Elena Bodrova, Ph.D's  picture
Elena Bodrova, Ph.D
Principal Researcher
Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

Early Lessons Shape the Brain


With less opportunities to practice self-regulation outside of school, children get practice with new classroom programs

Do children today have a harder time controlling themselves? Headlines are filled with stories of 3- and 4-year-olds being expelled from preschool at greater rates than middle- and high-schoolers combined, and desperate teachers call for “kindergarten cops” to deal with unruly 5-year-olds.

In today’s classrooms, where demands for academic learning are on the rise, teachers can no longer wait until youngsters simply outgrow their hard-to-manage behaviors. In one study, kindergarten teachers reported “difficulty following directions” as the most prevalent problem among incoming kindergarteners, indicating this is be a problem for more than half of their students. Teaching students to regulate their own behaviors becomes a major goal, adding yet another “R” to the list of basic skills children learn in school.

The Benefits of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is an internal mechanism that underlies mindful, intentional and thoughtful behaviors of younger and older children. Think, for example, of the children who line up in pairs at the teacher’s request to go out for recess. The children who can wait, stay in line, and walk together have a higher degree of self-regulation than those who talk out of turn, push their classmates out of the way, or run to get ahead. Self-regulation is the capacity to control one’s impulses—both to stop doing something if it is needed (even if one wants to continue doing it), and to start doing something because it is needed (even if one doesn’t want to do it). Self-regulated children can delay gratification and suppress their impulses long enough to think ahead to the possible consequences of their action or to consider alternative actions that would be more appropriate.

Math hand check

The ability to regulate our own behavior affects our lives well past school years: Children displaying higher levels of self-regulation tend to grow up better adjusted, healthier and even better off economically than their more impulsive peers. Researchers found links between self-regulation at early ages and children’s functioning in school far beyond kindergarten and first grade. In school, self-regulation affects the ability to successfully function in two ways: First, social-emotional self-regulation makes it possible for children to conform to classroom rules and to benefit from learning in various social contexts (e.g., in large and small groups, individually) and second, cognitive self-regulation allows children to control one’s attention, remember things on purpose and solve problems in planful and deliberate ways while reflecting on the choice of strategies.

While the social expectation is that children come to school prepared to learn, know how to sit quietly and listen, it is equally true that children have fewer opportunities today to practice skills of self-regulation that come from free play with peers and older or younger children, designing their own games and rules, or engage in self-directed activities involving planning, social interaction or checking their emotions. When a child playing the driver of a fire truck resists the temptation to jump out of his truck and join his friends who are fighting the fire, this child displays self-control far greater than he would typically display in a teacher-led activity. Not having enough opportunities to engage in this kind of rich imaginative role-play robs children of most valuable experiences that promote their self-regulation.

How Tools of the Mind Helps Children Regulate Their Behavior

Unfortunately, today’s children are often either adult-directed and adult-planned, or actually reinforce acting on impulse with no planning ahead (such as channel or Web surfing). As a result, children who get used to being regulated from the outside may never fully develop an internal ability to regulate their physical actions, their emotions, and their thinking strategies. Since we can no longer expect children to learn how to self-regulate the old way—by playing with older and younger friends—we have to reconsider what is going on in a typical early childhood classroom to make sure that it maximizes children’s opportunities to learn and practice self-regulation.

To address these issues, psychologist Deborah Leong and I created a curriculum we call Tools of the Mind, focusing on fostering self-regulation while ensuring that children develop other critical competencies including literacy and mathematics. Tools of the Mind provides support in developing self-regulation to all children, not only to the ones who have challenging behaviors; at the same time, children who are in fact experiencing problems are offered additional targeted help.

Examples of Tools of the Mind in preschool and kindergarten include:

  • Activities modifications: Instead of waiting for a long time until the teacher calls on them—something that makes preschoolers lose their attention and eventually start acting up—children in the Tools classrooms are taught to share their answers with friends. For example, Tools classrooms do not have a designated “weather helper” or “meteorologist”: when the teacher asks about today’s weather, children tell their neighbors whether they think it is cloudy or rainy today. The teacher then summarizes their answers thus spending only two minutes on the entire activity instead of the usual ten.
  • Self-regulation: When engaging in a counting activity in a Tools preschool classroom, one child assumes the role of a “counter” while his buddy becomes a “checker,” making sure that the counting was done correctly. As children take turns checking each other’s answers, they “other-regulate,” which is an important prerequisite for them being able to self-regulate.
  • How we can help children adapt Planning, monitoring and reflection: Children learn to plan their play by drawing a picture of what they want to do, and then writing or dictating this plan to the teacher. Similarly, in a Tools kindergarten, children make their learning plans before they do their assignments, and later conference with their teacher reflecting on how well they did and what their next learning goal should be.
  • Role playing: Finally, and perhaps most important, children engage in mature dramatic play evolving into dramatization and games with rules later in kindergarten. As children engage in rich imaginative play with well-developed roles and evolving scenarios, they constantly practice self-regulation as well as “other-regulation” as they alternate between following the rules themselves and monitoring how their friends are following these rules.

Photo Credits: Tools of the Mind

Learn More

“What Your Child May Not Be Learning,” by Kelly Schmitt Gouss, about the benefits of social and emotional learning

“Teaching Children to Train Their Minds,” by Kelly Schmitt Gouss, about executive function and the work of Adele Diamond

Related Reading

NPR story on Tools of the Mind: “Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control”

“Youngest Students Most Likely to Be Expelled,” Washington Post