The Dark Side of the Dark Side of Self-Regulation

Elizabeth Weil’s TNR cover story about the perils of teaching self-regulation has generated a lot of pushback. Both Daniel Willingham and Sarah Mead penned responses that you should read in full, but the basic issue is that Weil doesn’t marshall much evidence about the size and scope of the problem she is warning about. She carefully argues for the vague notion that an emphasis on self-regulation could potentially be bad for some kids, but we already know that. The question is how many kids? With what severity?

Here’s Willingham:

There’s a case to be made that American society is going too far in emphasizing self-regulation. But the way to make it is not to suggest that the natural consequence of this emphasis is the crushing of children’s spirits because self-regulation is the same thing as no exuberance. The way to make the case is to show us that we’re overdoing self-regulation. Kids feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior.

Weil doesn’t have data that would bear on this point. I don’t either. But my perspective definitely differs from hers. When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation.

Weil also fails to properly acknowledge that many students are not from stable backgrounds, and in doing so she glosses over a key feature of teaching self-regulation.

Here’s Mead:

Weil’s article also reflects one other feature that drives me up the wall in elite media pieces on education–a heavy focus on the experience of elite, largely white, professionals and their concertedly cultivated children whose experiences are highly unrepresentative of the nation’s families and children–particularly those who are most vulnerable. Maybe Weil knows too many children who are being diagnosed with “sensory processing disorder,” but what about kids in less privileged neighborhoods? Things like the peace tables Weil describes can seem ridiculous, but children from communities where adults don’t usually display strong self regulation or settle problems by “using their words,” may need instruction to help them do so. And so forth.

Weil’s piece is emblematic of a common problem in policy writing, and education policy writing in particular. Almost no policy benefits everybody. Most policies are good ideas if they benefit 60%-70% of people without causing disproportionate harm on the other 30%-40%. But nobody wants to engage with the downsides of their preferred policy because there’s little to gain. Furthermore, in many cases there’s just not enough data to say something definitive about that 30%-40% (such as whether it’s actually 30%-40%.) So everybody pretends their policy is great for every single person, and the result is that people don’t argue by saying, “Here’s why the gains of my policy outweigh the losses,” they argue by saying, “Here are the gains of my policy and oh gosh aren’t they all so awesome.” Both sides tend to embrace this one-sided vagueness because it makes arguing easier. You often see these types of arguments in writing about charter schools, where people talk about the consequences of enrollment patterns or disciplinary models without any attempt at a measured weighing of trade-offs or a specific discussion about the proportion or characteristics of students most likely to be helped or hurt.

Such is the state of affairs in which it’s normal for Weil to spend 3,500 words attacking a policy without making the case that the policy hurts a majority of students or a disproportionate number of the students we should be most concerned about. Granted, Wail doesn’t argue for cutting back that fervently. Her inquiring tone is one that’s commonly found in the “here’s a downside we haven’t thought of…” articles that have become a staple of web journalism. But those tend to be short pieces. Dedicating 3500+ words requires a careful analysis of the pros and cons. Weil doesn’t supply that, and she would have been better off acknowledging this problem (or simply writing a piece that was much less ambitious.)

Finally, Weil should have done more to develop an accurate understanding of what self- or emotional-regulation entails. The word “suppress” appears twice in the article, and I think this is where Weil veers off course. Regulating yourself is not about suppressing desires. It’s about moving beyond your initial impulse, examining the situation, realizing your initial impulse was unwise, and then charting a different course. Take the example of 1st grader who wants to dance instead of listening to a presentation. Rather than suppressing the desire to act out in a creative fashion, regulation would entail understanding that such behavior could distract others and harm her own learning. Ultimately, a new desire to follow classroom rules is formed. Crucially, the child hasn’t learned that the desire to dance is bad or that it should be suppressed.

Perhaps we’d be better off occasionally replacing “regulation” with “re-evaluation” or “reappraisal” (the latter is more common in academic literature.) Doing so would emphasize that there’s no suppression of any kind going on, and it would help curtail the narrative that blossoming bundles of creativity are having their impulses stifled by dry school psychologists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s