An observation we have made as school counselors during online learning is that students find it difficult to stay motivated with ongoing tasks. This is not an issue faced only by students, most working professionals find this an issue with the virtual environment as well. Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation. It includes being able to resist highly emotional reactions to upsetting events, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations, and to handle frustration without an outburst.
It is useful to look at self-regulation as a skill that can be taught or developed to nurture resilience. In the absence of physical school routines that allow kids to learn from watching peers and teachers, they will need extra help to build up the self-regulatory skills needed to prepare themselves for success physically and emotionally.
The approach to developing self-regulation skills is not to avoid situations that are tough for children or teens to handle, but to coach children through them and provide a supportive framework called scaffolding, the behaviour to encourage, until they can handle the difficulty on their own.
Scaffolding for emotional self-regulation: A situation that can produce strong negative emotional reactions, like a much-disliked homework assignment, can be an example to help understand this concept better. If a parent or caregiver tries to be around and manage the situation, they risk-taking over the regulation role that the child needs to develop. This can easily be seen by the child as the parent frustrating them by making them sit with the assignment instead of looking at possible solutions to the difficult homework. In this case, scaffolding could look like helping the child with one problem, and then expecting them to try the rest. If they feel annoyed, they could get up and get a drink or a snack. A timer could also be used to give themselves breaks, periodically. The caregiver could check in on them at intervals, and offer praise for the efforts the child puts into the work.
Building time awareness: Becoming aware of the passage of time especially without the external assists of bells or seeing peers move between classes is tough for children when they’re learning from home. The school bell and friends are external cues that help children organise themselves. A shift to taking responsibility for managing their own time, work-schedule and appointments is necessary. Having them use digital calendars, printed schedules and alerts for class times, will be helpful to keep them alert. For these strategies to stick, it is important that children take initiative while caregivers encourage and validate it.
Avoiding distractions: Technology that helps children stay in touch and socialize could also become a distraction. Not all children have the self-regulation skills to pay attention and avoid distractions. To help children gain awareness and see how multitasking could negatively impact their learning, help them assess and compare their own retention of information while multitasking versus giving attention to one task at a time.
Making space for self-advocacy: In school children have the ability to find and make use of resources to support themselves. This can get diluted in the online environment, and therefore setting conditions for self-advocacy by allowing time and space for children to ask questions and make sure their voices are heard. Telling children about instances when you struggled and asked for help makes them confident. This provides an opportunity for children to strengthen their agency effectively.
Developing organisational skills: Helping children organise themselves by encouraging them to create a weekly plan, for example, can be a great way to help them feel in control of their work as well as boost confidence in their ability to stay focused. A weekly plan does not necessarily need to be focussed on academics and work but can accommodate a holistic approach to well-being as well. Organising their time for recreation, relaxation wellness activities can help them look out for balance and help them understand what helps them when they are stressed. This understanding can help put children on the track of managing stress with appropriate coping strategies.
It cannot be mentioned enough that factors such as isolation, difficulties at home, or pandemic-related anxiety, can make it more important to stay connected or reach out for help. Giving time for meaningful and relaxing activities and staying in touch with those close to you can help you engage and practice self-regulation. Some of these strategies will be helpful to support students in adjusting to their new environment and social connections.