Head, Toes, Knees, and Shoulders

Today, in one of Horizon’s Cartwheel Club classes, Miss Janet taught the children a game called “Head, Toes, Knees and Shoulders”. Miss Janet would tell the class to put their hands on their heads, then on their knees, then on their toes. But sometimes, she would say “toes” but point to her head. At first, it was very confusing, but after a few tries, they learned to listen to what Miss Janet said and think about it before acting.
You may have seen your child play a similar game in his or her class. And while it may appear to just be a time-filler, the game has a very important purpose. A recent study in Developmental Psychology revealed that a child who learns to excel at the game will have surpassed his classmates by 3.4 months in math and 2 months in vocabulary over a nine-month school year. The key to the game is self-regulation, the ability to control one’s impulses in order to see the big picture.
In the 1960’s Dr. Walter Mischel did a study with marshmallows. How fun is that? In his study, he set a marshmallow in front of hungry four-year-olds and told the child he could either eat the marshmallow right away, or he could have two marshmallows if he waited for until the facilitator returned to the room. About one in three of the children was able to distract himself and wait for the second marshmallow. These children who exhibited outstanding self-control, went on to score an average of 200 points higher on the SAT than the students who chose to chow down on their marshmallow right away. It’s amazing what you can learn from snacks, isn’t it?
For years, educators and parents alike have been plagued by the question of why some children are naturally good students and some aren’t. While obvious factors like IQ and demographics play a part, there are pieces to the puzzle still missing. Self control is one of those pieces.
How can we teach self-regulation? Games like “Head, Toes, Knees and Shoulders” are a start. Children can also learn by playing made-up games with elaborate rules and self-imposed consequences and minimal adult interference. For older children, it’s important to know when to say when. If a child forgets his homework, or doesn’t study for his spelling test, his mom may not be too quick to bail him out, but instead use it as an opportunity to teach about responsibility and discipline (remember those from out Powerful Words series?).
Learning self-regulation is going to make children better people going forward. It will help them do their homework before watching television, and stop them from grabbing that Disney magazine at the supermarket checkout. Perhaps we adults could use a little “Head, Toes, Knees and Shoulders”.
(summarized from a 09/09/09 article in USA Today by Laura Vanderkam