Teachers often throw around the term "self-regulation" on report cards and in meetings with parents, but few understand it, say psychologists who've come up with a simple guide.

When "self-regulation" was introduced into report cards in Ontario about 10 years ago, it created confusion, because it is often misunderstood, say researchers at York University in Toronto. In the journal Child Development, they say they found 447 different interpretations of the term.

But as students get back into school routines now, what does it really mean? The short answer is self-regulation involves learning how to monitor and manage your internal states, understand what it feels like to be calm and alert, what activities pull you out of them and how to recover.

"What we see when we look at how a child or a teen or a parent is doing is they go up and down during the day with different what we call 'arousal states,'" Prof. Stuart Shanker, the study's senior author, said in an interview with CBC News at home in Gores Landing, Ont., south of Peterborough.

"Really, it just means how calm you are or how aroused you are or how withdrawn you are.

Prof. Stuart Shanker

Parents need to learn how to distinguish between misbehaviour and stress behaviour, says Prof. Stuart Shanker. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

"The problem is that what we're seeing today is really an excess of stress. Parents and teachers really don't recognize what we call 'hidden stressors.' And when there's too much stress in a kid's life or a parent's life, the kid gets stuck. They may stuck at hyper and then we see all sorts of problematic behaviours."

Shanker, who is also author of Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation, said one of most important aspects for parents to learn is how to distinguish between misbehaviour and stress behaviour, given that research suggests children are highly stressed, with a profound impact on parents.

Problems with self-regulation can become apparent in a variety of ways. For example, a child who can't control his or her positive or negative emotions and becomes very withdrawn, views everything in black or negative terms or could become volatile.

'I could have had an A'

Teacher Katie Costa uses a chart on a poster labelled "How are we doing?" to teach self-regulation to Grade 9 English students in Oshawa, Ont.  

The students themselves come up with the terms to describe whether they've the achieved the self-regulation goal of feeling "calm and alert" — or are too drowsy or distracted.

"I had one student who at midterm was barely getting his 50 per cent," Costa recalled. 

"Over the course of teaching self-regulation and utilizing it, by the end of the semester he managed to pull himself up to a 70 per cent.… At the end, when he found out his final mark was 70 per cent, he said he was so angry. I asked him why are you so angry? And he said, 'If I had known this from the beginning of the semester I could have had an A.'"

The students have folders with a smaller version of the chart. They place a sticky note on emoticons to indicate how they're feeling at, say, the beginning and middle of class.

How the students achieve self-regulation is individualized. For instance, playing sports helps one girl. For another, perhaps doing yoga and meditation works. For yet another, going to get a drink of water could do it.

Costa's class also applies self-regulation to the stories and characters they're studying in literature.

Shanker, a research professor of psychology and philosophy at Toronto's York University, has been rolling out such lessons for schools and he believes it's here to stay.

"I think that as a nation, we are reassessing what can we do to provide our children with the kinds of skills they will need to meet stresses and challenges that we can't anticipate."

Shanker attributes the success of the program to it's foundation.

"The starting point is working with the teachers on their own self-regulation and not just while they're teaching," he said. "That's become, I believe, the reason why this is spreading so quickly across the country and around the world."

6 key concepts

The analysis showed six interrelated main concepts of self-regulation:

  • Self-control.
  • Self-management.
  • Self-observation.
  • Learning.
  • Social behavior.
  • Aspect of personality related to self-monitoring.

With files from CBC's Marcy Cuttler