What is it?

Self-regulation is a critical part of a student’s ability to function effectively in a classroom and at home. One commonly cited definition of self-regulation is “the self-generated thoughts, feelings, and actions that are planned and cyclically adapted to the attainment of personal goals” (Zimmerman, 2005). A less technical way of saying this is that self-regulation means doing what one needs to do to function best in the given situation.

The “self” in self-regulation implies that a student has, or is in the process of developing, the internal capacity to set goals, attend to their internal cues, assess situations with accuracy, and monitor and adjust their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours accordingly to achieve their goals. In the classroom the goal may be to complete work in a timely manner and will require the student to activate, monitor, and adjust their attention, motivation, planning, and cognitive skills to achieve the task. On the playground, the goal may be to get along with others, and the student will need to activate, monitor, and adjust a host of social, emotional and interpersonal skills to achieve this goal.

Research has shown that students with ASD struggle with self-regulation, likely due to the common characteristics associated with ASD, including social and communication deficits, executive functioning challenges, rigidity, challenges with theory of mind, etc. (Reid, R. et al., 2013).

How does self-regulation develop?

Prior to attaining self-regulation, students and teachers engage in co-regulation; this involves the two parties reading off one-another to adjust behaviours accordingly. For example, a teacher might notice a student expressing frustration in an ineffective way (screaming) and help soothe them by modeling how to ask for help and providing them with assistance; as a result, the student may begin to calm. As students continue to develop higher-level thinking skills, teachers may encourage their students to self-regulate by off-loading more of the responsibility to their students to monitor internal cues, assess situations, and adjust their behaviours to meet the needs of the situation.

According to Zimmerman (2005), skills associated with self-regulation develop through a four-stage learning process.

1st Level: Observation. Student observes the skill from a proficient model (e.g. teacher, parent, peer).

2nd Level: Emulation. Imitate the skill with assistance (prompting, feedback, reinforcement) from the model to ensure the skill is performed correctly.

3rd Level: Self-control. Student provided opportunities to independently perform the skill under structured conditions.

4th Level: Self-regulation. Student is given opportunities to generalize use of the skill across different environments, people, and conditions.

This four-stage process is applicable to any skill a student must learn to improve their self-regulation, including skills the student uses to calm their body, alert their body, demonstrate social emotional awareness, develop meta-cognitive awareness, etc. Therefore, a student with excellent self-regulatory capacity will have mastered skills in a variety of domains and be able to apply those skills to different situations.

Self-regulation strategies.

Teach to skill deficits. If a student struggles with emotional regulation that results in many “meltdowns”, they will need to learn skills associated with social-emotional awareness (e.g. label their emotions, recognize signs of frustration, express emotions in acceptable ways, strategies for calming and coping with disappointments). The specific skills to teach will depend on the student’s present level of functioning but resources such as The Incredible 5 Point Scale (Dunn Buron & Curtis, 2012) and Zones of Regulation (Kuypers, 2011) may be a helpful for some teachers and their students.

Self-management / self-evaluation. Self-management (self-evaluation) teaches students to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, accurately monitor and record their performance and reward themselves when they use appropriate behaviour (AFIRM Team, 2016; Reid et al., 2013).  This strategy can be applied to any skill a student may benefit from monitoring, such as listening, requesting help, or greeting others.

Related Resources:

AFIRM Team. (2016). Self-management. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on    Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina.   Retrieved from

Dunn Buron, K. & Curtis, M. (2012). The incredible 5-point scale: Assisting students in understanding   social interactions and controlling their emotions. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism and Asperger   Publishing Company.

Kuypers, L. (2011). The zones of regulation. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.


Reid, R., Mason, L. & Asaro-Saddler, K. (2013). Self-Regulation strategies for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In S. Goldstein & J. Naglieri (Eds.), Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorders (257 - 281). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2005). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In: Boekaerts, M., Pintrich, P. R., & Zeidner, M. (Eds.). Handbook of Self-Regulation (13 – 39). St. Louis, MO, USA: Academic Press.