Using Psychology-Informed Strategies to Promote Self-Sufficiency: A Review of Innovative Programs

June 15, 2018
Self-Sufficiency, Welfare & Employment
Goal-Oriented Adult Learning in Self-Sufficiency (GOALS), 2014-2020 | Learn more about this project
Using Psychology-Informed Strategies to Promote Self-Sufficiency: A Review of Innovative Programs Cover
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  • Published 2018


Workforce development and human services program providers and policymakers are continually looking for new strategies to promote employment and enhance self-sufficiency for low-income adults and their families. Traditionally, programs designed to help low-income adults find and keep jobs have focused on building participants’ job search skills and work experience, providing education or training, and addressing logistical barriers to employment such as lack of transportation and child care or poor physical health. In recent years, however, some programs have started looking at new ways to improve people’s employment outcomes by implementing approaches informed by the science behind self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to a set of skills and personality-related factors that allow people to intentionally control their thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Strengthening self-regulation skills may be important because these skills interact to help people set and pursue goals. Making it easier for participants to use their self-regulation skills is also important because psychologists have long argued that people have limited capacity or “bandwidth” for using their self-regulation skills. Poverty—by placing high demands on self-regulation—uses or taxes some of that bandwidth. For example, juggling public transportation, childcare, changing job shifts, caring for family, and navigating public assistance applications requires a high degree of organization, multi-tasking, inhibition, and emotional control. Using so many self-regulation resources to attend to the daily tasks of living leaves fewer resources available for setting and pursuing longer-term employment goals. Easing participants’ self-regulatory load can help them use their skills optimally. Several interventions have proven effective in strengthening self-regulation and easing self-regulatory load in other contexts and are promising for employment programs.

Research Questions

  1. 1 What are we learning from existing programs for low-income adults that are using the science on self-regulation to inform the design and operation of interventions?
  2. 2 What do interventions to strengthen self-regulation and ease self-regulatory load look like?
  3. 3 How can employment programs capitalize on the implementation successes and challenges of other programs that have experience with these interventions?


This brief illustrates how some programs for low-income adults are attempting to strengthen participants’ self-regulation skills or make it easier for them to use their skills. The programs highlighted in the brief show how strategies are currently being implemented in a range of contexts and incorporated into existing interventions. They are profiled to help practitioners understand how research-informed practices to support self-regulation are being used in the field. The programs discussed in this brief are those operated by Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath); the New Haven Mental Health Outreach for Mothers Partnership (MOMS); the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ); Roca; and Transforming Impossible into Possible (TIP). After providing summaries of each, the brief offers lessons based on implementation successes and challenges as well as next steps other programs could take when considering implementing these strategies.

Key Findings and Highlights

Each of the programs implemented strategies that aimed to both strengthen participants’ self-regulation skills and create a program environment that helps participants use their skills optimally. To strengthen participants’ self-regulation skills, three programs implemented cognitive behavioral therapy strategies, four implemented mindfulness techniques, four implemented motivational interviewing, and one drew on concepts from mental contrasting with implementation intentions interventions. Across the five programs, several implementation lessons emerged, such as the need to train staff on self-regulation, the benefits of hiring staff with similar backgrounds to the program target population, the ease with which programs can integrate multiple interventions to improve self-regulation, and the important role that fostering relationships among participants can play in promoting participants’ self-efficacy and motivation. Implementation challenges included the time it may take to adapt existing intervention tools to meet the needs of a program’s specific population, the need to reinforce skills taught in a classroom setting or coaching session in real life, and the time and resources that may be required to fully deliver the interventions. Administrator and staff experiences implementing these approaches can help other programs replicate perceived strengths, anticipate potential challenges, and avoid pitfalls. However, none of the strategies has been rigorously evaluated in an employment program context, so it is unclear what outcomes employment programs might expect.


Mathematica conducted site visits to five programs that were implementing interventions to improve and support participants’ self-regulation and goal attainment skills. We spent two days in each site interviewing program leadership and staff, partner organizations, and a small group of program participants. We identified the programs through a scan of the field, using published material, practitioner and expert input, and Internet searches. We identified 35 programs that (1) targeted low-income adults, (2) focused on employment or related outcomes, and (3) implemented interventions to improve participants’ self-regulation. We conducted telephone interviews with 12 of these programs and among those we selected five that offered the most promise to the field and were receptive to our research goals. The information presented in this brief is based on site visits to these five programs.


Anderson, Mary Anne, Elizabeth Brown, Elizabeth W. Cavadel, Michelle Derr, and Jacqueline F. Kauff (2018). Using Psychology- Informed Strategies to Promote Self-Sufficiency: A Review of Innovative Programs, OPRE Report #2018-41, 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.
Last Reviewed: June 12, 2018