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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Power of Self-Control for Children

Last month I wrote that the most powerful predictor of academic achievement is actually classroom behavior, and that one of the most effective ways parents can support their child's success at school is to train them to behave at home beginning while they are still babies. It is not true that babies are too young to learn how to behave. Parents teach babies all sorts of poor behavior, usually by rewarding bad behavior with food in a misplaced effort to redirect or quiet the baby. Parents also teach young children poor behavior by accepting incomplete obedience.

For example, I was visiting in the home with a 2 ½ year old child. The child picked up a pair of scissors. The father ordered the child to hand him the scissors. Upon the third repetition of the command, the child put the scissors down on the table. The father wisely picked up the scissors, put them back in the child's hand and ordered the child to hand him the scissors. The father did not accept the child's incomplete obedience by rationalizing that at least the child did not have the scissors anymore. No, the father made a reasonable request and accepted nothing less than complete obedience. The child will take the same attitude into school. Children who are allowed incomplete obedience will also take the attitude they have learned into school. It should be easy to see which child is likely to be more successful in school.

I am not advising that parents be tyrants. I am advising that parent say what they mean and mean what they say. Another word for this is consistency. Recently, I discovered that Pulitzer prize author Charles Duhigg says essentially the same thing in his 2012 book,“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”

At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline.

An excellent synonym for willpower is self control. Another one is conscientiousness. It should not be necessary to point out that conscientious, self-controlled schoolchildren behave well in school. Nor should we be surprised that classroom behavior robustly predicts present and future success.

Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

Roy Baumeister, author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,”has studied self-control extensively and offers some excellent tips for helping your child increase self-control. One of the most intriguing things Dr. Baumeister found was that a dose of glucose instantly improves self-control.

Our work on self-control (or self-regulation) centers on the idea that self-control relies on a limited energy source. A single act of self-control consumes this energy source, and later acts of self-control are impaired as a result. Findings in our lab on sexual restraint, aggression, intellectual reasoning, emotional coping, and thought suppression support this pattern. Moreover, recent work suggests that part of the energy source of self-control is glucose. Attempts at self-control deplete glucose that is needed for later attempts at self-control.

Therefore, as incredible as it may sound, the first thing parents need to do is make sure that kids get a good breakfast before they go to school. Then, find ways to let children practice using a little will power every day. Practicing makes willpower stronger in every area of life. Practice has at least two positive effects. First, practice creates habits. Good habits, by definition, do not require willpower. One way is to help children build habits through daily routines. As just one example among many, do not have a school night bedtime different from a weekend bedtime. Bedtime should be the same every night. Second, habits become a default response requiring less willpower to implement.

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