Enhancing Social-Emotional Learning with Self-Regulation for Learning

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. (Education Consultant, nRich Educational Consulting, Inc.)

Today’s world if far more complex than any other time in human history. Over the past two decades the world’s issues have become more interconnected than ever before. The economy, changing climates, health and wealth disparities, international and national conflicts, terrorism and (fill in the blank) ___phobias. The world truly has grown smaller. However, adults and children alike are becoming more socially isolated.  

With advances in technology, especially in the social media medium, people can “unfriend” those who they disagree with, “block” people with differing points of view, or bully opponents either anonymously or from a distance. It is especially disconcerting when those in power or who have greater influence do it, thus making it ok for children to do it as well. Social media is breeding anti-social behaviors.

The US education system is a pillar of our democratic society. We are charged with preparing people to become responsible citizens; improve social conditions; promote cultural unity; help people become economically self-sufficient; and enhance individual happiness and enrich individual lives[1]. It is incumbent upon us as educators to develop our students’ capacity for empathy, collaboration and critical thinking to be successful in evolving complex world.

Fortunately, over the last few decades the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) movement in schools has garnered greater attention. While educating students on social/emotional development is a worthy endeavor, I suggest we enhance SEL by including Self-Regulation for Learning (SRL).

For more than 5 decades SRL has been a specific field of study in psychology. Most recently, educators have begun to pay attention to SRL and have even included the ideas into educational standards. “Whether preparing for college or a career, academic learning must become a proactive activity, requiring self-initiated, motivational, and behavioral processes as well as metacognitive ones, all of which make up Self Regulated Learning (SRL).”[2]

Self-regulation for learning is the process we go through to manage the dimensions of our affect, behaviors and cognition to attain learning goals. These three dimensions (also know as the ABCs of SRL) are tightly interwoven and, in successful learners, work in tandem. One without the other two or two without the one creates an imbalance in the learning process.[3]

Below, I define the ABCs of SRL and list strategies that can be used in the classroom to develop greater SEL:

A=Affect: Emotion versus Feelings

People will often use the term “emotions” when they really mean affect. Affect is defined as how we feel, or our conscious awareness of our emotions. Emotions are a chemical reaction within our limbic system (a very primitive part of our brain) triggered by internal and external stimuli. Feelings (affect) are the emotional responses (or reactions). A vast majority of our feelings are controllable. Feelings are personal—no one makes you feel anything—you make you feel. How you manage those feelings can have a substantial effect on productivity.

Strategies to assist students in developing affect awareness:

  • Openly discuss with your students how you deal with difficult situations, stress and feeling bad
  • Teach kids how to recognize they power they have over their feelings, by teaching them to recognize their feelings and how to keep them positive
  • When students are feeling anxious or worried, have them talk to you or someone they trust, so they know they don’t have to deal with the feelings alone
  • To alleviate anxiety, have students consider the best- and worst-case outcomes—tell them the outcome will be somewhere in the middle
  • Drawing a picture of your feelings can be helpful in figuring out how to deal with them.

B=Behavior: Behavior is Social

Behavior is defined as the actions we perform that are initiated, sustained, changed, or developed based on both internal and external factors. Behavior can be both conscious and unconscious. In the learning process, behaviors include:

  • Skills and strategies (how to do something to be productive)
  • Communication (how to talk to someone to be heard)
  • Collaboration (how to work with others to be successful)
  • Work habits (how to get something done on your own)

Social interactions, such as getting along, working with others, following directions, listening, and so on, are behavioral. Students can and should learn appropriate social behaviors.

Strategies to assist students in developing social behaviors:

  • Be a model for your students in how you work with others, demonstrating for them how you engage and negotiate with adults and students
  • Provide students with opportunities to work collaboratively with others who are not like them
  • Give students roles when working in groups so all kids can be involved in the work
  • Offer students opportunities to engage in diverse cultural activities, such as through theater, film or fieldtrips
  • Support students in their positive interactions with others, by providing them with descriptive feedback on what went well and what needs adjustments.

C=Cognition: Cognition for Learning

The dimension of cognition plays a significant role in SRL and SEL. Cognition is the “L” in SEL—without thinking there is no learning. Basically, cognition is the conscious act of thinking. It’s the mental process students go through from very simple or subtle processes (such as awareness of sensory input, movement at will and recalling factual information) to very complex or abstracted levels of thinking (such as critical reasoning, creative thinking, problems solving and decision making). Cognition increases through learning experiences, whether it’s repetition, practice or discovery based.

An act of cognition is “Meta-Cognition” or thinking about our own thinking. This close thinking is the reflection process we all go through throughout the day. Whether it be the self-talk (“Why did I do it that way?”) to pondering future solutions or decisions (“If I work hard enough, I think I can ace this test.”). Students who demonstrate greater self-regulation utilize meta-cognition to:

  • Stay positive when faced with a challenge
  • Acknowledge their strengths and limitations
  • Set and monitor goals
  • Reflect on failures as an opportunity for growth
  • Reflect on successes to keep succeeding.

Strategies to assist students in being cognitively aware:

  • As the teacher, think out loud, this will demonstrate to your students your line of thinking
  • Help kids set reasonable short-term goals—goals for the class period or lesson
  • Have students reflect upon how they felt (affect) and what they did (behavior) to achieve/or not achieve their goals—if they didn’t achieve the goal—have them think about what they can do better next time
  • Directly teach students critical reasoning and creative thinking strategies—these tools will be helpful in problem solving and decision making
  • Praise your students’ efforts over their achievements—effort is the key to success!

We all want our students to be successful. Some students come to school with greater degrees of SRL, while others need more modeling and supports along the way. All students can value from keeping the ABCs (affect, behavior, cognition) in mind while learning:

A=How do I feel when I’m successful?

B=What will I do to be successful?

C=What’s my goal/plan to be successful?

About the Author:

Dr. Richard M. Cash is an award-winning educator and author who has worked in the field of education for more than 30 years. His range of experience includes teaching, curriculum coordination, and program administration. Currently, he is an internationally recognized education consultant (www.nrich.consulting). His consulting work has taken him throughout the United States, as well as into Canada, The Czech Republic, China, Cyprus, England, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, South Korea, and Turkey. 

Richard holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Bachelor’s degree in Theater. Dr. Cash authored the books Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century, (2017) winner of The Legacy Book® Award for Outstanding Educators Publication; Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics (2019) (co-author Diane Heacox), winner of The Legacy Book® Award for Outstanding Educators Publication (2014); and Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn (2016). All books are published by Free Spirit Publishing, Inc. (www.freespirit.com).

Richard lives in Minneapolis, MN and Palm Springs, CA. He may be contacted at:


[1] The Center for Education Policy. https://www.cep-dc.org/pages/Home.cfm

[2] White, Marie & DiBenedetto, M.K.. (2015). Self-regulation and the common core: Application to ELA standards. Self-Regulation and the Common Core: Application to ELA Standards. 1-294. 10.4324/9781315882840.

[3] Cash, R. M. (2016). Self-regulation in the classroom: Helping students learn how to learn. Free Spirit Publishing. Minneapolis, MN.

Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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  1. Dale & Teresa, I enjoyed reading this blog on Self-Regulation and glad to see you are not biased against product authors sharing their expertise and visibly advancing their work in a professional manner. This is unusual in this age of hyper-concerns about COIs. Thank you!

  2. I am excited to bring SRL to the table when I meet with my school’s SEL team. What a great way to encourage teacher buy-in!

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