Constant praise isn’t going to get Johnny very far when he starts school. And even if he has a high IQ or shows outstanding ability in math, new research says that the best indicator of future academic success is the ability of a child to self-regulate.

Nurture Shock book coverA new book called Nurture Shock, by authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, analyzed research done over the past two decades and found that the key to student success in school in the early grades has everything to do with a student’s ability to keep emotions and outbursts in check. The authors – and an education researcher who assisted them – discussed the book recently at the Denver Press Club.

Bronson and Merryman worked closely with Deborah Leong, professor emeritus of psychology at the Metropolitan State University of Denver who has a program called Tools of the Mind, which operates primarily in inner city schools on the East Coast but has been adopted in some Jefferson County schools as well. The authors relied heavily on research about her program in their book.

“What was surprising was that contrary to our expectations, the science that said it was important not to tell kids how smart they were and to praise them all the time to motivate them was actually undermining their confidence rather than boosting it,” said Bronson.

Newer research suggests that children begin school unprepared for one reason alone: they lack the critical ability to regulate their social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors.

In psychology, this lack of self-regulation is referred to as “executive function.” Research shows that executive function is a better indicator of academic success than IQ or entry-level reading or math skills.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a quarter of all children don’t have the skills they need to learn. Forty-six percent of kindergarten teachers reported in one study that more half of their children did not have sufficient levels of self-regulation. Another study of Head Start classrooms found problems with self-regulation, such as kicking or threatening others, occurred once a day for 40 percent of students.

There is, however, a silver lining: executive function capabilities can be altered quickly if caught and changed early enough. The problem is, parents are regulating their children instead of teaching their children how to get control of themselves.

Key findings in the book:

  • Praise doesn’t increase kids’ achievement It has been a long-standing belief of psychologists and parents that praise was an important motivational factor for promoting achievement. In fact, this type of nurturing based on constant praise is actually more likely to create children who are willing to cheat to get by. “It instills in them the idea that had they prepared well enough, or tried hard enough, they could have succeeded, rather than risk being told they have failed or that they aren’t smart,” said Merryman.
  • We are robbing our kids’ sleep Today’s generation of children get one hour of sleep less than children did 30 years ago, and the effects of this are just now beginning to be realized. New research has tied this sleep loss to numerous problems facing today’s children including ADHD, behavior problems, academic problems and even child obesity.
  • Obedience vs. self-direction “The idea is that how you nurture self-direction is not by drilling children or telling them what to do, but by fostering them in mature make believe play where they play a role which in turn helps them to regulate themselves,” said Leong. This is the sort of play that allows them to learn how to self regulate. “Preschool and kindergarten are really the only places left in the world where children really get to practice that if the teachers nurture that.”
  • The role parents play Kids playtime has diminished as parents have put an emphasis on teaching letters and numbers, according to Leong. She also pointed out that children are in very segregated age groups and don’t have much interaction with older children who can be mentors of play and learning for younger children. This leads to lessons taking three or four times longer to teach to children because they literally have to learn to play again. Parents can learn to be creative with learning opportunities that pop up while cooking, shopping, or running errands. “We put our kids in situations where they are isolated from real life, which is easier for parents in some cases. Parents spend a lot of time trying to keep their kids occupied rather than seeing these as opportunities to teach their children about real life,” said Leong.
  • Immediate benefits There have been a number of 1-year studies on children who entered kindergarten a year behind, entered a Tools of the Mind classroom and came out a year ahead of their peers, said Merryman. A few school districts in New Jersey have noticed a pattern of children who participated in Tools of the Mind landing in gifted and talented programs. In Jefferson County, the curriculum in preschools and Head Start programs has been so successful that first grade programs have begun to be rewritten because the kids were already so far ahead. “We saw that the more difficult the tasks the children were given, the more motivated they were to succeed,” said Merryman.