Remember Simon Says? The game?
Turns out it’s a pretty amazing predictor of how well your child will do in school—and beyond.
That’s because the game involves the ability called behavioral self-regulation, a social-emotional skill that new research shows kids develop at widely different rates.
Those differences mean some kids are way more ready than others to cope with the demands of preschool or a primary-school classroom.
“Behavioral self-regulation is basically the ability to do the right behavior that the context calls for,” says Ryan Bowles, PhD, an associate professor in the Michigan State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies and a co-author of a large study on how self-regulation develops in 3- to 7-year-olds.
Self-regulation develops fairly quickly across early childhood, especially during ages 3 to 5. Babies and toddlers start out needing lots of help managing their feelings, thoughts, and actions. Gradually they learn skills like self-soothing when we leave the room (sucking a thumb, clutching a blankie) and not throwing a tantrum every time they don’t get what they want. (A father of twin 2-year-olds, Bowles told me he knows that tantrum phase up close and personal.)
In school settings, self-regulation means being able to do things like:
- pay attention to the teacher
- follow directions
- remember rules
- not fall apart when things don’t go your way
Importantly, it also means controlling your behavior so you’re not doing something you’d rather be doing, Bowles says—like talk to a friend when you’re supposed to be listening to a story, or hit a classmate when you’re mad, or get up and walk away at Circle Time.
Sounds simple—but not for every kid
At the start of preschool, the majority have some trouble, showed the study of almost 1,400 kids in the journal Developmental Psychology. Roughly four in ten children were “early developers” who learned self-regulation rapidly once they got to preschool. About a third struggled at first, before catching on by kindergarten.
And one in five were “late developers” who showed little ability to regulate their behavior in any meaningful way until kindergarten (and sometimes later). They were an average of 18 months behind the early developers in self-regulation skills.
This means many kids need extra help, Bowles says. Those especially at risk, according to the data:
- Boys: They develop self-regulation later than girls.
- Kids with poor language skills: Being able to express your needs and challenges is a big benefit.
Why self-regulation should be on our radar
“It means that some kids are not ready for the kind of kindergarten we have now,” Bowles told me.
Back in our own preschool days, academic skills such as ABCs and counting weren’t part of the preschool curriculum. Even kindergartners mostly played and even napped, rather than learned how to read and write. Just like kids today, they were all over the map developmentally—most still struggling with self-regulation. That didn’t used to be an issue: “When kindergarten focuses on social skills, it targets the very skills that kids need help with most,” Bowles says.
But nowadays…uh-oh. That’s often not happening.
The steady trend toward focusing on academic skills in preschool and kindergarten means that most kids start out developmentally unable to focus on them. You can’t get a lot out of the best pre-math or pre-literacy lessons if you’re not quite able yet to listen to the teacher, follow directions, stop fidgeting, and harness the impulse control to not do the millions of things you’d rather do instead.
Indeed, a pile of other research has shown that behavioral self-regulation in preschool affects all kinds of learning, from social skills to basic math and literacy skills. Oregon State University’s Megan McClelland, one of the new study’s co-authors, has shown that it even affects a child’s educational attainment by age 25.
“The kids who develop later are really missing out and falling behind,” Bowles says.
To assess self-regulation in the MSU studies, kids were led through games of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” To play, they were instructed to do the opposite of what they were told. If the leader said, “Touch your head,” it meant they were supposed to touch their toes. It takes self-regulation to stay focused and do the opposite of what you naturally want to do, Bowles says.
Parents can also do the similar “Simon Says” game to gauge kids’ abilities, he says. You remember that one: The leader (you) says, “Simon says, touch your toes,” while doing so, and the player copies. But if you don’t start with the words “Simon says,” the player is supposed to refrain from copying you. It’s trickier than it sounds, even for grown-ups, and a good gauge of how well a child can pay attention to all the cues.
The skill develops over time, like this:
By 3 or 4: Kids should get the basic idea of Simon Says, according to Bowles.
By 5 (kindergarten): Kids should be able to remember the multiple rules of Simon Says. For example, you do the action I call out if I say “Simon says,” but if I don’t say “Simon says,” you should, for example, jump instead.
More markers of good self-regulation, Bowles says:
- Carrying out three-step directions
- Focusing at least five minutes on a single task
- Calming down after an emotional event within 10 minutes
Ways to boost self-control
Self-regulation skills develop naturally over time as kids interact with attentive, responsive grownups (parents, caregivers, teachers). They get essential practice during free play and by having chances to explore, make decisions, and work things out with other kids.
Bowles and others suggest these ways to give extra help:
- Pay extra attention to basics before situations where self-regulation is needed most. Enough sleep and a good breakfast are always important, but they’re particularly don’t-skips when kids are starting preschool, going to a party, or taking a class. They provide a floor under kids’ feet for self-control and attention.
- Expose your child to many different social situations. By visiting different places (library, zoo, playground, party) and meeting varied people (babysitters, relatives, neighbors) with you, your child learns about appropriate behavior and how it can be different in different settings.
- Play other games that encourage self-control. Examples: Freeze Dancing (when the music stops, you freeze), Statue Tag (you stand still when tagged), and Red Light, Green Light (you run until “Red Light!” is called out).
- Have age-appropriate expectations. Your child won’t learn without opportunity, but you also don’t want him or her to feel frustrated all the time by struggling to do things that aren’t realistic.
- Model it! They’re always watching how we act and react in different situations. So yeah…they see us losing our cool at the stupid driver who cut us off or looking at our tablet while they’re talking or saying we’ll help them with their shoes but then getting distracted by a call.
- Make sure a preschool is a good fit for your child. An academically focused school risks overwhelming a 3-year-old with late-developing self-regulation. Preschoolers are kicked out of school surprisingly often because the program doesn’t meet their developmental needs, says Stephanie Agnew, parent education coordinator at Parents Place in San Mateo, California.
- Talk to the teacher about coping methods that might help your child. Bowles knows one child whose behavior (like many kids’) fell apart when he was hungry. The parent and teacher made sure that when he seemed to be losing control and less attentive, they had a granola bar at the ready.
- Maybe hit the playground before school begins. Exercise helps. Many preschoolers who struggle with self-regulation benefit from arriving early to run around for half an hour before class, Bowles suggests. Make sure preschool programs involve plenty of free play and recess time.
Simon Says…I can do it!
The ultimate goal is a child who is able not just to sit still at Circle Time but to soar through the school years and beyond. And the rules in that game are straightforward: Start with a foundation of strong social-emotional skills, and the confidence and curiosity for academic success will follow.