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Teaching Self-Regulation to Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Students with learning disabilities sometimes struggle behaviorally as well as academically. A supportive teacher must help these students learn to regulate their impulses and focus on academic growth in spite of challenges. This lesson will give you some ideas for teaching self-regulation to students with learning disabilities.

Why Self-Regulation?

Ms. Nolan has been teaching fifth grade for a few years, and her class includes children with a wide range of learning styles and needs. This year, Ms. Nolan has more students than usual with diagnosed learning disabilities, or challenges in learning that are surprising given the students' overall aptitude.

Ms. Nolan initially differentiates her academic instruction to accommodate the needs of these students, but as the year progresses, she notices increasingly that her students with learning disabilities also struggle behaviorally. She finds that these students can be impulsive and oppositional. They resist staying on task and seem to have trouble retaining focus.

After doing some research, Ms. Nolan discovers that it is common for students with learning disabilities to struggle with self regulation, understanding and demonstrating some control over their emotional state. Ms. Nolan decides to focus on teaching strategies to help these students learn to regulate themselves, which she understands will lead to improvements in both self-esteem and academic achievement.

Learning the Right Language

Through her research, Ms. Nolan discovers that a key to helping students with learning disabilities develop better self-regulation skills is teaching them the language for describing their own emotions, strengths, and struggles.

Ms. Nolan spends time with her whole class going over vocabulary students can use to describe their emotions, like 'happy', 'distracted', 'frustrated', and 'excited'. Then, when she notices her students growing distracted or beginning to act out, she directs their attention to a chart at the front of the room with appropriate emotional vocabulary and asks them to describe how they're feeling rather than act impulsively based on their feeling.

Ms. Nolan is pleasantly surprised to discover that when her students have the vocabulary for describing their cognitive and emotional states, they are better able to identify and describe what is going on inside themselves. This ability leads to increased self-awareness and improvement in the extent to which students are able to refocus on their work.

Accommodating Assignments

Of course, providing vocabulary is not the end of the story. Ms. Nolan also becomes increasingly sensitive to the ways she can accommodate, or modify, assignments and daily tasks to make them more accessible to students who struggle with learning. She learns that many issues with self-regulation arise when students get frustrated with their assignments. Ms. Nolan begins making certain modifications more regularly, such as:

  • breaking up assignments into manageable chunks
  • allowing students to do more assignments that involve visual arts, performance art, hands-on projects and other creative activities rather than intensive reading and writing
  • incorporating graphic organizers and planning structures into assignments
  • allowing students to work with partners more frequently
  • incorporating assistive technology into more of her assignments

The more she incorporates these and other accommodations, the more improvements Ms. Nolan sees in her students' ability to self-regulate.

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