How well your child performs in school is due to lots of factors—talent, family stability, motivation and organization. You’ll be attending meetings at school over the next few weeks where you’ll hear about the importance of making certain your child gets enough rest, eats a nutritional breakfast and exercises regularly.
I’ve been to dozens of these meetings over the years with my three kids, and have yet to hear one teacher (most of whom are dedicated and very caring professionals) discuss the single most important predictor of our kids’ success—self-control.
I don’t know when it became out of fashion to discuss self-discipline. It is the single most important factor that predicts your children’s school performance and later success in life. Even so, teachers and others seem reluctant to talk about this with parents. Here’s what I would tell parents if I was conducting an open-house this week.
- Use the language of self-control. Your children’s success in my classroom depends a great deal on their ability to control their behavior and emotions. This means they will have to do some things they won’t like in the anticipation of greater rewards in the future. This will be hard for many of our students. I’ll help your children by using words such as self-control and self-discipline to emphasize the importance of controlling their behavior, rather than always relying on others to tell them what to do. I’d ask that you use the same language at home.
- Stop.Think.Act. Children learn these self-discipline skills when they can control their impulses and reflect upon the consequences of their behaviors before acting. I’ll be teaching your kids a simple three step way to do this, called “Stop-Think-Act.” I’ll ask them to imagine a red stop sign in their mind before making any important decision, and then think about the various consequences of their choices. I’ll emphasize the importance of delayed gratification, encouraging them to postpone immediate gratification for the good feelings they will have tomorrow.
- Praise self-control. I’ll be praising your child’s efforts and results. We’ll talk a lot about choices, and why doing what is right is more important than doing what feels good in the moment.
- Manage the environment. I understand that children have varying degrees of self-control. I’ll work hard to progressively expose kids to more difficult situations as they are able to exert self-discipline in response to modest challenges.
Most students, even many high school kids, don’t have much self-control when placed in an environment that entices them with cell phones, computers and unrestricted time playing with friends. You are the expert on your child’s self-discipline. Please consider restricting such temptations at the beginning of our school year, but gradually reintroduce such privileges as your child demonstrates good management skills.
Next week: Questions from readers
Dr. Ramey is a child psychologist and Vice President at Dayton Children’s Hospital and can be reached at Rameyg@childrensdayton.org.