Your Students’ Number One Life Skill

top skill students need

The Top Choice Every Effective Educator Already Uses — Do You?

Over the years, student behaviors which do or don’t contribute to success (habits, effort, attitude, etc.) have been called many things. Some refer to these attributes as their personality or even character. But what really drives success?

There’s one skill that’s absolutely critical for both students and, yes, staff, too. This research may surprise you because it deals with one of your brain’s “automated” systems. The number one school success survival skill is…

…the power to regulate your thoughts. Some call it resilience, mental toughness or grit. Others call it perseverance, fortitude or mental powers.

The Research

The bottom line is… it is ALL self-regulation. Self-regulation helps you adjust to a changing, often novel and even dangerous world. Here are what the researchers say about self-regulation.

Carol Dweck, in Mindset, says, “Students may know how to study, but won’t want to if they believe their efforts are futile. If you target that belief, you can see more benefit than you have any reason to hope for.” (Dweck, 2007).

Talking about survival situations (a sinking ship, the tragedy at the Twin Towers, an airline crash or even home for kids from abuse, neglect, divorce, etc.), Amada Ripley, in The Unthinkable (2009) says, “It was the attitude and mindset to take quick focused actions that saved lives more than any other reason.”

Laurence Gonzales, in Deep Survival (2010) says that your ability to regulate your own thoughts, actions and grit are the critical survival skills. He asks, “Who are you?” Those that see themselves as a survivor, can live; those that see themselves as a victim, often die.

In The Survivor’s Club, Ben Sherwood (2010) talks about the traits it takes to survive in this world. They are all self-regulation and revolve around ‘perseverance, fortitude or decision-making under stress.’

Okay, that’s the survival in the world outside school, how about your own world? It’s time to place this in a school context…


Paul Tough, in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, suggests that, self-regulation is the single biggest life skill (Tough, 2013). He adds, “Executive function and character strengths – specifically grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity and conscientiousness… are better predictors of academic performance and educational achievement than IQ, and therefore ought to be the direct target of interventions.”

In our brains, it is the structure and activity of the anterior cingulate that has been found to be correlated with self-reports of effortful control and self-regulation. This structure is located in the back of, and the mid-part of, the frontal lobes. It is managed and regulated by both genes and environment. This key self-regulation network is also regulated by dopamine. There are specific exercises that can influence network development and improve self-regulation. We’ll get to those later.

Research (Posner MI, & Rothbart MK. 2009) has shown how the ability to regulate both academic and learning emotions is related to achievement, and that these cognitive/motivational variables are what promote achievement. Key models have been proposed to account for the relationships among academic emotions, cognitive/motivational variables and achievement. The research has supported such mediated and regulated models, particularly with negative emotions. In short, better regulation gets better results.

Other research showed gender differences in this trait. One study examined whether different aspects of self-regulation (i.e., emotion and behavior regulation) account for gender differences in academic achievement. Research showed that girls outperformed boys in both achievement and behavior regulation. Additional analyses revealed that relations between gender and achievement were mediated by self-regulation. Furthermore, the boys’ mathematics achievements were underestimated unless one took into account poor behavior regulation. That suggests the boys behavioral issues cloud teacher’s judgment about their cognitive capacity. Fascinating, isn’t it!


When your day is stressful, ask yourself, “Who am I? Have I adapted to my changing work environment, or do I keep expecting it to be like my former hopes or memories? Why do I get stressed over the same things, week after week after week? Can I make new choices, or am I perpetually stuck in the past?” If you are stuck, will that trait enhance or hurt survival skills?

When you have good self-regulation skills, you are using the number one executive function skill. When you exercise this skill, you can choose calm over hysteria and you can chose hope over despair. Self-regulation means choosing to forgive when you could be resentful or vengeful. It means choosing to be friendly when you could be cold or distant. Self-regulation means choosing to appreciate an effort, strategy, or thought instead of criticizing it. In short, self-regulation is the one tool that gives you quality of life. You can be rich and be humble, or rich and be arrogant. You can choose to be paralyzed or choose to take action. Self-regulation is the ticket. So, how important is this for your own students?

In the classroom, most kids think that the world “happens to them.” They feel like a victim. That’s why the single biggest gift you can give your kids is better self-regulation. How do you do it?

Start with sharing the knowledge that they (your students) are not a victim forever. Even if they FEEL like they are a victim, they still have to make a choice. “Am I going to stay on the ground, or get up and move on?” Jesse Jackson said, “You may not be responsible for being knocked down, but you are responsible for getting back up.”

Second, point out explicitly in class, over and over, what “self-regulation” is all about. Do this by telling them, in the moment, when you are asking them to make responsible choices (as well as sharing with them when you personally make responsible choices yourself). This EXPLICIT debriefing reinforces the capacity of your students to choose their lives.

Third, put them in positions to learn where they have both the choice and the Responsibility of Directing Their Future. This means project learning, teamwork, leadership roles, classroom jobs, service work and social media work. In these roles, they develop self-regulation skills with the help of peers, circumstances and task demands. In short, help them see that they do make a difference, and that they can and did make things happen.

Do daily activities that reinforce the skills of self-regulation. These include gratitude journals, mindfulness skills, social skills, relaxation skills and executive function skills. Remind your students that it’s the choices they make that determine their happiness.

Sports, yoga, and playing an instrument are all strong tools. These have already given us promise for allowing the design of other methods to improve this driver of human effectiveness. I am also a HUGE fan of mindfulness training, which teaches attention, memory, empathy, kindness, social skills, deferred gratification and gratitude.

These so-called “soft skills” turn out to be quite important. Your assignment this month is simple. When you notice that kids struggle with self-regulation, ask yourself, “What does this kid need? How can I embed that into another skill or teach it explicitly?” You see, these are teachable moments. Either be ready to do something on the spot, or work with colleagues to write up brief “mini-lessons” in self-regulation that you can implement at a moment’s notice.

When you DO make the connections and you apply yourself in changing student’s brains, their achievement goes up and everyone’s happier.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Ballantine Books. NY.
Gonzales, L. (2004). Deep Survival Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. W.H. Norton.
Posner, MI & Rothbart, MK. (2009). Toward a physical basis of attention and self-regulation. Phys. Life Rev.,2,103-20.

Ripley, A. (2009) The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. Harmony.
Sherwood, B. (2010). The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. Grand Central Publishing.
Tough, P., (2012). How Children Succeed. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Weis, M., Heikamp, T. & Trommsdorff, G. (2013). Gender differences in school achievement: The role of self-regulation. Frontiers of Psychol., 4-442.

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