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How Self-Control Relates to Learning

by Sarah K Major February 03, 2016

How Self-Control Relates to Learning

“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.”

[September 27, 2009, New York Times Magazine, Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? By PAUL TOUGH]

Mixed emotions

Seems lately I’ve been getting my brain fizzes from reading what others are saying in the newspaper. This article stopped me in my tracks. I had such mixed emotions as I read. Part of me was silently yelling HUZZAH and the other part was sad and horrified.

Recently, I have been hearing people talk a lot about executive function, and to tell the truth, several months ago I had to ask to what they referred. When I heard the answer, I was speechless. That’s all it is? Self-regulation? Years ago, we said “self-control” in reference to something quite similar. Both require the ability to go beyond what our emotions dictate at that moment, pause to think through the situation, visualize outcomes of either this choice or that one, and then to delay gratification long enough to see a desired outcome materialize. While all these skills make for a socially adept person, those same skills take a child far in the classroom as well.

That notion’s been around for a while

A decade ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Daniel Goleman’s (1995) book Emotional Intelligence. Read the following book review from Amazon:

“There was a time when IQ was considered the leading determinant of success. In this fascinating book, based on brain and behavioral research, Daniel Goleman argues that our IQ-idolizing view of intelligence is far too narrow. Instead, Goleman makes the case for "emotional intelligence" being the strongest indicator of human success. He defines emotional intelligence in terms of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved by friends, partners, and family members. People who possess high emotional intelligence are the people who truly succeed in work as well as play, building flourishing careers and lasting, meaningful relationships. Because emotional intelligence isn't fixed at birth, Goleman outlines how adults, as well as parents of young children, can sow the seeds.”

It doesn’t come prepackaged

The book resonated with me because of my beliefs on rearing children. While I was shaped from birth by my parents and other adults in my life, another factor that contributes to my point of view is my age. My views were already pretty formed before it got to be really popular to let the child take the lead in her own upbringing. By the time my own children were grown, I found myself working with parents and children where frequently the child was clearly calling the shots. It was not a happy time for anyone--not me, not the parents, not the children in question. No one was having fun; the system was not working. Why? Because a child does not come with emotional intelligence prepackaged inside her like a little seed just waiting for the appropriate time to begin to germinate and grow. Young children quite simply act out of their emotions. If they want something, they will take it, or cry until they get it. Their world is very narrowly about them in the here and now. They have to be guided into thinking about things outside of themselves, such as other people, consequences to choices, etc. As frightening as it may be, it falls to us as parents to model and guide and shape them into competent, confident people.

Contrary to popular opinion

In grad school we were taught to never say no - about how damaging it is to the child to hear a negative word like that one. Bad for the self-esteem, they said. At the time, I was 10-20 years older than my classmates, and had reared two children. For me, the topic under discussion was not theoretical; it was couched in absolute reality. I had struggled countless times with the question, “What should I do now?” when faced with a question on how to guide a child of mine. One particular day I raised my hand in class and expressed the opinion that if a child never hears no, he likely will never truly understand yes – both fundamental, real life concepts. The class fell silent as every eye was trained on me in disapproval.

My response to the theory of never saying no is that the only way a child will really understand what yes means is if you also teach her what no means. If you never say no, yes has no meaning. By the time a child gets to kindergarten, if she’s had no training in self-regulation, if she’s never heard “no” as a word that helps steer her in a wise direction, brace for a rough year. Some of the scariest people on earth are out-of-control kindergartners.

It starts shortly after birth

Reality is, if we want our children to self-regulate, it is up to us to guide them into knowing how to do that. It me have to think about what our role should be with our kids, what we desire their life to be like, and then view ourselves as responsible for getting them there. When faced with behaviors we are not keen on, we could ask the question:“What will this behavior of my two-year-old look like on a teenager?” Asking that question can bring clarity into many situations.

When a child is two and wants a sticky candy bar and it is getting close to meal time, he might not take kindly to hearing “not now.” His reaction might be anything from asking again, to whining, to crying, to an out-and-out tantrum. We pretty much expect a toddler to behave this way. If he is never taught or guided into a more mature form of reacting, it is likely that as a teenager, tantrums will be the order of the day, only then the stakes will be much higher. Think “driver’s license” and “tantrum” for a really scary picture. Teaching a tiny child how to self-regulate is far easier than trying to begin when the child is already half-grown and his ability to do a lot of harm to himself and others is much greater.

Nip it in the bud

That term pretty much sums it up for me. We can far more easily nip naughty behaviors in the bud when the child is very young than we can when she is on the brink of adulthood and still choosing out of her emotions. When the child is two, nipping looks like guidance: no harm done and a lot of good instilled.

Overall, it's a knotty question. How do we find the balance between helping our children develop executive function so they can grow into highly successful adults, without completely stifling who they are?





Sarah K Major
Sarah K Major

Author

Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.


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