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Self-Regulation Studies Provide Hope for Disadvantaged Kids

“Simon says touch your head,” an instructor (coined Simon for game’s sake) will announce to a group of giggling kids. At once they will reach their tiny fingers to the tops of their heads.

Simon will then trigger off a round of commands with one objective: to throw some kids off and have them touching their toes, when in fact Simon said touch your ears.

For decades, this popular childhood game was just a silly in-class recess, but upcoming studies suggest a simple game like Simon Says may be more telling about a child’s ability to learn than previously thought.

That urge to pay attention, despite the distractions, may make all the difference. This undeterred focus, termed “self regulation” by researchers, proves to filter into higher achievement in reading, math and vocabulary.

Michaella Sektnan, who was working as a graduate student for Oregon State University along with Megan McClelland (an associate professor at OSU) when she studied 1,298 children from birth through first grade. This group’s data was observed through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.

Based on this group’s data, these children were defined as “at risk” based on ethnic minority status, low maternal education, low family income and chronic depressive symptoms in the mother.

“We know that these risk factors can lead to a gap in academic achievement,” Sektnan said. “The relationship to risks such as poverty, ethnic status, and maternal education has been well-documented. What we wanted to know was, controlling for these factors, does self-regulation make a difference?”

When put through certain tests the children with self-regulation abilities scored differently.

Students with self regulation scored the following over children who couldn’t quite control their focus when necessary.

  • 15 points higher on standardized math tests
  • 11 points higher on early reading tests
  • 7 points higher on vocabulary tests

“This builds on the increasing body of knowledge about the need to develop self-regulation skills in young children,” said Sektnan.

Sektnan and McClelland were surprised by the dramatic outcomes and largely the gap in scores between the at-risk children.

“Self-regulation is not just about compliance or being obedient,” McClelland said. “It’s about a very basic, but very necessary skill: being able to listen and pay attention, think, and then act.  The message to parents may be to put down the flash cards and see if another approach, like playing a simple game of ‘Simon Says’ works better.”

Alan Acock of OSU and Frederick Morrison of the University of Michigan assisted on this study, which included funding support from the National Institute of Child and Human Development and the National Science Foundation.

Click here to read press release.

Self-Regulation Studies Provide Hope for Disadvantaged Kids

Rochelle Oliver, Associate News Editor

APA Reference
Associate News Editor, R. (2018). Self-Regulation Studies Provide Hope for Disadvantaged Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Apr 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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