valued norms embraced and prescribed by their parents and others. Self-regulation is a vital constituent of the socialization process. A broad construct, self-regulation encompasses a diverse set of behaviors such as compliance, the ability to delay actions when appropriate, and modulation of emotions, motor, and vocal activities as suitable to norm-based contexts. The self in self-regulation is an essential feature, and involves a sentient self—one that recognizes and understands the reasons for standards and evaluates one’s own actions in relation to others’ feelings and needs. Thus the hallmark of self-regulation is the ability to act in accordance with various family and social values in the absence of external monitors, across a variety of situations, but neither slavishly nor mindlessly.

A second meaning of self-regulation refers to various physiological or psychobiological processes that function adaptively to situational demands, and often do not involve normative standards. Examples include the regulation of intensity of arousal subsequent to emotion producing events, or the control of centrally regulated physiological and perceptual systems to novel events. Centrally regulated systems include electrodermal responses, vagal tone and heart rate, and attention control. Variation in these responses is often studied for links to temperament styles, control of arousal states, and emotion control and coping (e.g., Rothbart et al. 1995).

A third view of self-regulation comes from recent perspectives in motivation. Here, with an emphasis on an individual’s goals and the processes that shape the person’s actions, a major role is given to the self’s role and to evaluation of gains and losses (e.g., Heckhausen and Dweck 1998). Autonomy, control, self-integrity, and efficacy are essential in order for the individual to be effective in the pursuit of desired goals. Within the motivational framework, substantial attention is directed to understanding how adults facilitate or inhibit the child’s autonomy.

As noted earlier, this entry is concerned with the development of self-regulation to family and sociocultural standards. Related articles include Coping across the Lifespan; Control Behavior: Psychological Perspectives; and Self-regulation in Adulthood.

2. Historical Contexts

The quest to understand the origins and development of self-regulation was a late twentieth century conceptual endeavor grounded in a clinical issue: why do some children as young as two and three years of age reveal high levels of dysregulated behaviors? Examples include resistance to parental requests, difficulty with family routines, high levels of activity, and unfocused attention often associated with an inability ‘to wait.’

At the time, earlier findings (e.g., impulse control, resistance to discipline) had implicated factors such as ineffective parenting, as well as distortions in the child’s own cognitive or language skills. With rare exceptions, few attempts had been made to understand antecedents, age-related correlates, and consequences of early self-regulated or dys-regulated behaviors. It seemed that a more comprehensive and integrative perspective could lead to a broadened developmental model, and provide insights about multiple contributors to early-appearing problematic behaviors. This was the impetus for a new view of self-regulation (Kopp 1982). Family and social standards were increasingly emphasized because of their relevance for self-regulation (Kopp 1987, Gralinski and Kopp 1993).

Self-regulation is not a unique psychological construct, rather it has ideational and behavioral links to courses of action variously labeled as self-management, self-control, and will. These emphases are longstanding and can be found in biblical passages, early philosophical writings, in manuals for parents during the seventeenth century and on to the present, and in the essays of William James, Freud, and John Dewey. More recent thinking can be found in several domains of psychology: developmental, personality, social learning, psychopathology. The enduring historical importance underscores the crucial fact that individual adherence to behavioral norms provides essential support for the structure and function of family and sociocultural groups.

Societal norms are grounded in historical time and locale, and are reflected by caregivers’ socialization practices. Changes in practices have implications for the kinds of behaviors expected of children (including those associated with self-regulation). The dramatic changes in the sociocultural scene in the USA since the mid-1900s provide an example. At the end of the twentieth century, parenting was primarily authoritarian and children were expected to conform to standards without dissent. However, a mid-century transformation in child rearing practices occurred. The change was linked to two decades of economic hardship, a devastating war, quests for family life among returning veterans, and a pediatrician (Benjamin Spock) whose counsel to mothers about trusting their own judgement would resonate with new parents. In time, as a more relaxed style of parenting emerged, there was increasing tolerance for children to assert themselves about norms. Parents began to reveal a willingness to negotiate with their children about a variety of things including how norms could be met. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a reciprocal style of parenting (often termed authoritative; Baumrind 1967) is far more common than the more inflexible authoritarian approach.

For social scientists, this changing socialization orientation led to new or recast research topics. Studies focused on the characteristics and consequences of authoritative parenting, children’s autonomy needs, and understanding how the self-determination needs of the individual balance with the value based requirements of social–cultural groups. The challenges to define and explain the balancing process continue.

3. Socialization And Self-Regulation

3.1 Principles

Despite changing emphases in socialization, three principles remain a constant; these have implications for the development of self-regulation. First, most sociocultural groups expect primary authority figures such as parents to begin the active process of socialization. These individuals actively expose older infants and toddlers to family norms and practices. Later, these socializing agents will be joined by others who typically include teachers, age mates, friends, and neighbors. New socializing agents may reinforce previous norms, expand the interpretation of norms, or introduce new ones. Children are expected to adapt their behavior accordingly.

Second, parents tend to be mindful—perhaps implicitly—of a child’s developmental capabilities, the family’s functional needs, and sociocultural standards when they teach norms. Protection of the child from harm seems to be the most salient initial child-rearing value. Then the content of parents’ socialization efforts progresses to other family concerns, and from there to the broader context of neighborhood, community, and societal norms. Across sociocultural groups, there are assumptions that toddlers and preschoolers will learn a few specific family and neighborhood norms, whereas school-aged children will adopt family and cultural customs and moral standards, formal laws, and economic values. Adolescents are expected to prepare themselves for social, emotional, and economic independence using as infrastructure the norms of the family and culture.

The third principle is that socialization and self-regulation are adaptive, bidirectional processes. Children and adolescents are not passive recipients in the socialization process. With the growth of their own cognitive skills and recognition of their own self needs, children show an increasing desire to have a say in defining the everyday customs that they encounter, and the ways customs are followed. Thus each succeeding generation in modern, democratic sociocultural groups modifies the content or enactment of customs and norms in some way. An implication for children is that effective self-regulation represents thoughtful, rather than indiscriminate, adherence to family practices and social norms.

3.2 Studying Self-Regulation In The Context Of Socialization

Self-regulation is often used as a conceptual frame for research rather than a design element with the three themes of compliance, delay, and behavioral modulation. Rather, most research has been focused on the study of compliance during the preschool period (typically, from 3 to 5 years of age). Although this emphasis is warranted—adherence to norms is considered to be a crucial developmental task for this age (Sroufe and Rutter 1984)—important knowledge gaps exist. There is fragmented information about effective integration of compliance, delay, and behavioral modulation, and developmental trends among younger and older children.

Recent descriptive studies also reveal considerable complexity in young children’s responses to parental requests. This finding has prompted efforts to refine operational definitions, expand the research contexts for the study of self-regulation, and utilize datacollection procedures that involve multiple measurement techniques and informants. These recent efforts have largely focused on children without major behavioral problems.

Lastly, considerable research has highlighted parental and child correlates of self-regulation components, albeit sometimes within a limited age period and one or two contexts. The most complete database is available for the preschool years.

3.3 Research Data: Parents, Children, And Social Norms

The timing of active socialization originates in child behaviors such as the onset of walking. When very young children locomote on their own, they discover opportunities to explore, sometimes with the potential for physical or psychological harm. Thus parents start to identify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors for the child, and attempt to obtain some measure of compliance using a variety of attention getting techniques (Schaffer 1996). These beginnings mark the dynamic and occasionally formidable interplay between parents’ socialization efforts and young children’s trajectory toward self-regulation.

Although parents use their child’s behavior as a socializing cue, they also rely on family needs (e.g., the composition of a family, living arrangements), as well as societal norms. A toddler in a large family with limited living space is likely to be exposed to somewhat different restrictions to an only child living in spacious quarters. However, three overarching themes unite parents’ initial socialization efforts: young children must be protected from harming themselves or others (LeVine 1974, Gralinski and Kopp 1993); they must not tamper with family members’ possessions; and they must learn to respect others’ feelings (Dunn 1988). As children become older and their social environments increase, parental cautions about normative standards extend beyond the immediate family to peers, neighbors, and teachers, and focus on conventions and moral values, among other topics.

In addition to structuring the content of socialization norms, the how of parental socialization is crucial. There is unequivocal consensus about the effect of child-rearing styles at least with Euro-American middle-class families. Sensitive and knowledgeable parenting is correlated with children’s compliance to norms, across age periods (Kochanska and Aksan 1995).

3.4 A Self-Regulation Developmental Trajectory

Learning to deal with parents’ norm-related requests is an all-powerful challenge. Children must bring their cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional resources to situations that demand self-regulation. The task is most difficult for young children: they have cognitive and language limitations; they are inclined to explore anything that looks interesting; they long for autonomy and self-assertion. It is not surprising that self-regulation takes years to mature into an effective process.

Self-Regulation In Childhood Research Paper Table 1

Table 1 depicts the three components of self-regulation along with ages associated with developing behavioral landmarks. The ages represent approximations; the landmarks highlight behaviors that typify increasing maturity to parental norm-based requests.

Using compliance as an exemplar, Emergent signifies that responses to a parent prohibition (e.g., child does not stand on a kitchen chair) may occur sporadically. Functional portrays fairly regular compliance to a rule (e.g., child does not stand on chairs, whether in the living room or kitchen); children may show signs of remorse when they do not comply. Integrative refers to predictability (i.e., coherence) in children’s behavior across different kinds of norm-based situations (e.g., a child does not yell in a market, respects a sibling’s possessions, and waits to be served dinner).

Extant data reveal that compliance to family do’s and dont’s tends to be easier for young children than norm-based situations that require waiting or modulation of ongoing behaviors (also shown in Table 1). This disparity may be related to additional regulatory demands imposed on children when timing or refined behavioral nuances are critical for an effective response. In these instances, the use of strategic behaviors (e.g., self-distraction, conscious suppression efforts) may be crucial for effective self-regulation.

Despite inevitable setbacks, children become more responsive to specific family and other social rules. The growth of self-regulation is facilitated by greater understanding of people and events, widening sensitivity to everyday happenings in the family and neighborhood, and increasing ability to talk about self needs in relation to others’ needs. The importance of language in self-regulation is exemplified by the transition from outright refusals common among toddlers to attempts to talk about and negotiate task demands among older preschoolers (Klimes-Dougan and Kopp 1999). Still, children of this age may have difficulty with anger control, waiting for parental attentiveness, and sharing possessions.

An extensive database on topics related to self-regulation in the preschool years suggests that correlates include gender (many girls learn behavioral controls sooner than boys), temperament characteristics such as controlled attention and inhibition of motor acts, verbal skills, effective self-distraction, and competent use of strategies (Eisenberg and Fabes 1992, Metcalfe and Mischel 1999).

Overall, continuing efforts of parents to socialize their children gradually dovetail with children’s growth of their own behavioral cognitive, social, and motivational repertoire. Few details exist about how parents and children collaborate with their own resources so that children increasingly take on responsibility for self-regulation. What can be said with certainty is that self-regulation gradually emerges when children understand the reasons for values and standards, possess a cognizant self, are able to suppress an immediate goal that runs counter to family norms, and voluntarily assume responsibility for their own actions across a variety of situations.

Self-generated and self-monitored adherence to norms is self-regulation. This autonomous, sometimes conscious, effort to frame activities with normative values stands in contrast to early forms of compliance that do not rely on knowledge or self-awareness. Effective self-regulation is by definition an adaptive, developmental process in that children have to discover how to meet their own self needs while in general following societal standards across many settings. The task is a changing one because each age period is associated with new socialization demands imposed by parents, teachers, other individuals, and the larger social context.

4. Self-Regulation: Its Value And Directions

The construct of self-regulation has heightened awareness of dys-regulation and its long-term implications. Findings from related research point to long-standing problems when young children have difficulty with compliance, delay, and impulse control. To date, however, the developmental antecedents of these problems have been elusive. A renewed focus on the toddler years should be useful: two important developments occur in the second and third years that have relevance for the growth of self-regulation. These are emergent selfhood and the control of attention and consciousness.

It is well known that effective norm-based behaviors require reconciliation of conflicts between self-goals and social norm demands. Among mature individuals, these conflicts are often met with reflection about courses of action, informal appraisals of costs and benefits, and plans for making reparations should they be necessary. This complex cognitive strategy is not available to young children. Understanding how very young children begin to sort through competing self and social goals may provide insights into effective paths to self-regulation.

With respect to conscious learning about social norms, this almost certainly occurs, but when and how are not well understood. However, consciousness demands psychic energy, so it is in children’s best interests to sort out those family and social norms that require relatively habitual responses from those that demand additional attentional or memory efforts from themselves. How children learn to differentiate and classify standards may yield understanding about strategies useful for modulating behaviors in novel norm-based contexts, and why some children falter in these situations.


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