April 15, 2013

The ABCs of self-control help spell success

Schools are seeing the benefits of new approaches to education

By ANDREW REINER The Washington Post

At first blush, Julia King's middle-school classroom at D.C. Prep Public Charter School seems like any other middle school. Seventh-graders are busy reviewing math skills that they struggled with on a recent test. Walls are plastered with motivational posters. But look more closely. Something else is going on here -- something that would have seemed more familiar to these 12- and 13-year-olds' great-grandparents.

click image to enlarge

Christopher Rios, left, and Kenneth Scott line up at D.C. Prep in Washington, which places an emphasis on teaching children self-control.

Matt McClain/The Washington Post

click image to enlarge

The school’s walls are plastered with motivational posters.

Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Fourth- through eighth-graders at this Washington, D.C., school are expected in their seats by 8 a.m. No excuses. The children do not speak in the hallways or classroom unless spoken to by a teacher. They navigate the hallways single file. Throughout their eight-hour school day, they bring to each class charts on which they record, as the teachers decree, behaviors, both good and bad, listed on a key. This key lists 26 behaviors, A through Z. Failure to meet any of them results in detention.

During a math review, King, 2013 D.C. Teacher of the Year, blurts out: "Responsible 'R.' I see that you are listening." On cue, students scribble an "R" beneath a column reading "RESPONSIBLE Behaviors." Before class is over, King's students will have also written an "I" for staying on task and a "B" for getting the teacher's attention appropriately. At the end of class, students file out in silence. Two boys wearing green mesh pinnies over their navy-blue polo shirt leave last. They are serving in-school suspension.

The boot-camp expectations, the behavioral charts, the pinnies, all point to a calculated attempt to teach students self-discipline, focus, accountability -- ultimately, self-control. Schools across the country are responding to a growing body of research that suggests a definitive and disturbing link between low levels of self-control in childhood and serious problems later in life.

It's hard to believe, but letting kids throw punches or text-message their days away or blow off academics can lead to a slew of mental and physical health woes in adulthood. Terrie Moffitt, a pre-eminent researcher in self-control, observed in a groundbreaking study that the need for self-control in 21st-century America is "not just for well-being but for survival."

As it turns out, our emotional lives matter as much, sometimes more, as our intellect in the path to success. And schools are exploring ways -- from character-based education to mindfulness meditation to social emotional learning -- to teach the challenging, essential ABCs of self-control.


The study of self-control began in the 1960s with a marshmallow. The longitudinal Marshmallow Study (as it is still known) started at Stanford University and operated on a simple premise: Offer 653 4-year-olds a marshmallow, and tell them that if they waited to eat it after the researcher returned from leaving the room, then they could have a second one. If they couldn't wait, they were stuck with just one.

The study in delayed gratification revealed that the marshmallow resisters scored much higher on their SATs and, as they aged, remained thinner, less prone to drug addiction and to divorce than their counterparts who couldn't master their salivary glands.

A spate of studies appeared in the past three years or so, particularly the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, and, almost overnight, the stakes seemed higher. The Dunedin study -- headed by Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, Duke University psychology and neuroscience professors -- followed 1,000 New Zealanders over 32 years, beginning at birth. What researchers observed in this study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, was astounding.

Children as young as 3 who showed lower self-restraint were much more likely to face future struggles with high cholesterol and blood pressure, periodontal disease, chronically empty savings accounts, debt and single parenthood. Those with less self-restraint had much higher incidences of drug and alcohol dependence. And "43% of least disciplined children had a criminal record by age 32, compared with just 13% of the most conscientious." If this isn't disturbing enough, "one generation's low self-control disadvantages the next generation," the researchers stated.

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