Enrichment Education

Teaching self-regulation could help young students learn better

A study finds that a short training module over five weeks may have benefited first graders in reading and finding mistakes.
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Story at a glance


  • Self-regulation may be an important skill that young students can learn. 

  • A new study from Germany implements a training module that aims to teach self-regulation in first grade students.

  • Students who were taught this module had improved reading scores and ability and even had a higher chance of opting into a more advanced school track for secondary school.

For young children, impulse control and self-regulation at school can affect how well they are learning. A team of researchers based in Germany and Switzerland wanted to test whether self-regulation could be taught and in a way that was easy to implement and integrated into the curriculum. 

In their paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers detail an experiment that took place during a full school year with a follow up three years later. 

Self-regulation can be defined as the ability to regulate attention, emotion and behavior to pursue individual goals, according to the authors. 

In this study, researchers trained teachers to deliver a training module for first graders that helped them think through processes like overcoming barriers to reach an objective. The module was taught over five weeks, each lesson being about 50 minutes.

For example, in one story, a character named Hurdy thinks about climbing to the top of a mountain and identifies the obstacles in his path. He overcomes the obstacles and thinks about how he achieved his goal while enjoying the views at the top. There’s another similar story specifically about reading. 

Some first grade classes were taught this module, called the “mental contrasting with implementation intentions” (MCII), while others received their regular curriculum without this module. 

Students who had been taught the MCII module showed improvement in academic skills like reading. They performed better on reading tests, had better reading ability and were more adept at finding careless mistakes based on a teacher’s assessments. The effect was smaller early after the module but trended upwards six months and about a year after they were taught the MCII module. 

These students were also more likely to be enrolled in an advanced secondary school track three years later. 

There were some caveats to the study, one being that some of the teachers were not blinded to whether the students received the MCII training or not. This could have biased their assessments of the students’ abilities. There may have also been variation in the teachers’ abilities in teaching the module material.