A toddler kicking and screaming in the middle of the produce section of the grocery store is not cute. But we understand that children are still developing.
An adult slamming an office door or sending a really harsh email is definitely not cute and it’s unacceptable. Both behaviors stem from the same issue — a lack of self-regulation skills.
Self-regulation is how we keep our emotions and behaviors in check and, more importantly, in line with our goals and our values. It’s why music educators rise before dawn on a cold Monday to get ready to teach, even though staying under the cozy covers feels awfully tempting. And it’s why adults don’t eat chocolate chip cookies for breakfast (at least, not too often).
Self-regulation is basically self-control. But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. You may have heard of self-regulation as it relates to your students, especially if you work with younger children. But it’s equally important for adults to have self-regulation skills.
According to a study published in Trends in Cognitive Science, “Self-regulation allows people to make plans, choose from alternatives, control impulses, inhibit unwanted thoughts and regulate social behavior.”
People with good self-regulation skills tend to be more resilient and calmer when under pressure. They are more persistent in going after their goals. And because they are calmer, they usually remain clear-eyed and can scope out golden opportunities that others may miss. You can see how this can lead to more success in your professional and personal life.
To effectively manage emotions, first lay down a solid foundation. Good habits like getting enough sleep, exercising, staying hydrated and remembering to make time for a good laugh with a friend go a long way toward being able to rein in our emotions.
According to the Cognitive Science study, “The most common self-regulation fails are when people are in bad moods, when minor indulgences snowball into full-blown binges, when people are overwhelmed by immediate temptations or impulses, and when control itself is impaired (e.g., after alcohol consumption or effort depletion).”
The bottom line? Staying calm under pressure is next to impossible in an exhausted, depleted body that is hopped up on six espressos. So, take care of yourself. (Read how to create a stress-relieving routine.)
According to Bradley University’s counseling programs, setting goals is an essential part of the self-regulation process. Establishing clear goals helps a person “focus attention on positive behaviors that must be performed to meet these goals,” suggests the university.
For the best results, set short-term, obtainable goals. Meeting them gives that sense of momentum on the journey toward the bigger-picture goals. For example, all music educators’ overarching, big-picture goal is to impact and inspire young people to pursue lives of musical excellence. A short-term goal could be to plan a workshop for high school juniors and seniors (and their parents) to hear from current college students about what it’s really like to be a music major.
What are your triggers? C’mon, be honest here. Think about what sorts of situations that could lead to behaviors that you might later regret.
For example, if the end of the marking period always turns you into a stressball, come up with a plan to address the required tasks, calendar them in and have a solid plan. That way, you won’t wind up feeling like you want to crawl under your desk and curl into a fetal position. Part of self-regulation is planning around your strengths and weaknesses.
Very Well Mind suggests that we all have three options in every situation: “Approach, avoidance and attack.”
Avoidance is when we choose behaviors such as procrastination or rumination — these are not terribly helpful. Attack is just what it sounds like — going for the jugular and snapping at a student or band parent. Yikes, obviously not helpful.
But approaching a situation is beneficial and involves a problem-solving mindset: “What skills or resources can I use to deal with this?” Maybe that will mean making a list or breaking an onerous task into smaller, step-by-step chunks. Maybe it means reaching out to a colleague or a valued teaching mentor for collaboration.
Now you’re acting in ways that align with your long-range goals and your internal values.
“I just bombed that Zoom call. I’m terrible at district-level presentations, and they will never invite me to speak again.”
This kind of thinking, where our brains tell us something is all or nothing — and usually focuses on a doomsday outcome — is what psychologists call a cognitive distortion. It can throw our self-regulation off track, so it’s good to be aware of this little mental trap.
Envision, for example, two people who have just slurped down a tasty vanilla shake. Person 1 thinks, “I had the milkshake; might as well eat a whole pizza for dinner.” In contrast, Person 2 thinks, “I had the milkshake — man that was good. For dinner, I’m thinking salmon and a salad.”
Person 2 is able to think big picture, enjoy the treat and get back to healthy habits. Person 1 is having a cognitive distortion, and it’s sabotaging self-regulation.
What’s the solution? Look for opportunities to see things in percentages, sliding scales or shades of gray instead of all-or-nothing, binary outcomes. Tell yourself things like, “I’ve made big progress setting up that new string ensemble. Things aren’t always going to go completely smoothly, and that is okay.”
Just like practicing scales over and over, working on self-regulation skills may take time to fully master. If you want to take your practice deeper, try journaling, meditating, seeking cognitive behavioral therapy or developing behavior change plans. Here are a couple of handouts that can help:
With greater knowledge of self-regulation, you can benefit from it — and so will your students.