What should young children be learning? There’s the academic stuff that many people call “school readiness” (though they really have little to do with being ready for school)—reading a little bit, writing a little bit, understanding a bit of math. And there are the more general cognitive skills, like problem-solving and question-asking and creativity. Physical development is important too, and social skills can’t be oversold. But if I had to pick just one skill/task for young children to work on, it’d be self-regulation.
Okay, I’ve lied a little already: self-regulation isn’t a single skill, but rather a collection of related abilities. It’s things like controlling your emotions; bouncing back from disappointment; ignoring distractions; creativity in problem-solving; making plans… Basically, all the bits of your life that aren’t just you reacting to your surroundings, but you being in control of how you behave.
Some of the most important bits of self-regulation come under the heading of executive function, which roughly speaking refers to how the smartest parts of the brain keep a leash on the more reactive parts of the brain. Executive function can be divided into further categories. There’s effortful, inhibitory self-control—that’s when you have an instinctive response to something, but you stop yourself and choose something better. (Raise your hand if you sometimes need help with that. Yes, it’s everyone.) It’s a process of thinking before you act; of controlling your temper when something thwarts you, and controlling your anxiety when you screw up; of resisting temptation and delaying gratification; of staying on task despite distractions. Another part of executive function is cognitive flexibility—the ability to adjust your thinking and behavior in response to the changing demands of the situation, to alter your approach when it’s not working. It also includes the ability to allocate your mental resources appropriately to various tasks. Finally, there’s working memory—the ability to hold information in your mind while you work on and change that information. That one might sound a little out of place, but it’s a core component of being able to evaluate multiple strategies at once, and of being able to reflect on your own thinking and behavior.
Executive function, and self-regulation more generally, is a terrific predictor of school success in the long-term, and of specific skills like reading comprehension. It’s because self-regulation allows you to behave productively and appropriately, even when it’s hard. A child with poor executive function mostly responds to the stimulation of his environment; but a child with good executive function can make active choices about how to behave. He controls himself.
Now, some kids have good executive function and some don’t, for a wide variety of reasons. Experiencing trauma or chronic stress reduces your executive function in the long term. Simply being tired or hungry reduces your executive function right now (think how many more tantrums there are before dinner or before bedtime…). Additionally, some people are just born with better executive function. That said, executive function is also like a muscle—it gets stronger with exercise. Executive function can be learned, and taught. So how do we teach it?
The convenient news for almost every parent and teacher in the world is that children get better at self-regulation when they have the experience of being regulated by others. We do that to kids all the time, right? “Don’t touch that.” “Come over here.” “Tell your grandmother thank you.” When children alter their behavior at your request, that makes them better at altering their behavior at their own request—they have the chance to internalize social expectations and rules.
The less-convenient news is that children ALSO need practice regulating themselves, and practice means opportunities for making mistakes. If you’re always telling them what to do, they don’t have a chance to initiate good behavior and inhibit bad behavior on their own—and if they never do it on their own, they never build up that muscle, because someone is always doing it for them. So it’s important to give children opportunities to make their own choices, even if they sometimes screw up. Recognize that it’s an important learning process, and instead of punishing them for a failure of self-regulation, respond sympathetically to how hard it is for kids to learn this stuff. “I could see you wanted to share your snack with your friend, but you also wanted to keep it all yourself. That was a really hard choice. You decided to keep it all, and your friend started crying. Is that what you wanted? Will you make the same choice next time?”
Even trickier, there’s evidence that it’s helpful for kids to practice regulating other people, as a sort of bridge step to regulating themselves. It’s hard to apply rules to yourself—it’s stressful and confusing and emotionally fraught. Applying rules to other people is sort of like training wheels for self-regulation. In our culture, however, we call this behavior “tattling,” and strongly discourage it. I’m not saying tattling is good behavior, or that we should encourage it. But we should recognize that when it happens, it’s an instance of a child trying to understand the application of rules and expectations, which isn’t a bad impulse.
There is one particularly good activity for building executive function—an activity that provides incredible opportunities for children to be regulated by others, to practice regulating themselves, and to impose regulations on others. And, as luck would have it, this amazing activity comes pre-programmed into kids’ brains, ready to go out of the box, and many of them will choose to do it for hours on end, even without prompting. Ready? Pretend play. Yup. Make-believe: the wonder-drug cure-all for executive function.
Think about it. Let’s say you’re pretending to be the mommy, and your friends are pretending to be the daddy and the baby. When the daddy says, “I’m going to make dinner,” maybe you had another idea and you don’t like this plan, but if you want the game to keep going you have to allow yourself to be regulated by someone else—and by doing so, you increase your cognitive flexibility by changing your plans on the fly. When you tell the baby, “Okay, time to go to bed baby,” you’re practicing applying rules to other people. And when your baby says, “I don’t want to go to bed, I hate you!” you have to remember that this isn’t your friend saying that—working memory—and respond within the context of the game—effortful, inhibitory self-control—as you regulate your own behavior. All the parts of building executive function in one beautiful, self-motivated package.
So in addition to helping kids build self-regulation skills by giving them opportunities to practice and make mistakes, it’s important for families and teachers to support their children’s pretend play. Encourage their fantasy games. Play with them, and invite others into the games. Make sure children get chances to play with older kids (who they can learn from) and younger kids (who they can teach). Give time, lots of uninterrupted time, for pretending. A lot of what looks like “just playing” is building skills that are crucial for success in school, and in life.