Self-Regulation and Goal Attainment: A New Perspective for Employment Programs

April 6, 2017
Self-Sufficiency, Welfare & Employment
Goal-Oriented Adult Learning in Self-Sufficiency (GOALS), 2014-2020 | Learn more about this project
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  • Pages 114
  • Published 2017


Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are increasingly interested in the role that self-regulation may play in the ability of people to obtain and maintain employment. This interest is motivated by findings from three broad strands of research. First, research suggests self-regulation is necessary for goal setting and goal pursuit, which in turn foster positive outcomes across a variety of contexts (Deci and Ryan 2000). Second, there is growing evidence that the conditions associated with poverty can hinder the development and/or use of self-regulation skills (Mullainathan and Shafir 2013). Third, there is suggestive evidence that self-regulation skills continue to develop and improve in adulthood (Blair and Raver 2015).

The report defines self-regulation and the specific self-regulation skills that may be most relevant for attaining employment-related goals. It describes how the development and use of self-regulation skills may be hindered by environmental factors, such as poverty as well as how these skills may be strengthened through interventions and strategies that have been successful in other contexts. In addition, the report provides examples of employment programs that have incorporated interventions focused on self-regulation and goal attainment and discusses the importance and challenges of measuring the success of such interventions.

Research Questions

  1. 1 What are self-regulation skills and how do they support goal attainment?
  2. 2 What role do environmental factors play in self-regulation and goal attainment?
  3. 3 What strategies may strengthen self-regulation skills and promote goal attainment, and what options exist for measuring success in programs?


Despite progress over more than twenty years to improve employment outcomes for low-income adults, self-sufficiency remains an elusive goal for many families. A new approach to help low-income adults obtain and maintain employment draws on psychology and brain development science research in an effort to help families on the path to self-sufficiency. Recent attention on the role of self-regulation in goal attainment in particular has generated interest in designing new interventions.

This report provides foundational information for researchers, policy makers, and practitioners interested in designing workforce development programs focused on self-regulation and goal attainment. It describes the self-regulation skills that may be most relevant for attaining employment-related goals and discusses options for developing and evaluating employment programs for low-income adults that incorporate these interventions.

Key Findings and Highlights

Self-regulation and goal attainment are promising frameworks for programs. Potentially effective interventions exist for strengthening self-regulation skills and goal attainment, but because only a few employment programs have implemented such interventions, we still have much to learn about whether and how they contribute to self-sufficiency outcomes. Advancing our knowledge may require learning from programs in other fields with more experience implementing similar interventions such as parenting, youth development, money management, substance abuse treatment and prevention, and mental health.

Measuring outcomes and impacts on self-regulation and goal attainment in the context of employment programs is important but challenging. Existing measurement tools may not be applicable in employment program contexts so new measures may need to be developed. Before testing an intervention’s outcomes and impacts, qualitative studies can provide valuable lessons on the efficacy of implementation in the context of employment programs and identify ways to strengthen interventions in preparation for rigorous evaluation.


This report is based on a review of literature addressing the relationship between self-regulation and goal attainment and how programs have been or could be adapted to strengthen the skills necessary to achieve goals. The research team searched six peer-reviewed databases: Academic Search Premier, Education Resources Information Center, Google Scholar, Healthstar, MEDLINE, and PsycINFO. We also searched key websites, such as the website for Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child (HUCDC), and research clearinghouses, such as the Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse.

We examined journal articles along with grey literature, such as project reports and white papers. With some exceptions for material that was particularly germane, we limited our search to documents from the United States produced in the last 15 years.


Cavadel, Elizabeth W., Jacqueline F. Kauff, Mary Anne Anderson, Sheena McConnell, Michelle Derr. (2016). Self-Regulation and Goal Attainment: A New Perspective for Employment Programs, OPRE Report #2017-12, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


The ability to control actions, thoughts, and emotions (Bandura 1991; Oettingen et al. 2000).
Last Reviewed: December 18, 2018