A+ Advice for Parents

Q: Our elementary school principal emailed parents about a new program that teaches "self-regulation." He wants to give the kids grades on it. Why spend school time teaching behavior, when that's the parents' job?

A: Schools have long reinforced parental efforts to teach good behavior, comportment, social graces, manners -- whatever you want to call it.

What's new is an effort to add "noncognitive skills" to the 3 R's. These include setting and achieving goals, showing empathy, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and self-regulation: being able to exercise self-control, make good choices and exhibit social competence.

Why spend school time on them? Research shows that self-control in childhood is a strong predictor of adult success. It plays a big role in academic achievement, health and happiness.

Professor Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Virginia, says a recent report from Transforming Education makes the case for administrators to include these noncognitive skills in the school day. The findings should also interest parents who want their children to make a successful transition to adulthood.

Students who learn self-regulation early:

-- have greater K-12 and college academic achievement.

-- are less likely to commit a crime and be incarcerated as adults.

-- are less likely to be a single or unplanned teenage parent.

-- enjoy higher adult earning and greater financial stability.

-- have lower rates of obesity, smoking, substance abuse and mental health disorders.

For more information, go to transformingeducation.org.

How early can parents teach these skills? Research shows that fostering them as early as preschool has both immediate and long-term impacts.

If these skills are so important, why are so many American children struggling? "Parents are investing more time and money in their children compared with 30 years ago, yet the outcomes are worse," says Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist.

For example, students in the U.S. are 14 times more likely to be on medicine for ADHD compared with kids in the United Kingdom. Childhood obesity jumped from 4 percent in 1971 to 18 percent today. The global rankings of U.S. students in math, science and reading continue to slide.

Sax, author of "The Collapse of Parenting," thinks parents today are afraid of seeming dictatorial. Too many "treat kids like grown-ups and end up abdicating their authority rather than taking a stand with their children."

In his medical practice, Sax shows parents how to positively influence what he calls their child's "conscientiousness" -- self-control, discipline, honesty, responsibility and industriousness -- in a matter of weeks. How? "By setting a clear example and sticking with a simple set of rules. If you're going to change the rules, tell your child what you're doing and why."

Want to help a teen build self-control? "You say, 'No Internet or video games until after you've done your homework,' and mean it," says Sax.

It's never too late to get results, Sax believes. "Parents who one day explicitly announce, 'Things are changing, as of today!' and then consistently enforce the new rules -- and are not cowed when their teen yells, 'You're totally ruining my life!' -- are surprised by how dramatic the change is."

It doesn't happen overnight, Sax warns, "but after six weeks of consistent enforcement, your child will be more pleasant, more respectful" -- more in control.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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