Why kids in kindergarten need lessons in self-control

(Credit: Getty Images)

As they enter kindergarten, many children are still learning to control their behavior and may need educational support to develop that critical skill, a new study suggests.

While some kids start preschool able to control their behavior and ready to learn, others don’t develop self-regulation skills until they get to kindergarten—or even later.

Preschool and kindergarten classrooms in the United States have shifted focus over the past few decades from social and emotional skills, such as self-regulation, to more academic skills. The findings of the study, published in Developmental Psychology, suggest it may be time to put some of the focus back on self-regulation, widely accepted as a marker for future success.

“If you can help children to develop this fundamental skill of behavioral self-regulation, it will allow these students to get so much more out of education,” says Ryan Bowles, associate professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University. “Self-regulation is very predictive of academic success.”

Expel preschoolers or teach them social skills?

Researchers analyzed the data from three separate studies that measured the “Head, Toes, Knees and Shoulders” task, in which young children are instructed to do the opposite of what they’re told. If they’re told to touch their head, for example, they’re supposed to touch their toes. This ability to do the opposite of what they want to do naturally and to stay focused for the entire task involves self-regulation.

A clear pattern emerged in each of the studies, with participants generally fitting into one of three trajectories: early developers, intermediate developers and later developers. On average, the later developers were 6-12 months behind intermediate developers and at least 18 months behind early developers. Overall, about a fifth of the 1,386 participants appeared to make few gains on behavioral self-regulation in preschool.

Little kids with big vocabularies start school ready to learn

“I was surprised by the consistency of the findings,” Bowles says. “To replicate the same finding multiple times in a single study is remarkable.”

Echoing previous research, the study also found that development of self-control was linked to several key factors: gender (boys were more likely to be later developers), language skills, and mother’s education levels.

“It’s well known that self-regulation is crucial to helping kids get an early jump on education, from math to literacy—really all the skills they learn in school,” Bowles says. “So the kids that develop later are really missing out on these great opportunities. They’re already behind.”

Researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Texas Health Center, and Oregon State University are coauthors of the study. The US Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded the work.

Source: Michigan State University