Back when I was in elementary school, report card grades were given using the following scale: O for outstanding, an S for satisfactory, or an N for needs improvement. I was pretty much an "O" girl across the board, with one minor exception. Every semester when grades were issued, I'd anxiously scan the card until I found it: A big fat N next to the category Self-Control.
Turns out, I'm not the only kid who didn't know how to conduct herself in class. Because according to a new study out of Michigan State, while there are some kids who enter preschool already able to control their behavior and ready to learn, others don't develop that kind of self-control until kindergarten—or even later.
Bad news for late-bloomers like me, since self-regulation is very predictive of future scholastic success. And as kindergarten classrooms continue the shift towards more of an academic environment from one that places a focus on building social and emotional skills, that lack of readiness is even more detrimental when it comes to getting an early jump on education.
"Children who struggle with self-regulation will have difficulty getting the most out of academic curriculum focused on skills like literacy and math," Ryan Bowles, associate professor in MSU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies, explained to Parents.com.
For the study, Bowles and his colleagues analyzed data from three separate studies in which kids ages 3 through 7 were asked to perform the "Head, Toes, Knees, and Shoulders" task. The exercise—in which children are instructed to do the opposite of what they're told—was designed to test self-regulation, since participants must constantly be mindful of what they're doing.
The findings? Across the board, the kids fell into one of three categories: early developers, intermediate developers, and later developers, with the later developers about 6 to 12 months behind the intermediate developers, and at least 18 months behind the early developers. Yikes! That's a year and a half of missed learning opportunities! And get this—around 20 percent of the kids were unable to make any progress later in school.
As for what's causing the delay, key factors included things like gender (boys were more likely to be later developers), language skills, and the mother's education levels. And while the researchers did not look at whether the kids born later in the year struggled more than their older counterparts, Bowles told Parents.com that based on other research and the strong relation between age and self-regulation, he thinks it's likely that the kids born later will struggle more—a good arugment for why a one-size-fits-all cut-off for when children should enter school may not be the optimal approach.
There are some ways parents can help a child grappling with maintaining self-control in class, however. Like having a conversation with your kid's teacher in order to make sure proper coping strategies are in place. "One colleague of mine knew her son struggled with self-regulation if he was hungry," Bowles told us. "So she talked to the teacher to make sure the child always had access to granola bars if he was showing signs of losing control of his behavior."
Parents can also help finesse their kids' skills by putting them in several different kinds of social situations so they learn what kind of behaviors are appropriate in different places, and by making sure the environments they place them in are conducive to making the best use of the self-regulation skills they do have.
"If the child has preschool in the morning, make sure they get a good night of sleep and a good breakfast," Bowles suggested. "Physical activity is another great thing. Kids function better in environments that require high self-regulation such as academics-focused preschool if they have the opportunity to move around and 'get the shakes out.'"
And if you're not quite sure if your kid is a late developer, Bowles says a simple game of Simon Says may give you your answer. "But in my experience," he told us, "Parents are pretty good at recognizing when their children have trouble."