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Self Regulation and Learning – in a Digital Age

Written By Geoff Nixon . March 21, 2023

Learning Independence Requires Self Regulation

If the end goal of education is self-directed learning and metacognition, self-regulation is an essential, although somewhat overlooked, marker on that road.  And in the age of cell phones and social media, self-regulation does not develop as naturally as it has in the past.  Digital devices stunt the development of self regulation, even more so if your child has any kind of learning difficulties.

Self-regulation refers to the ability to manage and control one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve goals and adapt to different situations. This article looks at self-regulation and self-awareness as part of learning, and what you can do to help your child in the digital age.

Learning Difficulties and Self Regulation

Self-directed learning – knowing what you understand and what to do if you don’t understand – is a skill that needs practice.  it builds over time, once fundamental learning skills are in place, i.e., only when your child is learning and reading efficiently.  However, even as these skills are mastered, a child needs to be able to self-regulate, otherwise the feedback loops required for higher learning will not kick in.

Children with learning difficulties have two hurdles to self-directed learning.  Many struggle to get to learning and reading efficiency.

And they may be more susceptible to the negative effects of phone use on self-regulation. For example, children with ADHD may have difficulty with impulse control and may be more likely to engage in excessive phone use, which can further exacerbate their symptoms. Similarly, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have difficulty with social skills and may be more likely to rely on phone use as a means of social interaction, which can impact their ability to regulate their behavior and emotions in other settings.

Additionally, some children with learning difficulties may have co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that can be exacerbated by excessive phone use and interaction with others in a remote world where the lives of others are not always as they seem. This can make it even harder for them to regulate their behavior and emotions.

Some Screen Time is Beneficial

It is important to note that not all children with learning difficulties will experience these negative effects, and some may even benefit from certain types of screen time, such as educational apps or video games that promote cognitive skills. However, parents and caregivers of children with learning difficulties should be particularly mindful of the amount and type of screen time their children are exposed to, and work with healthcare providers to develop strategies for promoting healthy self-regulation.

How phones impact the development of self regulation

Here are some ways in which time on a phone or screen can impact self-regulation in children:

  1. Impaired attention: Children who spend a lot of time on their phones may struggle with attention and focus, which can affect their ability to regulate their behavior and emotions.
  2. Decreased impulse control: Frequent phone use can make it harder for children to resist immediate gratification and make decisions that require self-control.
  3. Reduced physical activity: Spending too much time on a phone or screen can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which can negatively impact self-regulation and emotional well-being.
  4. Sleep disturbances: Late-night phone use can disrupt sleep patterns, which can make it harder for children to regulate their behavior and emotions during the day.
  5. Social isolation: Excessive phone use can interfere with the development of social skills, which are essential for self-regulation.

It is important to note that the impact of phone use on self-regulation can vary from child to child and can depend on the type and amount of screen time. Parents can help promote healthy self-regulation in children by setting limits on screen time, encouraging physical activity and setting up in-person social interactions through team sports, etc., and providing opportunities for unstructured play and creative activities.

How to Develop Self Regulation in Your Child

There are many ways that parents can help their children develop self-regulation skills. Here are some strategies:

  1. Model self-regulation: Children learn a lot by observing the behavior of their parents and caregivers. If you model healthy self-regulation skills, such as managing your own emotions, asking for help and minimizing phone screen time, your child is more likely to develop those skills as well.
  2. Provide structure and routines: Establishing consistent routines and schedules can help children feel more in control and less overwhelmed. 
  3. Encourage physical activity: Regular physical activity provides opportunities to self regulate, e.g., to slow down if they are running too fast, to adapt to rules of made up games with friends, etc. 
  4. Foster emotional intelligence: Help your child develop emotional intelligence by encouraging them to identify and express their emotions.  From there, they can learn to respond.
  5. Positive reinforcement: When your child demonstrates healthy self-regulation skills, such as reacting well to a sudden change in plan, be sure to recognize that reaction and offer positive reinforcement. This can help reinforce the behavior and encourage them to continue practicing the skill.

It’s important to remember that developing self-regulation is a gradual process, and each child will develop at their own pace. Be patient and consistent in your efforts to help your child build these skills, and seek additional support from healthcare providers or educators if needed.

The Importance of Asking For Help

Difficulty with self-awareness can be a contributing factor to self-regulation difficulties in some children. If a child is not aware of their own emotions or behaviors, they may not recognize when they need help or support, and may not know how to ask for it.

Children with self-regulation difficulties may also struggle with recognizing and interpreting social cues, which can make it challenging for them to understand how their behavior is affecting others or when to seek help.

In some cases, children may also feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help, especially if they have been struggling with self-regulation for a long time and have not seen improvement. This can lead to a cycle of negative emotions, where the child becomes more frustrated and isolated, further impacting their self-regulation skills.

It is important for parents, caregivers, and educators to provide a supportive and non-judgmental environment where children feel safe to ask for help when needed. This may involve teaching children strategies for recognizing their own emotions and behaviors, such as mindfulness techniques or journaling. It may also involve working with a mental health professional or behavioral specialist who can provide guidance and support in developing self-regulation skills.

Encouraging children to communicate their needs and feelings can also help them build self-awareness and develop the confidence to seek help when needed. By creating a positive and supportive environment, parents and caregivers can help children overcome their self-regulation difficulties and develop the skills they need to succeed both academically and socially.

Get Started – Deal with the Learning Impediments First

Nurturing self-regulation and combating the influence of online “friends” and general phone use is no easy parenting task.  If your child has learning issues though, you have a starting point. If a child can resolve delays to learning, confidence builds and the physical world becomes less intimidating.  Then the learning from real world interactions can begin in earnest and path to learning independence is clearer.

Gemm Learning can help in this journey. Our online programs with remote oversight can help fill in the cognitive skill gaps needed for learning.





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