Strengthening self control

Brian Barber, PhD

Middle school can be a tumultuous time in any child’s life, but some children face greater difficulties that can put them far behind their classmates and lead to problems in their adult lives.

A collaborative project between researchers at Kent State University and the University of Florida may help students overcome some of the most pernicious problems and set them on a path to success.

​The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recently awarded a four-year, $3.3 million dollar grant to Stephen Smith, PhD, professor of special education in the College of Education at th​​​​​​​e University of Florida, and Brian Barber, PhD, assistant professor of special education in the School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences at Kent State University.​​​​​​​

The project, “Efficacy of I Control: An intensive intervention to improve self-regulation for middle school students with emotional and behavioral problems,” focuses on students who exhibit chronic and severe behavioral problems, and thus require intensive services to support their emotional and behavioral functioning.

“With this particular subset of students, it is common to see deficits in self-regulation interact with unsupportive home and/or school environments,” Barber says. “This can ultimately lead to school failure and drop-out, legal trouble and difficulty creating or maintaining social relationships into adulthood.

“Self-regulation is recognized as a critical skill for successful functioning in many domains, including academic and social ones. Research continues to support the theory that self regulation is malleable, and students can learn to improve it.” 

“Research continues to support the theory that self regulation is malleable, and students can learn to improve it.”

Studies of brain development patterns show that children appear most receptive to social-emotional intervention within distinct “sensitive periods,” during early childhood and again in early- to mid-adolescence, Barber says. During early adolescence, areas of the brain undergo what is known as “synaptic pruning” to eliminate weak or inefficient connections. This massive biological change coincides with new social demands for students to act with more autonomy as they move from elementary school to middle school. 

“During this time, when biological and social imperatives upend many students’ lives,” Barber says, “there’s an opportunity to help struggling students strengthen some social and behavioral habits through explicit instruction and practice using self-regulation skills.” 

Students are selected for participation by teachers and administrators, and classroom teachers or support personnel who understand the students’ special needs deliver three or four lessons a week, followed by discussion and out-of-seat activities, such as role plays. Lessons are supplemented with a computerized gaming component that involves self-monitoring and student-teacher conferences to rein​​​​​​​force learned skills. ​​​​​​​

Barber developed the program as a PhD student at the University of Florida, along with Smith, and they’ve continued to refine and test it since Barber joined Kent State in 2014. “We developed this together and tested it under an IES Goal 2 grant,” he says, “and this new Goal 3 allows us to test it on a wide scale, via a randomized controlled trial.” 

Beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, the I Control intervention will be implemented with groups of students across 92 middle schools in Northeast Ohio and North Central Florida over the next four years.

—Dan Pompili


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POSTED: Thursday, September 12, 2019 11:20 AM
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2022 09:27 AM
Dan Pompili