As adults, we can handle our emotions, especially when interacting with children. That means becoming a little bit more patient and not lose our temper when the little ones start acting out. This skill is called self-regulation, or the ability to monitor and control our behavior and emotions, and then alter it to suit any situation.
Self-regulation, which is also often called self-discipline or self-control, is an essential skill that kids need to master to achieve success later in life. Children who know how to self-regulate can set goals and follow through with them. One study shows that children who grow up with this skill are more likely to find and retain the job as adults.
The research, which was led by Dr. Megan McClelland of Oregon State University in the United States, involved three groups of children who had no prior preschool experience. They attended a three-week kindergarten preparation program that had a self-regulation component. Over a three-year-period, trained teachers delivered the self-regulation exercises as part of the program, which included music activities and games. It aimed to develop skills to help children pay attention, follow directions, stay on task, and persevere even when the task got difficult —skills that all contribute to short- and long-term academic success, according to McClelland.
Findings showed that there were significant improvements in children’s self-regulation skills after the program ended. Even other school-readiness skills, like math and literacy, also improved as a result of the program. In the months that followed, researchers also found that the participants continued to improve with “greater-than-expected” growth.
The takeaway? A self-regulation "intervention" can lead to improved school readiness in children and help those at risk for later school difficulties.
Here's even better news: The self-regulation exercises that Dr. McClelland included in the program are easy enough to do. See the exercise below, and try them with your kids!
1. Red Light, Purple Light. The teacher pretends to be a stoplight and holds up paper circles that represent stop and go. Children must follow and respond to the color cues — if the red circle is held up, children should clap their hands, but if the purple circle is held up, they should stop. The instructions become complex, and different cues are introduced. Purple becomes clap and red become stop.
2. Freeze. In this game, children are encouraged to do the opposite of the teacher’s instructions.
3. Sleep. For this game, children pretend to sleep, and when the teacher wakes them up, they must wake up and pretend to be someone else. They must remain in character until they “fall asleep” and wake up again as something different.
The games aim to improve a child’s ability to listen to and remember instructions, successfully switch from one rule to another and resist their natural inclination to engage in one action in favor of the correct response. As your child gets better at the games, introduce more rules to test their abilities further.
As parents, you play an important role in helping children learn to self-regulate, so it’s crucial that you start teaching them to express and handle their emotions beginning at an early age. After all, as the study suggests, it can make a huge difference in their academic performance.