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Emotional Self-Regulation and Reading Success

By Jenny Nordman
 | Aug 16, 2018
Emotional Self-Regulation

Although emotional control may not be at the top of the list when describing the characteristics of effective readers, the impact of emotional self-regulation should not be underestimated. In fact, research has found that students who are better able to control their behavior pick up on early literacy skills more quickly than those who enter school with weak socio-emotional skills. Conversely, negative emotions have been found to affect processing speed, working memory, concentration, self-monitoring, and attention, all of which are cognitive skills connected to reading success.

Students who experience reading difficulty often have less frustration tolerance, increased anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Older remedial readers are particularly at risk for experiencing these negative emotions during reading, due to the discouragement and even embarrassment that can result from slow progress. This creates an unfortunate cycle, since negative emotions about reading can affect performance, just as negative performance on reading tasks can affect emotions about reading.

With this in mind, here are some practical tips that can be used to increase emotional self-regulation and positivity during reading instruction for students of all ages: 

  • “Anchor” students in a positive reading memory. At the beginning of a guided reading or remediation session, individually anchor students in a recent positive reading memory in order to start instruction on an encouraging note. (e.g., “Michael, remember yesterday when you did such a great job remembering your vowel sounds? Let’s start from there.”)
  • Guide positive self-affirmations. At the end of a guided reading or remediation session, guide students in reflecting on a positive event or result from that day’s work. This can be done by asking each student what they saw as a success during the lesson.
  • Teach relaxation techniques. When students seem frustrated, take a “relaxation break.” The following tend to be particularly helpful: deep breathing, visualization, flowing gross motor exercises, and stretching. Then, encourage students to smile and straighten their posture before resuming instruction.
  • Provide a clear, safe way for students to express their emotions about reading. This can be accomplished through a simple rating scale or informal survey. For younger students, they can be asked to color a happy face, neutral face, or frustrated face after a session, and then discuss why they feel that way. For older students, they can rate their feelings about a session on a scale of 1–5. This will help them to express their emotions and avoid build-up, while also providing the teacher with a litmus test reflecting how students feel about a lesson or skill.

With these activities, you can help to build emotional self-regulation skills in readers and support their overall literacy success. For additional positive reinforcement, it may be helpful to send a few of these suggestions home to parents as well.

Jenny Nordman is an associate professor of reading and literacy at Regis University in Denver, where she coordinates the Master of Education in Reading program.  Her areas of expertise include reading assessment and intervention, cognitive skills associated with reading success, neurocognition, and evidence-based best practices.

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