Many children who enter kindergarten are still struggling to learn self-control, a critical skill that is predictive of academic success, according to a new federally-funded study by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU).
The findings are particularly relevant as 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 researchers suggest that early education should once again focus more on self-regulation, widely accepted as a marker for future success.
The study reveals significant differences in how self-regulation develops in children ages three to seven. While some children enter preschool with advanced self-control and learning readiness, others don’t develop such skills until they get to kindergarten — or even later.
“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,” said Dr. Ryan Bowles, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “Self-regulation is very predictive of academic success.”
For the study, the researchers looked at 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. For example, if they’re told to touch their head, they’re supposed to touch its “opposite” — their toes. This ability to do the opposite of what they want to do naturally and to stay focused for the entire task requires self-regulation.
A clear pattern emerged in each of the studies, with young children generally fitting into one of three trajectories: early developers, intermediate developers, and later developers. On average, the later developers were six to 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.
“I was surprised by the consistency of the findings,” said Bowles. “To replicate the same finding multiple times in a single study is remarkable.”
Consistent with prior research, the study also found that development of self-control was associated with 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 said. “So the kids that develop later are really missing out on these great opportunities. They’re already behind.”
Source: Michigan State University