Teaching kids self-control, focus and how to manage emotions is important -- and it can be done with marshmallows

Sandra Davie
The Straits Times
Mon, Dec 19, 2016

It's that time of the year when parents of children entering Primary 1 in January start fretting over whether their six-year-olds will be able to keep up with their peers in mathematics and English.

Many, in a last-ditch effort, resort to enrolling their children in expensive Primary 1 preparatory classes or hiring private tutors.

This is a yearly ritual that plays out among parents around the world - from Singapore to New York, where early childhood development expert Ellen Galinsky is based.

She is most well known for the go-to book for parents she authored in 2010, Mind In The Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.

Currently, she serves as president of the Families and Work Institute and heads Mind in the Making at the Bezos Family Foundation, a project to share the science of children's learning with the public, families and professionals who work with children.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Galinsky stresses that what parents should be concerned about is whether their children are up to the mark on the more intangible skills, such as the ability to pay attention and control their emotions.

While some educators refer loosely to these as "soft skills", she prefers the term "life skills" or "executive function" skills.

"All of these life skills are based, in one way or another, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and it is apt that they are called executive functions because children need to manage attention, thought, emotion and behaviour in order to pursue their goals," she says, stressing that these skills are at the core of every child's ability to do well in school, making it possible for a youngster to think flexibly and creatively, keep needed information in mind and resist distractions.

Imagine, she said, two children in a maths class. One child, Annie, is focused on the activity set out by the teacher, working on it with her classmate. But another child, John, is easily distracted and keeps interrupting his classmates.

Annie, in all likelihood, will be more successful at learning than John, who has yet to develop important skills such as the ability to focus and impulse control.

To further push home the point, she lists several scientific studies done in the United States and elsewhere that show that these skills matter for success in school and life.

In Professor Walter Mischel's landmark Marshmallow Test in the late 1960s, researchers subjected hundreds of four-year-olds to an ingenious little test of willpower.

The children were placed in a small room with a marshmallow or other tempting food and told they could eat the treat right then, or, if they could wait 15 minutes until the researcher returned, they could then have two.

Some of the children could not resist the pull of temptation. Those who managed to, figured out how to distract themselves - by turning around or covering their eyes.

The pre-schoolers were tracked and researchers found that those who were able to wait the 15 minutes were significantly less likely to have problems with behaviour, drug addiction or obesity by the time they were in high school, compared with kids who gobbled the snack in less than a minute.

At the end of high school, the gratification-delayers also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT, a standardised test widely used for college admissions.

These results have been replicated elsewhere, says Dr Galinsky.

In another noted study, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study followed 1,000 children in New Zealand for more than three decades, measuring their self-control on numerous occasions.

By adulthood, children in the group with the highest self-control were significantly less likely to have multiple health problems than kids in the group with the lowest self-control. They were also much less likely to have addictions to multiple substances.

The children with high self-control also went on to earn more as adults, fewer had a criminal record and were less likely to become a single parent.

Says Dr Galinsky: "In short, these life skills, such as being able to focus and control their emotions, are predictive of health and wealth, independent of children's IQ or their social-economic status at birth."

Does that mean children who have no self-control are destined to live less fulfilling lives?

Not necessarily. "Such skills can be nurtured," says Dr Galinsky.

One's mind can be trained to cool its emotional need for something it is trying to avoid.

So how can parents help nurture these skills in their children?

Through her book, parenting workshops around the US and a free phone app, Vroom, Dr Galinsky tries to help parents who want to nurture executive function skills in their children.

To make it easier, she breaks them down into seven essential skills - focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges and self-directed engaged learning.

She then helps parents and caregivers turn everyday moments such as mealtime and bath time into opportunities for building and strengthening executive function skills. Self-control, for instance, can be taught through games such as Simon Says.

"Asking children to do the opposite of what Simon says - for example, touch their toes when a parent tells them to touch their head - helps a child develop mental flexibility and self-control," she explains. She adds: "While the game may sound simple, it actually requires a high level of cognitive function for a pre-schooler, including focus and attention, working memory to remember rules, mental flexibility (to do the opposite) and self-control".

To encourage perspective, which Dr Galinsky defines as "figuring out what others think and feel", parents can read a story to a child and then ask follow-up questions on what the characters were thinking and feeling.

Sorting or matching games can be used to help them make connections. TV commercials can be used to nurture critical thinking, by asking children to evaluate the truth of the advertisements.

So what should take precedence - maths and English, or developing these executive function skills?

Dr Galinsky stresses that this is not an either/or issue.

"Maths and English are the 'what' of learning and executive-function skills are the 'how' of learning. Both are necessary to help a child succeed in school and in life."

The Straits Times

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