I Want it NOW. How preschool helps to develop self-control.

October 30, 2017

Welcome to a blustery and cold weekend-- a certain reminder that our magical fall weather is on its way out, ushering in the inevitable... winter. I'm reminded that we (adults) tend to be the ones who dread/resent the cold, wet weather and that the children tend to delight and wonder in the sudden change of seasons, pulling us in to presence to enjoy it, too. It's a total gift of Minnesota living: we fully experience the earth's rotation and tilt. And, if you can indulge my stretch here, we fully experience- in abstraction- that we all are constantly meant to take turns. You know there are some happy people in the southern hemisphere, enjoying gorgeous warm spring weather right now! As they should; it's their turn. 


For preschoolers (and for lots of adults-- we all know some like this), it is hard to wait for a turn. It's a challenge to delay gratification. Preschoolers want what they want and they want it RIGHT NOW. Some children have less challenge delaying gratification (you're familiar the with the


conducted at Stanford in the late 1960's and oft replicated due to our current academic obsession with grit and achievement) and some kids have a much harder time with the very same self-control. What the original researcher, Walter Mischel, discovered through the "marshmallow test" is that self-control is actually more like a muscle that we can choose to flex or not to flex. This is great news for those of us (me) who have a hard time waiting. It means that our discipline around taking turns and waiting can be developed over time and with practice. In follow-up studies, Mischel found that the children who were able to practice self-control in the marshmallow study were more likely to be "successful" in their adult lives (this was measured in a variety of ways like healthy body mass, higher test scores, and other conventional measures of achievement). In addition to the learned nature of delayed gratification, Mischel discovered that the decision-making involved with self-control is also rooted in trust in relationship. In the example of the marshmallow study, the children had to believe and trust the adult who promised to return with more marshmallows would actually come back and deliver.


This trust in relationship is why the parental/adult caregiver role is so pivotal for child development in the development of non-cognitive skills. And, in the preschool setting, the peer/friend relationship as well. Once trust in relationship is established, our kids are more willing to risk taking a turn or waiting for someone to turn over a desired plaything OR to finish a clean-up job at home in order to watch a show or receive some other benefit. It is truly one of the most delightful observations for me, as a teacher, to hear children say to one another: "can I have a turn with that when you are done?". AND to have a child say back, "yes, I will share when I am done" is another miracle/milestone of development. This kind of self-control lays a foundation for future success and it takes loads and loads of practice. Look for it in your own life and in the life of your child; it's encouraging to notice the change. As our teachers are collecting anecdotes and observations for conferences in November, these moments perfectly illustrate visible and measurable change in executive function and are evidence that the practice at preschool makes a positive impact.

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