Self-Control? It's Child's Play

By Manier, Jeremy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Self-Control? It's Child's Play


Manier, Jeremy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Kids everywhere have played Simon Says for generations without the slightest inkling that such games may be preparing them for success in the classroom and the work world.

Psychology researchers say the game is one of many that draw on the crucial capacity to restrain impulses and exert self-control. Until recently, many experts believed that teachers could do little to foster those skills in young children, thinking that kids would either develop the knack over time or require medication such as Ritalin to correct attention disorders.

But new research suggests that ordinary children can benefit from play that gives a mental workout to their faculties of "executive control," as psychologists call it. One study from last November found that preschool-age kids who spent most of their school hours playing games designed to improve self-control scored better than other kids on a range of tests that measure executive function.

Other work has shown that measures of executive control can predict future success in school at least as well as IQ tests, which gauge only a limited range of mental abilities. Improving executive function could be a promising way of getting kids ready for the real world, saysAdele Diamond, a co-author of the study that appeared last November in the journal Science.

Many applications

"You need these kinds of skills in all facets of your life," says Diamond, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.

Scientists believe executive control comes from an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which underlies much of our ability to make conscious, deliberate choices.

It's also one of the last brain areas to reach maturity in children, and that shows in the often impulsive behavior of young kids. When young children see someone else with a toy they want, they simply take it. When they want food, they grab it. Executive control includes the power to think twice and avoid such missteps.

Many researchers believe another key aspect of executive function is what's called "working memory," the small store of memory that people keep in mind while doing a task such as solving a math problem or spelling a word. Improving working memory also could aid self-control, says Philip David Zelazo, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development. …

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