Using The Science About Self-Regulation To Improve Economic Outcomes For TANF Families

December 13, 2018
Self-Sufficiency, Welfare & Employment
Goal-Oriented Adult Learning in Self-Sufficiency (GOALS), 2014-2020 | Learn more about this project
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  • File Size 210kb
  • Pages 12
  • Published 2018


Administrators and staff of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs are continually looking for new strategies to help their participants achieve economic independence. Many TANF employment programs focus on rapid job placement with some access to short-term education, training, and work-like activities, such as work experience, subsidized employment, and on-the-job training. These programs typically offer child care assistance and some work supports as well.

Unfortunately, these approaches have produced mixed results on program participants’ employment outcomes. As a result, in recent years TANF staff have explored new strategies aimed at improving these outcomes.

New research focused on the role of self-regulation could help. Self-regulation refers to a core set of skills and personality factors that allow people to intentionally control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is what enables all of us to set goals, make plans, solve problems, monitor our actions, and control our impulses. These skills are essential for managing work and family activities such as planning morning and after school routines, completing job-related tasks, and engaging in quality parent and child interactions. Successful execution of these skills can lead to better outcomes for children and families.

In recent years, researchers have explored how the conditions associated with poverty can hinder the development of self-regulation skills. In particular, chronic exposure to high levels of stress can have adverse consequences on self-regulation skills. The effects of this underdevelopment may continue into adulthood. Exposure to chronic stress can even inhibit individuals’ ability to access and use the self-regulation skills they already have.

The good news is that research also suggests that self-regulation skills can improve throughout a person’s lifetime by deliberately practicing and using them.

Primary Research Questions

  1. 1 How can programs change their program environment to help participants reduce or manage external stress?
  2. 2 How can programs help participants strengthen their core life skills?
  3. 3 How can programs encourage supportive relationships?


This brief, developed as part of the GOAL-Oriented Adult Learning in Self-Sufficiency (GOALS) project, articulates a vision for TANF programs that is informed by the science about self-regulation and goal achievement. It emphasizes three principles for helping TANF recipients use self-regulation strategies to improve economic outcomes for children and families:

  1. reduce sources of stress
  2. strengthen core life skills (for example, planning, monitoring, and exercising self-control)
  3. support responsive relationships.

Key Findings and Highlights

Key findings from this brief include:

Reduce External Sources of Stress

  • Provide services in places that are convenient to participants. Getting to appointments can be difficult for low-income families, particularly those who do not have reliable car. Making it easier for participants to access services can free up energy and time for work and parenting activities.
  • Streamline business processes, forms, and reporting activities. Complicated business processes and forms can increase the effort required for both direct-service staff and participants. Federal law requires reporting various activities, but state and local governments often layer on even more reporting requirements, increasing the burden on staff and participants to document their activities. Simplifying these requirements using behavioral science techniques would free up time and energy for staff and participants to engage with one another more meaningfully and more frequently to build participants’ self-regulation skills.

Strengthen Core Life Skills

  • Adopt a habit-forming process to work towards goals, informed by behavioral science, to build self-regulation skills. A goal-achievement process is a deliberate effort to realize an outcome that would not otherwise occur. Infusing goal-achievement strategies throughout the TANF service-delivery process can help create habit-forming routines.
  • Incorporate skills-building activities during any frequent, regular interactions between program staff and participants as well as during peer-to-peer exchanges. Some TANF activities take place in groups, particularly among TANF programs that serve large populations. Skills-building activities can be incorporated into program orientation, job-search assistance workshops, and peer-to-peer support groups.

Support Responsive Relationships

  • Create more meaningful exchanges between program staff and participants by emphasizing meaningful goals and addressing the barriers that are specific to each goal. A goal-directed approach allows staff to connect with participants about their future, rather than their past. An emphasis on goal achievement reduces the upfront emphasis on assessing all the participant’s barriers to employment. Instead, the focus is on identifying a potential barrier in relation to a well-defined goal and what might get in the way of achieving that goal.
  • Have more frequent and targeted interactions with participants. Often, due to high caseloads, participants meet infrequently with program staff; there might be one to three months between meetings. But to help a participant build skills and pursue goals, program staff must have more frequent interactions to provide constructive accountability and meaningful planning sessions.


This brief is informed by research conducted under the Goal-Oriented Adult Learning for Self-Sufficiency (GOALS) project, funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Activities that informed this brief include: (1) a synthesis of the literature on the relationship between self-regulation, goal attainment, and the environment and on how programs have been or could be adapted to promote goal attainment; (2) exploratory site visits to programs implementing interventions to improve participants’ self-regulation and goal achievement; and (3) assessment of the implementation experiences of several goal-oriented pilot interventions.


Michelle Derr, Jonathan McCay, Ann Person, Mary Anne Anderson (2018). Using the Science about Self-Regulation to Improve Economic outcomes for TANF Families, OPRE Report #2018-88, 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 (Murray et al. 2015)
Last Reviewed: December 12, 2018