Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self- Control?“Abby!” Henry said. Come on!” He and Jocelyn had long ago finished writing the title of the book on their lesson plans. They already had their headphones on.
The only thing standing between them and the story was the pencil clutched in their classmate’s hand. G R Y. . . .“O. K., we’re starting,” Jocelyn announced.
But they didn’t start. For all their impatience, they knew the rule of the listening center: You don’t start listening to the story until everyone is ready. Photo. The Tools of the Mind program at a school in Red Bank, N. J., encourages “executive function” — the ability to think straight and self- regulate.
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Credit. Gillian Laub for The New York Times “Oh, man,” Henry said. He grabbed his face and lowered his head to the desk with a clunk. C A T E R. . . .“Let’s begin!” Jocelyn said.“I’m almost done!” Abigail was hopping up and down now. Don’t press it!” She bounced from foot to foot, still writing: P I L. I’m pressing it!” Henry said.
His finger hovered over the play button on the CD player . Abigail etched out her last few letters and put on her headphones. Only then, finally, could the three of them turn the pages together and listen to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”When the CD finished, each child took a piece of paper and drew three pictures to illustrate what happened at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the book. Then they captioned each one, first drawing a series of horizontal lines under the pictures, one for each word, and then writing out each word, or an approximation thereof: For “butterfly,” Abigail wrote “btrfli.” Their language skills were pretty impressive for kindergarten students. But for the teachers and child psychologists running the program in which they were enrolled, those skills were considered secondary — not irrelevant, but not as important as the skills the children displayed before the story started, when all three were wrestling with themselves, fighting to overcome their impulses — in Abby’s case, the temptation to give up on writing out the whole title and just submit to the pleas of her friends; for Jocelyn and Henry, the urge to rip the pencil out of Abby’s hand and start the CD already. Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early- childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function.
Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short- term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self- regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today. The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short- term and long- term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self- regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I. Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self- regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 4.
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- In health care, self-care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated. Some place self-care on a.
In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self- control- related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child- study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,0. K programs because teachers feel unable to control them. There is a popular belief that executive- function skills are fixed early on, a function of genes and parenting, and that other than medication, there’s not much that teachers and professionals can do to affect children’s impulsive behavior.
More than 40 years ago, Walter Mischel, PhD, a psychologist now at Columbia University, explored self-control in children with a simple but effective test.
In fact, though, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true, that executive- function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I. Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period. In laboratory studies, research psychologists have found that with executive function, practice helps; when children or adults repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self- regulation, they get better at it.
But when researchers try to take those experiments out of the lab and into the classroom, their success rate is much lower. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent the last seven years trying to find reliable, repeatable methods to improve self- control in children. When I spoke to her recently, she told me about a six- week- long experiment that she and some colleagues conducted in 2. Philadelphia. Photo.
Steps to Help Your Child Develop Self Control“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power…It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. Twister Costumes Adults.
They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it?” - Walter Mischel. We can think of self- discipline as the ability to manage ourselves to reach our goals. In Walter Mischel's Marshmallow experiments, he tests how long a child can resist eating a treat, if it means she will then get two treats that she really wants. In other words, does the child have the self- discipline to control her impulses to meet her goal? The bad news is that our self- control as a four year old seems to predict not only our self- discipline later in life, but our happiness as well. If you haven't read it yet, you'll want to start with our last post: Does It Matter If Your Child Has Self Control?)The good news is that about 3. The even better news is that there are ways for children to practice building that self control, by having early experiences that help them WANT to do so. Alfie Kohn, with whom I agree about most parenting issues, questions whether "self discipline" is even a desirable trait to encourage.
He defines it very differently than I do, however: "marshalling one’s willpower to accomplish things that are generally regarded as desirable." That's not "SELF" discipline as I define it because the goals come from outside of us. The part that's interesting about the marshmallow experiment to me is that the four year olds who could control themselves to not eat the treat IF they trusted the experimenter and IF they wanted another treat grew into happier adults. I think that's because these children could manage their impulses to meet their goals. Our ability to manage our emotions, anxiety and impulses is essential if we want to meet our goals, from getting along on the playground to holding a job. And adults who repeatedly fail to realize their aspirations in life are certainly less happy. To clarify this, we might want to think of this trait as "emotional regulation" rather than "self- discipline." By the way, there's a common misconception, popularized by Pam Druckerman in Bringing Up Bébé; that kids in France learn better self- control than American kids because they're trained early to wait for their parents' attention and to follow rigid schedules.
But there's zero evidence of this. Walter Mischel has never conducted the Marshmallow test with French kids, so there's no evidence that they'd do better on it than American kids. And there are no studies asserting that French adults are more self- disciplined than American adults, so the whole idea is clearly suspect!
But I do think Druckerman has a point about waiting, which I'll explain in #7 below. Let's look at the steps to developing self- control. The foundation of self- control is trust.
Parents who are responsive to children's needs foster trust. When the hungry infant wakes up crying and the parent picks him up and feeds him, he learns to trust that food will come. Every time he's soothed, his brain strengthens the neural pathways to soothe anxiety and regulate emotions, which will eventually allow him to soothe himself. Eventually, this child will trust that he will indeed get the marshmallow eventually, so he doesn't have to eat it this minute. And he'll be able to soothe his own impatience and worry to manage himself in any situation. Parents help their children reach this relatively mature stage faster every time they soothe anxiety and foster a feeling of safety and acceptance. Not surprisingly, when the Marshmallow test is manipulated so that the child has more trust in the experimenter, the child is able to wait longer to eat the marshmallow.
When the child has less trust in the experimenter, he eats the marshmallow sooner. Wouldn't you? 2. Children learn emotional regulation from our modeling. When parents can't manage their own emotions and react angrily, or take their child's challenging behavior personally, the child gets a clear message that life is full of emergencies. This handicaps the child in learning to soothe his own upsets, which makes it difficult for him to control his emotions or behavior. So the most important thing you can do to help your child learn self- control is probably to regulate your own emotions so you can stay calm and compassionate with your child.
Little ones take their cues about anxiety from us. When your toddler climbs too high, gets frightened, and wants to come down, how do you respond? If you can "guide" her down, talking soothingly so she can stay calm, you're teaching self- control. She's creating the brain pathways to talk herself through difficult situations in the future. But if you let her anxiety rattle you so that you swoop in to grab her down, she not only learns that she's incompetent, but that anxiety can't be tolerated, so she has to rush in and take action, rather than regulating herself to make rational decisions.