Did you know that there is a better predictor of academic success than grades, SAT score, or even IQ? According to Dr. Sam Wang in The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, a toddler’s self-control, or “executive brain function,” is a better predictor of future academic and social success than any of those test scores. The key is teaching delayed-gratification: how to work towards long-term goals. This is really good news because self-control, unlike an IQ score, is a teachable skill that can be measurably improved. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=1540
But wait. It gets better. How can we teach a toddler self-control? Aren’t we all trying desperately to do that anyway? It turns out that one of the most successful ways to do this is not through scheduling more structured enrichment activities, but through play, specifically through imaginative play. When children play games where they have to stick to their chosen role, whether it is Superman, Princess Cordelia, or Dr. Smith the pediatrician, it strengthens the part of their brain that is used in self-control. There is a preschool curriculum based on this research called “Tools for the Mind.” It was featured in a story on NPR in 2008 and shows really remarkable results. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=76838288 One of the techniques they use in “Tools for the Mind” involves having the children make a plan of what games they want to play and how they want to play them, and then checking back in with the kids later to make sure that they followed through. Did they get out all the materials they needed to play store? Did Billy play cashier and Jane play the shopper as planned?
Just for laughs, I have taken this really exciting and serious research aimed at preschoolers and applied it to my 1-year-old. If he were to make a to-do list for his day, what would it look like? I will check in with him at bedtime tomorrow and let you know if he followed through. He usually does.
1. Practice all my face-related words, especially “nose.” Point to my nose, my mom’s nose, or my teddy’s nose at least 100 times as I say this word and laugh hysterically.
2. Climb up on tables. Any table will do, but strive for higher tables. The coffee table is a good start. Definitely go for the kitchen table too. Do this when Mama is not looking. First pull out one of the chairs and then go from there. If there are any dishes or food on the table, plan to play with them!
3. When Mama catches me on a table and says “no,” pretend that I don’t understand. Try to look cute. Then use a deflection technique by pointing to my nose and laughing hysterically.
4. Make at least 20 attempts to climb over the baby gate in the living room and explore the “forbidden territory” on the other side. Try using other objects as stepping stools such as the laundry basket. Or try leaping from the arm of the couch.
5. Dance ecstatically to the music on the radio or the music in a wind-up stuffed animal. All music is wonderful.
6. Eat everything in sight. Practice eating with my hands, a spoon, a cup– anything Mama will let me hold. Eat with gusto. When full, smear any remaining food on my face or drop it on the floor and then announce with baby sign language, “All done.”
7. Play with my big brother. If he builds a Lego tower, use baby telepathy to sense it and then run over and knock it down. Try to push my brother over too. Then laugh hysterically.
8. Kick things that roll. Kick them for a long time. Smile and laugh hysterically. If Mama doesn’t take away the potato or the ball or the soup can, move on to throwing things that roll.
9. Do anything possible to avoid falling asleep at nap-time. Focus on shiny objects or small noises such as the telephone to help. Keep trying to set the baby world-record for hours between naps.
10. Run. Run fast. Run indoors, outdoors, towards or away from moving cars, playing chase or hide-and-seek, or just for the fun of moving. Run. When I fall down for the hundredth time, get back up and run some more. Cry only if absolutely necessary. Crying takes away valuable time from running.