Helping Adolescents Develop Healthy Self-Regulation

Guest Blog by Susan Bauer
Susan is a dance and somatic educator, the founder of Embodiment in Education, and an advisor and consultant to Millennium School. More information about her work can be found at www.susanbauer.com.

Current research on middle school increasingly emphasizes the need to help students develop their inner resources as a means to prepare them to skillfully engage in life. Of these resources, the capacity for self-regulation is now seen as core to students’ success in school and beyond. In his book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Dr. Laurence Steinberg notes this key factor: 

“Self-regulation and the traits it influences, like determination, comprise one of the strongest predictors of many different types of success: achievement in school, success at work, more satisfying…relationships, and better physical and mental health.”

He notes several approaches, from mindfulness to aerobic exercise, that develop greater self-regulation. Yet from where does such self-control actually originate?  

Neurobiology tells us that we can only control what we can perceive. This just makes sense: if I can’t sense my current state of being, how can I begin to skillfully control or regulate that state, whether physically or emotionally? Without this inner self-awareness, self-regulation risks becoming a mere ‘follow the rules’ type of process, rather than being cultivated from within. As many adults may remember, much of the conventional approach to education has been based on such ‘follow the rules or suffer the consequences’ type of discipline—which does not naturally lead toward getting in touch with your own awareness, nor with your own interests and unique gifts. Perhaps the point is not “how can I control myself,” but rather “what is right for me?”  In this deeper sense, true self-regulation stems from choice and is based in awareness.

One powerful way to help students develop greater inner awareness, and thus more of the autonomy that leads to healthy self-regulation, is to help them draw on their innate body intelligence as a guide. Once we can clearly sense our bodies—and the many physical processes going on within—we have much more information with which to manage ourselves.  Otherwise, we may make poor choices that impact all aspects of our lives.  For example, without internal awareness, we may adhere to a pre-determined time period for an exercise routine, even to the point of injuring ourselves, rather than perceiving how much is needed on a given day. We might find ourselves snapping at a friend, when actually we are just hungry and starting to feel irritable; or we may begin to feel anxious after sitting for hours, not realizing that we just need to get up and move around a bit; or find we can’t make sense of what we are reading and start to get discouraged, when actually we may just be tired and should really get to bed.  

With increased internal awareness, however, adolescents can make better choices that support their development across their lives: physically, socially, emotionally, and even academically. They can concentrate more effectively, whether working independently or in a project or seminar; form healthier friendships; and attain better physical health—able to continually adapt their diet, exercise, and other factors responsibly. Most important, such healthy self-regulation gives them tools to create a more balanced life to support them in reaching their full potential.