Let’s start with kindergarten. Claire Cameron Ponitz from the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia has dedicated her career to studying kindergarten readiness in kids. She’s found that little ones who are destined to do well in a typical 21st century kindergarten class are those who manifest good self-regulation. This is a term that is bandied about a great deal these days by teachers and psychologists. It mostly refers to disciplined behaviors like raising one’s hand in class, waiting one’s turn, paying attention, listening to and following teachers’ instructions, and restraining oneself from blurting out answers. These skills are prerequisites for most academically oriented kindergarten classes in America—as well as basic prerequisites for success in life.
As it turns out, kindergarten-age girls have far better self-regulation than boys. A few years ago, Ponitz and her colleagues confirmed this by putting several hundred 5 and 6-year-old boys and girls through a type of Simon-Says game called the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task. Trained research assistants rated the kids’ ability to follow the correct instruction and not be thrown off by a confounding one—in some cases, for instance, they were instructed to touch their toes every time they were asked to touch their heads. Curiously enough, remembering such rules as “touch your head really means touch your toes” and inhibiting the urge to touch one’s head instead amounts to a nifty example of good overall self-regulation.