By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation
Total nerd move: I was on a webinar yesterday about self-regulation. Dr. Megan McClelland from Oregon State University delivered a really fascinating report on research around the development of self-regulation in children from early childhood to kindergarten. So what is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of life’s experiences with a full range of emotions in a way that is socially tolerable and flexible enough to allow for spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions when needed.
Self-regulation is about not crying at performance reviews but crying when there is real loss and pain; self-regulation is about standing up to corporate bullies and finding empathy for those who are struggling at their work; self-regulation is about making the space for wild ideas while also knowing when to button things down.
Yes, the study was about children.
But self-regulation is an emotional issue that follows us through our lives and into our family and work life. Looking at the list of examples above, all of us can point to experiences – our own and with others – where the failure to self-regulate led to some pretty terrible outcomes.
The fascinating touch point that Dr. McClelland pointed to was in the use of games to both teach and observe self-regulating behaviors. The kids were little, so the games needed to be simple – like playing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, Toes” – and being given instructions to change the order on the fly. The kids with a greater ability to self-regulate were able to adapt rather easily to the new choices, while those who had a lower degree of self-regulation experienced frustration and couldn’t make the pivot when asked.
Here’s the deal: when we grow up, we never stop having to pivot. But not everyone is good at adapting to change. And for those who have trouble with self-regulation, the results lead to things like addiction, difficulty in holding down a job or a series of bad relationships.
So we need to keep playing the games. We need to enable practice in new and different and better choices for individuals throughout life – not just in the first five years. We need to do this because as the games in life become more complex, we human beings settle into existing patterns. And sometimes these patterns aren’t so good for us.
All the adults that you see playing these improv games are gaining the skill to upend the existing pattern. They are modeling the behaviors and emotions of self-regulation. For sure, many of them are doing this in service of creating comedy. But the really good comedy comes from the discovery of some sort of deep human truth through the disruption of some sort of well worn pattern.
Inserting obligatory Pokemon Go reference to get more relevancy and traction on this post.