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Boosting Self-Regulation Helps At-Risk Kids

Boosting Self-Regulation Helps At-Risk Kids

An intervention that uses music and games to help preschoolers learn self-regulation skills — such as paying attention, following directions, and learning to stay on task — has been shown to help prepare at-risk children for kindergarten.

These skills are critical to a child’s success in kindergarten and beyond, according to Dr. Megan McClelland, a professor at Oregon State University and co-author of the new study.

“Most children do just fine in the transition to kindergarten, but 20 to 25 percent of them experience difficulties — those difficulties have a lot to do with self-regulation,” McClelland said. “Any intervention you can develop to make that transition easier can be beneficial.”

The intervention was most effective among children considered at the highest risk for struggling in school, including kids from low-income backgrounds who are learning English as a second language.

Besides having a positive effect on self-regulation, the intervention also positively affected achievements in math, she noted.

“The math gain was huge,” McClelland said. “English language learners who were randomly assigned to the intervention showed a one-year gain in six months. This was in spite of the fact that we had no math content in these games.”

That indicates that children were more likely to integrate the self-regulation skills they’ve learned into their everyday lives, McClelland explained. It also supports previous research finding strong links between self-regulation and math skills.

The study included 276 children enrolled in a federally funded Head Start program for at-risk children in the Pacific Northwest. Children ranged in age from three to five, with most about four years old. Children were randomly assigned to either a control group or the intervention program.

The intervention ran for eight weeks, with two 20- to 30-minute sessions each week. Research assistants came into classes and led children through movement and music-based games that increased in complexity over time and encouraged the children to practice self-regulation skills.

One game was “Red Light, Purple Light,” which is similar to “Red Light, Green Light.” A researcher acted as a stoplight and held up construction-paper circles to represent stop and go. Children followed color cues, such as purple is stop and orange is go, and then switched to the opposite, where purple is go and orange is stop, the researchers explained.

Additional rules were added later to increase the complexity of the game. The game requires children to listen and remember instructions, pay attention to the adult leading the game, and resist natural inclinations to stop or go.

“It’s about helping the children practice better control,” McClelland said. “The games train them to stop, think, and then act.”

Researchers evaluated children’s self-regulation and academic achievement before and after the intervention and found that children who had received the intervention scored significantly higher on two direct measures of self-regulation.

English language learners who participated in the intervention also scored significantly higher in math than their peers in the control group, the researchers reported.

“Researchers want to continue improving the games used in the intervention and expand the use of the intervention to more children,” McClelland said.

Because the games are somewhat simple and require few materials, training teachers is fairly easy and the program is relatively low-cost for schools, she added.

The study, supported by a grant from the Ford Family Foundation and by Oregon State University, was published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Source: Oregon State University

Preschooler playing music game photo by shutterstock.

Boosting Self-Regulation Helps At-Risk Kids

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Boosting Self-Regulation Helps At-Risk Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 22 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.