“Boring” tasks are important to teach persistence and discipline in a world where children are exposed to a lot of high-octane video games, immediate gratification of all basic needs (hungry? Just go to the refrigerator and eat something – they don’t have to wait for a parent to go stalk a deer, kill it, skin it, then cook it), and continuous colorful and interactive toys. Most, if not all, of these interactions are passive, the child just sits, watches, and is led by the gizmo of the hour – hitting buttons as directed.
Why is self-regulation (ability to persist at boring tasks, delay gratification, follow through on plans, etc.) important? Any task or endeavor, whether it is writing a novel, training to be a football player, studying for your SAT) requires persistence in order to accomplish it at a high level. Athletes who make it to the Olympics have practiced 8 hours a day for many years. Students who get 1600 on their SAT (out of a possible 1600) have practiced may hours a day for many years. One can think of many other examples. Thomas Edison said it best - Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It is easy to see how children who are used to getting things whenever they want, and quickly, or have not struggled with something “boring” (homework comes to mind!), would easily give up on pursuing something that takes a lot of hard work. Tracing a “W” again and again, until a 2 or 3-year old does it correctly, may be considered “boring” by some, and “developmentally inappropriate” by well-intentioned but misguided educators, but it is of paramount importance. It teaches the child not only how to write the letter W, but, more importantly, also the discipline, persistence, and grit needed to succeed. Additionally, it is important that these traits, both cognitive and self-regulatory, are taught at a very young age – during the sensitive period of brain development (please see The Brain – Time Sensitive Material! on our blog page). If this critical period is ignored, it is likely children will have a difficult time focusing on tasks and succeeding later in life. There are two major areas of evidence to support this. First, everyday experience around you. There are no Olympic athletes that practiced only three hours a week. There are no children who didn’t practice really hard for a long time who scored 1600 on their SAT. You could think of many more – even many from your own life. Second, formal studies!
The most famous study (there are many), is the Perry Preschool Study. Briefly, in the mid-1960s, researchers signed up three- and four-year-old children to be in either a high-quality preschool (experimental group) or no preschool at all (control group). These children were tracked, not for one year or three years or five years but almost forty years (hence the most famous study!). Those children are now in their forties. This study demonstrated two things. First, that children in the preschool program did better than those in the control group on cognitive abilities such as IQ test – but only for three years or so. Once they were out of the preschool, they fell back to the same level as the control group. Thus, it signals yet again, the necessity of continuing to strengthen (through stimulation) those synapses/neurons that are necessary for cognitive development (please see The Brain – Time Sensitive Material! on our blog page). Second, the children that attended preschool nevertheless did much better in life than those in the control group. The preschool children were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed at age twenty-seven, more likely to be earning more than the control group, less likely to be arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare. These were significant results and the conclusion was, after much data analysis, that the self-regulation that these children learnt while in preschool was instrumental to their success.
In conclusion, appropriate and optimal cognitive development is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, for future success. Development of self-regulatory habits (ability to persist at boring tasks, delay gratification, follow through on plans, etc.) is also necessary to be able to apply these cognitive abilities. Fortunately, both can be developed in a carefully constructed environment that shapes the brains and future abilities of children five years and under.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
- The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40. http://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/specialsummary_rev2011_02_2.pdf
- Tough, P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. First Mariner Books, NY. 2012