Kids with well-developed self-regulation skills fare better in school.
We may not realize it, but something even more profound than the global financial crisis happened to Ontarians in 2009: our government’s commitment to full-day kindergarten. Long after North America’s economy stabilizes, we’ll be sending our three and a half year olds to school, all day every day.
The central goal of all-day kindergarten is to even the playing field for those children living in environments with reduced access to resources like affordable childcare, playgroups, recreational facilities and enrichment programs. Yet increasingly, research suggests that this solution is not viable for many children because their real challenge is that they enter the traditional classroom unready to learn. Although all kids are naturally curious, their capacity for absorbing and managing new information is largely determined by a set of skills known as “executive function” or “self-regulation”. It is the diminished development of these self-regulation skills that makes it harder for children to pay attention and learn at school. The good news is that these are teachable skills, ideally practised in the early years and easily facilitated by parents.
Simply put, our children’s success in kindergarten (and beyond) is defined by whether or not they enjoy it, because chances are, if they like school, they’re engaged in learning. So what does it take to get them engaged? Research shows that right from the start, school success is defined by the abilities to learn on-demand, be self-motivated, internalize classroom standards, have positive relationships with teachers, and get along with other children.
It turns out that these abilities – being mentally available to learn throughout the day or socially adept when relating to peers – are connected to or dependent upon the development of our child’s ability to self-regulate. This self-regulation is controlled by the front portion of the brain and develops for about 17 years from approximately age three.
So whether or not your child can sit still long enough to listen to a story or resist hitting a playmate who won’t share a toy depends on how well developed his self-regulation is. We don’t expect our little kids to perform perfectly in this area because their brains work on building that knack until they’re about 20 years old, but this lengthy growth period does translate into a multitude of opportunities to positively influence our children’s learning capacity.
What does it look like?
Self-regulation is grouped into three main interrelated areas: self-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility. Self-control is the star player here because it includes the ability to manage emotions like anger or anxiety, avoid the temptation to “act out” inappropriately and pay attention despite distractions. In a typical full-day junior kindergarten classroom, packed with as many as 26 busy children, your child will be more successful the better able she is to control her impulses – like her desire to run around or play outside – when it comes time to focus on counting to 10, singing the alphabet song, or reading the calendar. In fact, kids’ ability to ‘focus’ their attention on anything is all about self-regulation.
The other two components of self-regulation – working memory and cognitive flexibility – are also important. Memory helps you hold information in mind and work with it by weighing different strategies or other points of view in order to better solve problems (like how to share toys). Cognitive flexibility means you can adjust your thinking to match different situations in order to act appropriately or multi-task – like listening to the teacher’s instructions while playing a game with rules – and intentionally apply extra mental effort to tackle difficult jobs, like learning to write your name.
With self-regulation, the emphasis is on ‘self’. What we ultimately intend for our children is that they can pay attention, problem solve or multi-task on their own, but this takes time. The common words teachers use to describe these expectations in the classroom include patience, thoughtfulness and perserverance. They understand these aptitudes require daily practice, above and beyond what is offered in the classroom.
What about kindergarten?
Recent studies show that children’s ability to self-regulate 40 years ago was far more developed than it is today. In fact, on average, today’s kids are a full two years behind their peers of four decades ago – a seven year old today behaves like a five year old did then. Specialists are uncertain what has caused such a significant discrepancy, but they have some theories. One big difference is the way in which contemporary kids play. In the past, young children were less inhibited; they tended to gather in multi-aged groups, establishing roles and rules for their make-believe scenarios without the aid of sophisticated props or adult intervention. Largely, they were left to their own devices to sort out how to get along and their active imaginations did the rest, so their brains had to adapt to figure it all out.
In contrast, today’s play is mediated by organized lessons or clubs, electronic game settings and ‘realistic’ plastic toys that leave little to the imagination. The impact of this reduction in our children’s capacity to self-regulate is felt most profoundly in the classroom where their ability to focus on absorbing new information, following instructions, practising new tasks, connecting ideas, or sharing with others is central to their success.
Though we do not ever want our children becoming automatons sitting in neat rows of desks, we do need to support their readiness to learn in a group. The ability to self-regulate is key to connecting kids with their teacher, each other and themselves. If they can’t make the conscious choice to listen to adult instructions, sit next to a peer without kicking them or control their impulse to do something utterly different from what is expected, they will struggle to succeed at school. Crazy as it may seem, success in kindergarten is the single strongest determinant of a child’s future success, all the way to high school graduation! As parents, it’s worth considering ways we can prepare our children for a positive school experience right from the start.
What can I do about it?
Other than supporting our young child’s imaginative play by offering simple toys (blocks, balls), open-ended craft materials (crayons, playdough) and opportunities for make-believe, the most important thing we can do is establish and maintain a consistent household routine. Simple things like regular meal, bath and bed times are the foundation of self-regulation. Developmentally, before self-regulation occurs, children need to be regulated by others, and before they regulate their own thinking and emotions, they need to practise regulating their physical body. Having consistent routines within that daily schedule also helps, such as the expectation that everyone will sit together at a meal without distractions (TV, phone, toys), or specific bedtime habits that always include teeth-brushing, storytime and a cuddle before lights out.
There is no real magic to the development of self-regulation skills, but our children’s positive experience in kindergarten can be a magical time for them. Our job is to provide ample opportunities at home for them to build the skills they’ll need to help them be ready to learn in kindergarten and in life.
Getting Ready for Kindergarten: A Self-Regulation To Do List
- Routines establish consistent meal, bath and bed times to help model self-regulation.
- Pretend play stretches imagination, creative problem solving and self-regulation
- Conversation with adults builds vocabulary and complex thinking.
- Defining feelings with words like excited, afraid or frustrated helps manage them.
- Storytime fosters listening skills, attention span and patience.
- Games with rules build memory and strategic thinking.
- Interaction with others at an Ontario Early Years Centre (OEYC), playgroup, or library builds social skills.