02/27/2012 01:40 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2012

Why Teaching Kids Self-Regulation Skills Is Essential

"They agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools - far less than in other realms of society such as media and medicine and law. For that to change, Gates said, computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback." --Conversation between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (Isaacson, 2011)

Many well-respected educators and academics propose providing young people with digital tools, believing they will inspire and excite them about academic learning. Yet children, like many adults for that matter, often use digital media for socializing and entertainment. And, for many people, the distractions available online often trump learning. (Check out this hilarious clip from Portlandia to see how the technological loop can overcome our best intentions.) Nevertheless, digital media is essential, and children who become skilled in technology will likely gain a competitive advantage in the work force. Given this potential, the majority of American schools will invest in a technological infrastructure in the coming decade. So rather than asking whether computers should be introduced into learning environments, perhaps we should instead be asking how?

Although some student's passions are well served by technology (my 9-year-old son, for example, loves programming his Lego Mindstorm), this kind of individually driven focus and motivation may be the exception rather the norm. One large study looked at records from half a million students in North Carolina and found that students who obtained access to a home computer tended to score lower on subsequent reading and math tests. In Pennsylvania, one of the first states to allow full-time K-12 online schools, test scores in Math and Reading lag behind those of students in brick and mortar schools.

As this data indicates, technology in and of itself is not a silver bullet for motivating children to love learning; handing a child a laptop or an iPad does not guarantee they will use it for creative and innovative scholarship. And in fact, those that write about the potential of digital media to create an exciting and participatory learning experience seem to agree that core cognitive and motivational skills such as initiative, self-efficacy and goal setting are essential. Given that a large number of students do not exhibit these qualities on their own, how will this population be helped if and when online and blended learning become the norm?

In order to guide youth who access digital media to focus on scholarship we must develop children's learning strategies in a way that helps them resist the hundreds of thousands of distractions available with these tools. Once technology is fully integrated into our children's learning environments, they will be expected to use initiative and attention to direct themselves, often without adult supervision. Self-regulation, a well-studied mechanism for motivated and effective learning, seems clearly matched for both the challenges and opportunities provided by digital media. A good self-regulator will pay attention to task, persist when it becomes difficult, demonstrate flexibility and be confident that additional effort will lead to positive outcomes. These kinds of proactive processes are particularly important for personally directed learning. As educators move towards using digital media to teach, and we rely more and more on children's independent initiative and motivation, we must develop children's learning strategies so they stay on topic while they use these tools.

So how can parents and teachers help students develop these skills?

1. Guide children to set a goal that is attainable, not one that seems to difficult to reach. For example, have them focus on finishing one portion of a ten-page book report rather than the whole thing.

2. Teach them strategies to help them attain the goal. Suggest they spend 15-minute chunks doing the report on the computer without checking their phone or otherwise multitasking.

3. Help them monitor their performance. They can set a timer and then allow themselves a five-minute break after each 15-minute chunk.

4. Finally, work with them to self-reflect on what worked and did not and to also attribute their successes to their own efforts. In the above example, ask them if 15 minutes was the right amount of time. Did the timer help or stress, and so forth? When they finish the task, allow them to internalize the fact that they accomplished the goal through their own hard work. Although initially this may seem like a great deal of effort on the part of the adult, the goal is teach the child to self-regulate NOT adult-regulate. As a parent, I can assure you that helping your children early on to develop these habits will pay off as they get older. I see it in my own children.

Psychologists and educators have spent years studying self-regulation: developing theory; conducting longitudinal and experimental research; and developing academic interventions with embedded self-regulation learning. Some researchers such as Roger Azevedo and colleagues are already working on developing theoretically sound and empirically tested computer based learning environments with pedagogical agents who provide self-regulation tips and tools while students study in a hypermedia environment. This application, called Meta-Tutor, holds much promise.

Technology will continue to change the educational landscape; the extensive research on self-regulation can inform effective instructional designs for computer based learning environments that can cross-diverse academic populations of students in core content areas. As such, self-regulation is an essential life skill that may need to go hand in hand with the introduction of digital media in educational settings. Digital media provide many opportunities for learning, but good self-regulators are more likely to take advantage of these opportunities. In the 21st century, guiding youth to develop strong self-regulation skills (SRS) may indeed be more important than ever.