Research Review

Professor Rafael Diaz

"Development of Self Direction"

by Sarah Felstiner, Teacher, Center P.M. The Bing Times - April 1992

Each quarter a Stanford researcher makes a presentation to the Bing staff. Professor Rafael Diaz from the School of Education spoke to the Bing staff and teachers about his research in child development, particularly as it affects "developmentally appropriate practice" for a nursery school like Bing. He discussed two very different pedagogues, or styles of education. In the "transmission" model, the teacher transmits knowledge to the child, the empty recipient. In the developmentally appropriate, or "collaborative" model, teachers collaborate with children to meet the many milestones of development, moderating and facilitating as children interact with the environment. In the first model, the child is passive, compliant, and imitates the teacher. In the latter, however, the child is an active participant whose self-direction and autonomous functioning are rewarded. Diaz pointed out that the collaborative model is a style of teaching, more an art than a science—though you never quite get there, you can keep moving in that direction, "like the North Star." The eventual aim is for children to move from collaboration with teachers to autonomy and self direction.

Self-direction is the child's ability to plan, guide, and monitor his/her own behavior, flexibly and from within to change circumstances. In planning, children think before acting, rather than just responding to a stimulus. Children guide their own behavior, using it to carry out their plan. And finally, children monitor their behavior, observing and evaluating themselves to figure out where they are in respect to their goals. By encouraging self-direction, teachers are teaching for autonomy.

Self-direction is different from self-control. For example, a mother may repeatedly tell her toddler "don't touch" when he approaches an electrical outlet. Later, in the absence of his mother, this child may approach the outlet, and then tell himself "don't touch," and remove his hand. He is thinking to guide his behavior, but he is really repeating an external command in a rigid structure not unlike stimulus/response. He is reacting passively. Thus, self control is the ability to act according to the dictates of the care-giver in the absence of that care-giver.

In another example, a child needs two red blocks to complete a structure the way she wants to, but has only one, so she paints another block red. This demonstrates self regulation, because the child has manipulated her environment in order to achieve her goal. In the collaborative model of education, teachers mediate this experience of self-direction, rather than just transmitting knowledge.

Sometimes children are in the process of moving from self-control to self-direction. For instance, a mother may drop her child off at school on a chilly morning, and ask him to keep his jacket on whenever he goes outside. As the day grows warmer, the boy becomes quite hot, but knows he should wear his jacket outside. So, he removes his sweater, and puts his jacket back on, thereby complying with his mother's request, but also altering circumstances to make himself more comfortable. Self-directed children aren't necessarily compliant, and the distinction between self-direction and self control can be hard to determine in practice.

Children who have not yet acquired self-direction may have one of two problems. Some may exhibit rigid control, and a real need for external structure. Others may show a true lack of control, and be excessively impulsive. Though manifested differently, both types of children are struggling with the same issue—a lack of self-direction.

The good news is, many public school systems are moving towards the collaborative model of education. Studies show that 65 to 70 percent of class time is spent doing independent "seat work," a task that relies heavily on self-direction. Unfortunately, many children are unprepared for this, because they have not learned how to plan, guide, and monitor their behavior.

There has been an ongoing debate among early childhood educators about whether to follow "developmentally appropriate practice," or to prepare children for school. But Diaz explains that this is not really an either/or dilemma, because we can do both by encouraging self-direction. We can mediate children's development and prepare them for school, because the child's self-direction allows the adult to withdraw, and the child to take over. In other words, developmentally appropriate practice is the best way to prepare children for school.

Much of Diaz's research has focused on the phenomenon of children's private speech, or self-talk. Children use language to communicate with others, but they also use it to plan, guide, and monitor their own behavior. So, by promoting private speech in children, we are fostering self-regulation. Children use private speech to focus their own attention, saying something to themselves, such as "I need two red ones." This demonstrates an enormous accomplishment, because the child is using labels and language as a tool to restructure all available stimuli into a plan of action. This kind of self talk also represents a decline of impulsiveness, because the child is talking and thinking before acting. Thus children's problem solving becomes more practical, because they make plans of action through private speech. And in directing their own activity, children are taking over the role of the adult.

Vygotsky, and other psychologists, discussed a "Zone of Proximal Development," in which a care-giver continually leads a child's thinking further and further by little steps, by a process called "scaffolding." The adult extends the child's abilities, so that next time the child can start a little further along, and do more of the task for themselves. For instance, an adult can "chunk" the task for a child, dividing it into smaller, more manageable segments. Adults can also help focus a child's attention, and give them a motivational stimulus through praise. In other words, teachers and care-givers help children master their own environment.

But eventually, Diaz has found, children will begin to use private speech to take on these adult roles of chunking, focusing, encouraging, etc. Children can create their own Zone of Proximal Development, moving from adult-child to child-child collaboration. By using private speech to take on the role of the adult, children become more independent, because the self is the collaborator. As the child grows older and more competent, collaboration declines, and private speech disappears, only to reappear at times of difficulty. Three things can happen when a child encounters frustration: they can give up, an adult can step in, or they can use private speech to coach themselves through the process. Private speech is a tool children use to become independent and autonomous, and thus it serves as the bridge between collaboration and self-direction.

How can we, as teachers and children, promote private speech and self-direction? First, Diaz suggested, we need to provide an appropriate level of challenge—children stop talking once there's no challenge. Self-direction appears only in those moments when the automatic flow breaks down. Next, we need to gradually withdraw the adult direction, through the process of scaffolding. If an environment is too permissive and without challenges, many children will avoid self direction. However, if an environment is very controlled, there is no opportunity for self-direction because all of the direction comes from adults. Rather, we need to structure and withdraw, providing activities which are "teacher supported." Most private speech and self-direction appears in this middle ground.

Diaz feels that there are still unanswered questions in this field. For instance, there are a number of issues which arise in preschool (attention deficit, impulse control, etc.) which will snowball as the child grows older. These problems are not due to a lack of private speech—even impulsive children use self talk all the time—but perhaps to some disconnection. In these cases, teachers can't withdraw, because the child's self-support mechanism (self regulation) doesn't take over. Diaz thinks perhaps that some children aren't using private speech efficiently. He would like to explore what happens to the private speech of such children, and why private speech is effective for some children, but not for others. In fact, he hopes to begin a study soon, at Bing and other local schools, to take an in-depth look at the basics of children's verbal self-regulation systems. We hope to help him find out more about this fascinating topic, because it is so relevant to the lives of our children, and to our teaching and parenting styles.