PhotoIn recent years, education in the U.S. has focused increasingly on academic performance, even at the lowest grade levels. While arguments can be made for and against such a shift, it has undoubtedly reduced the attention that our educational system spares on social and emotional development.

This can be a bad thing for some children entering school who, researchers say, are already not ready to start their formal education. In a recent study, researchers from Michigan State University found that children between the ages of 3 and 7 develop very differently when it comes to emotional self-regulation – or the ability to control one’s own emotions and behavior.

They add that schools that foster this kind of development in young students can set them up for future academic success by making them more prepared for the rigors of a classroom setting.

"If you can help children to develop this fundamental skill of behavioral self-regulation, it will allow these students to get so much more out of education," said Ryan Bowles, associate professor in MSU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "Self-regulation is very predictive of academic success."

Developing differently

For the purposes of the study, Bowles and his colleagues analyzed data from three separate studies in which young children were asked to perform the “Head, Toes, Knees and Shoulders” task. The game is designed to have children do the opposite of what they’re told – so, for example, if the leader says to touch your head, children should respond by touching their toes.

The task is designed to test self-regulation, since children must constantly be mindful of what they’re doing. The researchers noticed consistent findings throughout all three studies and could place children into one of three trajectories: early developers, intermediate developers, and later developers.

Later developers were generally found to be 6-12 months behind intermediate developers and at least 18 months behind early developers when it came to self-regulation. Perhaps most importantly, the researchers found that around 20% of the 1,386 participants were unable to make up ground when it came to self-regulation in preschool. This, they say, can mean a lot when it comes to mapping out future academic success and deciding when a child should start school.

"It's well known that self-regulation is crucial to helping kids get an early jump on education, from math to literacy -- really all the skills they learn in school. So the kids that develop later are really missing out on these great opportunities. They're already behind,” said Bowles.

The full study has been published in the journal Developmental Psychology.


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