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Gareth Cook

Self-control in childhood predicts future success

By Gareth Cook
Globe Columnist / June 12, 2011

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FOR DECADES, our national conversation about education has been guided by a single, seemingly irrefutable assumption: It’s all about what kids know. Either children are learning to read, write, and do math, or they are not.

But what about character?

There is a personal virtue that plays a large role in determining whether a child will lead a rewarding, prosperous life, contributing to neighborhood and nation, or stumble into a series of disappointments and even crime. The Greek philosophers lauded it, and it informs the teachings of many world religions. And now a new wave of research suggests that inculcating this basic good, from the earliest ages, could transform our schools and renew our society.

The ancients referred to this virtue as temperance, but, in the argot of modern social science, it is often referred to as self-control — the ability to check one’s impulses, focus on what is important, and better oneself.

The modern investigation of self-control begins with marshmallows. In a famous 1972 experiment at a Stanford University day care, psychologist Walter Mischel gave a group of 4-year-olds a marshmallow test. The children were placed alone in a room with a marshmallow and told that they could either eat the marshmallow, or wait and be given two marshmallows later. Two treats are better than one, but kids varied wildly in their ability to delay the sweet thrill. The successful ones used all sorts of strategies — some hilarious, some heartbreaking — to resist temptation.

The big surprise came almost two decades later, when it was discovered that how well the children handled the preschool marshmallow challenge predicted how well they performed, for example, on the SAT. Self-control matters.

Just how much, though, only became clear a few months ago, with a study that tracked 1,000 people from birth to age 32. Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.

Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.

What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.

A tremendous example of how self-control can be taught is the recently developed “Tools of the Mind’’ curriculum for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. Based on the teachings of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Tools is being tested nationwide — including in Massachusetts — and is specifically designed to instill self-control skills in its young charges.

One of the central activities is, surprisingly, play. Not free play, though: The children work in small groups, acting out a particular scenario — an animal hospital, say, or scenes from the “Magic Tree House’’ series. Staying in character requires, and builds, a tremendous reservoir of self-regulation.

A 2007 paper in Science found that children in Tools classrooms had developed substantially more self-control, allowing them to solve more difficult puzzles. Maggie Mack, who directs early childhood education for the Nauset school district, said that she has been amazed at what the children are able to accomplish in her Tools classrooms.

We are building a society filled with ever-more compelling distractions and temptations. We also live in a time when information changes ever faster. What will children need to thrive in this environment? Not catalogs of facts, but the discipline of mind to focus, persevere, and make good choices. A good start would be to make Tools of the Mind — or something similar — a staple of the 21st-century classroom.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com or Twitter @garethideas .