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Intrinsic self-regulation in the classroom.


It is essential to establish a conceptualization for effective teaching that includes the dynamics of caring and supportive relationships, since accountability and standards alone do not ensure student achievement and success. This program description is intended to describe and illuminate that type of foundation by pulling together psychology and educational psychology theories around the shared concepts of student autonomy and intrinsic self-regulation. Student, parent, and teacher interview results are presented.


The intention of this review was to describe the development of trust in teacher-student relationships and effectiveness in classroom management and student learning. Beyond simply holding students to high standards, this conceptualization of the problem in education and psychology (Fleisher, 2005) includes the dynamics and importance of caring relationships and student autonomy, in support of academic learning and success (Hanson & Austin, 2003; Pintrich, 2003).

For Deci and Ryan (1985, 2002), when relatedness and autonomy are present in the classroom, the intrinsic self-regulation that follows improves student learning. According to the authors, the more autonomous the individual the more intrinsic the self-regulation. Student achievement also improves when students are intrinsically motivated and when teachers provide autonomy support (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). As a result, when students are supported in their learning and come to view academic tasks as meaningful and relevant, those students are inclined to use effective, self-regulated learning strategies that enhance learning and success in terms of test scores, grades, and future achievement (Hanson & Austin, 2003).

Theoretical Framework

From educational psychology theory (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Pintrich, 2000), self-regulation is presented in terms of autonomy, motivation, and goal-orientation. From psychological theory (Winnicott, 1965; Bowlby, 1969), autonomy is presented in terms of attachment, ego-relatedness, and the true self, since effective teaching and mentoring help students to explore their world with a sense of trust and autonomy, toward the ultimate goal of fully intrinsic self-regulation and improved academic achievement and life success. According to object relations theorists (Winnicott, 1965; Sorensen, 2005) and attachment theorists (Bowlby, 1969; Riggs & Bretz, 2006), the primary goal in relationships is to feel understood. For Bowlby, attuning to the inner experiences of others rather than merely one's own, predicts a sense of continuity and safety for those in one's care (Trusty, Ng, & Watts, 2005). For Winnicott, when individuals know that they are truly heard and understood, through a sense of ego-relatedness and support, those individuals are likely to develop a true self, rather than a false or reactive self (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2002). Even when students do master course material without supportive, attached relationships, they have missed out on other essential educational experiences (Siegel, 1999; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Davis, 2003). According to Winnicott (1967), the positive result for the care receiver is "a continuity of existence that becomes a sense of existing, a sense of self, and eventually results in autonomy" (p. 28).

The California Department of Education (Hanson & Austin, 2003) and Search Institute (Benson, Leffert, Scales, & Blyth, 1998) found that caring relationships, meaningful participation, and high standards, when practiced together, predicted student academic achievement and success. As well, self-determination theorists (Deci & Ryan, 2002) reported that individuals seek not just competency in their environment, but relatedness and autonomy as well. Therefore, the theoretical framework of this review was anchored in Deci and Ryan's research due to the ideal match between self-determination theory and the research of Search Institute and the California Department of Education.

In a school setting, caring environments are established when teachers not only provide structure, but attune also to the needs and concerns of their students (Benson, Leffert, Scales, & Blyth, 1998). Responsible and supportive adults have an essential role in helping today's young people to become motivated, attentive, and engaged in their learning (Clary & Rhodes, 2006). Accordingly, effective teachers hold in trust the not yet accessed and integrated independence, power, and self-worth (Cashdan, 1988) of their students. By providing structure while also supporting and attuning to the authentic needs (Winnicott, 1967; Niec & Russ, 2002) of their students, effective teachers establish environments of safety and trust, as opposed to merely environments of compliance. Students are facilitated in discovering how the academic information best suits their needs, thereby moving toward autonomy and intrinsic motivation and self-regulation, and ultimately enhanced achievement and success (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Pintrich, 2003).


Interviews were conducted with students, parents, and teachers. The two teachers interviewed were using Power Teaching classroom management strategies identified and presented by Christopher Biffle, Chair of Philosophy at Crafton College, CA (Biffle, 2002, 2004). Interviews were conducted with fifteen 4th grade students (nine boys and six girls) and their parents. These students were in attendance in one of the classrooms where these Power Teaching strategies were practiced. Students and their parents were interviewed separately and were asked parallel questions. Students were asked about their teacher and classroom activities in terms of interest and personal motivation. Parents were asked how their children felt about their teacher and classroom experience in terms of their motivation and learning. The constant comparative method (Charmaz, 2000) was used to analyze interview data. This method is an application of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) that brings structure to qualitative data and allows for the generating of hypotheses. The constant comparative method combines explicit coding methods with systematic theory development. This form of analysis uses coding procedures to create categories, which in turn are used for further analysis of the interview data. According to Glaser (1992), grounded theory is designed to allow findings to emerge from qualitative data.

Program Findings

The Power Teaching Program (Biffle, 2002, 2004) was developed to provide support and instruction for teachers in classroom management strategies that facilitate student learning and success. The main objective of the program is to improve student motivation, engagement, and learning by way of effective teacher-student and student-student communication and shared teaching practices. An essential strategy is "Teach Your Neighbor," where students work in pairs to teach one another what they have learned. Teach Your Neighbor is designed to have students shift from being in a student role to being in a teacher role. Different types of Teach Your Neighbor activities include games such as "The Crazy Professor" or "SuperSpeed Reading" (Biffle, 2002, 2005). With Crazy Professor, students work together in pairs where one student plays the role of the Crazy Professor and the other the role of the Eager Student. These types of strategies are designed to enhance student engagement and learning through the development of communication and interpersonal competencies.

Classroom Management (Biffle, 2004) was structured and designed specifically to facilitate teacher-student and student-student communication. For example, when using "Class-Yes" students respond fight away to their teacher's call for attention, but in a way that is positive and respectful of students. When the teacher calls out "Class" the students respond immediately with "Yes" in the same meter and intonation as the teacher. This classroom management approach makes it possible for teachers to move quickly and smoothly between teacher-student instruction and student-student instruction. During question-and-answer periods an "It's Cool" will echo from students when classmates give incorrect responses to questions, or a "Ten-Finger Woo" might be given for exemplary responses. These types of classroom strategies were designed to decrease unnecessary performance pressures that interfere with student learning and success. Due to classroom strategies like It's Cool and the Ten-Finger Woo, student engagement is supported because class activities become both safe and fun (Winnicott, 1965).

Interview Findings

According to one of the teachers, the number one problem in working with students was to get them involved in their learning. For this program, it was noted that when reinforcement strategies were used to encourage that involvement, those reinforcement strategies were used primarily as a step toward helping students gain their own sense of motivation and success. For example, iron-on patches could be earned when students beat their own best scores. This reinforcement strategy was particularly useful, however, because students were having fun doing it. Plastic chips could also be earned for students having "motivated energy." It was not the reward, necessarily, that increased student motivation, but that the chips were used as part of a game to get them going. In these ways, students were encouraged and supported in moving from extrinsic motivation toward increasingly intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000; Pintrich, 2000, 2003).

Regarding Teach Your Neighbor (Biffle, 2002, 2004), one of the teachers reported saying to his students, "We are not 20 students and one teacher here. We are going to be 21 teachers here. You will be teaching each other." Teach Your Neighbor helps students become engaged in classroom activities and helps to build self-worth, because each student helps a neighbor to learn. As observed by the other teacher, students are gaining a sense of independence by learning how to do things on their own. In other words students are saying that they are not only able to describe and understand the concepts, but are able to apply and explain them by teaching the concepts to their neighbors. According to object relations theory (Winnicott, 1965; Cashdan, 1988), these students were accessing and integrating their own power, independence, and self-worth by way of being successful in these activities.

Another Power Teaching classroom strategy is to practice rather than scold. This positive approach is designed to help students engage in activities without fear of embarrassment or failure. According to one of the teachers, "since there is no scolding or anything like that, it makes a mistake real simple and real pain-free." Stated in other terms by the other teacher, "one of the Core Principles behind Power Teaching is that everybody is going to make mistakes. So as soon as you do, we'll all instantly say, 'It's Cool, Not a Big Deal, No Problem.'" According to attachment theorists (Bowlby, 1969; Shaver & Mikulincer, 2002), this type of support would help to establish and maintain an environment of safety and continuity where trust and attachment can develop. This classroom strategy for autonomy support helps students move toward intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation, self-regulation (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2002) and goal-orientation (Pintrich, 2000, 2003).

As stated by one of the teachers, "they are the ones who are going to be the future leaders, and that they are building that rapport now in a positive way, and they are getting better at the way they handle each other." Similarly, the other teacher commented that when the classroom activities and the teacher-student and student-student relationships all tie together, "students are having a blast, and the curriculum falls fight into place." According to this teacher, it is not only essential to encourage students, but when it comes to pushing them it needs to be done in a good way. In other words, teachers need strategies for moving students forward in ways that do not undermine their motivation or the relationship with the teacher. He noted also that because of their authority, teachers can interfere with student learning and under certain circumstances student-to-student learning is essential, "I think students at times feel cornered, or their defense mechanisms are on, and they're not thinking clearly. But if I walk away and ask one of their peers to talk with them, all the pressure is off." These examples demonstrate the importance of supportive teacher-student and student-student relationships and student autonomy. Essentially, the goal is to establish a community of learners where students are taking control of their own learning. For the different Power Teaching modules, across classroom management, reading, writing, and math, the objective is for students to come to take charge of their own learning and success (Biffle, 2002, 2004). One of the teachers commented, "The whole purpose of it is to put the control into the kids' own hands. You know, like they've got control, when in actuality, the teacher is still in control."

During eleven of the fifteen interviews, parents reported that the positive motivation and learning seen in their children was due largely to their teacher's particular teaching style. These parents said that their children loved the teaching style and that they were having fun in the classroom. The parents reported that the classroom learning environment was managed and controlled appropriately and reflected that their children were excited about learning and about their academic work. They said that their children were enjoying this class, had a positive attitude toward school, and that they wanted to learn. Parents noted that their children actually wanted to do their homework and schoolwork, especially since they were gaining a sense of their own competence. Regarding student competency, one parent explained, "he's happier, more upbeat, and now he comes home very positive." In ten of the fifteen parent interviews, the positive teacher-student relationship was reported as contributing to student learning and success. Parents said that this teacher related to and identified well with the students, and that he helped them to become successful and to engage in their learning activities. He was "understanding but tough" and "made the kids feel grown up." Parents said that this teacher was seen by many of his students as a positive role model and a father-type figure. From attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) and object relations theory (Winnicott, 1965; Cashdan, 1988), these comments demonstrate that teachers, at least from an emotional perspective, are in a role similar to that of a parent within the narrower context of the classroom.

Parents reported that this teacher was approachable, loved and looked up to, and that his students were in good hands. According to one of the parents, "this teacher and several others, they're approachable, on a level that he doesn't feel inferior or threatened in any way. I'd say that it was an earned respect." Parents commented that their children, because of the relationship with this teacher, "were more socially confident at home," "helped more at home," and would "now take constructive criticism." According to one parent, "Never was he motivated to stay on top of his homework before. Now he wants to stay in good with his teacher. It's about the relationship. His teacher values them so much. He's motivated to do his best because of that."

All fifteen students reported that they loved or liked the Crazy Professor Game. They said it was exciting and fun, and that it helped them with their reading. Many students said that they "liked the gesturing, the props, and going wild." Different stages of the game included "gesturing, acting, mirroring, puppeting, and explaining" (Biffle, 2002). Students said that the game helped them get into the reading, learn from the reading, and ultimately, made it easier to write. From an object relations perspective (Winnicott, 1965), the safety and fun in this classroom was helping to establish the emotional space in which students could trust in their autonomous explorations. From self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2002), these students were being helped toward autonomy and intrinsic motivation and self-regulation by engaging and being supported in activities that were personally relevant and meaningful. In addition, all fifteen students said that when their teacher explained new material to them, he did it in a good way. Students said that their teacher explained in detail, wrote on the board, and also gave them steps to follow. One student commented, "First he'll tell us what we're supposed to do. He'll explain it, and then he'll take it like a step at a time. He'll show us how to do it." Importantly, many of the students said that their teacher not only explained the material, but that they would then teach their neighbor what they had just learned. Students said that both teaching their neighbor and being taught by their neighbor helped them to learn the material.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Though student autonomy has been identified in educational psychology theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000, 2002; Pintrich, 2000, 2003) as essential for student learning and success, an understanding of applying psychological theory (Bowlby, 1969; Winnicott, 1965) in the classroom is important in facilitating student autonomy, achievement, and success (Fleisher, 2005). The importance of this program description within the context of education is due to the capacity that teachers have to positively or negatively affect student motivation and autonomy. It is recommended that educators are supported in having the positive influences rather than the negative ones.

Empirical studies suggest that the implementation of the practices implied by integrating both educational psychology theory and psychology theory together can lead to marked improvements in student performance, including grades, intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, and retention (Reeve, 2002; Hanson & Austin, 2003; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). The goal of this review is to help teachers and to help students. It is also hoped that this program will be used to help resolve historical tensions between the disciplines of Education and Psychology (Berliner, 1993).


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Fleisher is a Lecturer in the Psychology Program at California State University, Channel Islands and holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from California Graduate Institute.
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Author:Fleisher, Steven C.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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