Packed like sardines for circle time in a child development center in Taiwan, a group of children 3 to 6 years old never jostled, poked or prodded each other.
They chased bubbles outside but stopped before they went too far and watched the bubbles float away.
Education specialist Shannon Wanless, who was visiting with a group of students from the University of Pittsburgh, was amazed at how well behaved they were.
"I was like, 'What is going on here?' "
This sparked the idea that led to a study that found differences in children's self-regulation -- the ability to control behavior and impulses, follow directions and persist in completing a task. In the U.S., girls were found to have higher levels of self-regulation compared to boys, but in Asia, the gender gap didn't exist: Boys and girls performed the same.
"What that suggests to me is that not that all boys are struggling with self-regulation," Ms. Wanless, an assistant professor in the department of psychology in education at Pitt, said. "We can't say, 'Oh, you know, that's what happens because you are a boy' ... In fact, in [Taiwan, South Korea and China] boys and girls are doing similarly, so there is no reason in my mind why that can't happen here in the United States."
Ms. Wanless was the lead researcher for the paper, "Gender Differences in Behavioral Regulation in Four Societies: The U.S., Taiwan, South Korea, and China," published online in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly in April.
Calling it "one of the most important school readiness factors," she said previous studies already proved self-regulation to be linked to academic success, especially in math, all the way to college.
"It's sort of remarkable that anything is linked that far away," Ms. Wanless said.
It's also nothing new that boys in the U.S. have lower self-regulation levels than girls. But children's behavior in the U.S. has never been compared to children's behavior in Asia using a game created by Ms. Wanless and Megan McClelland. They revised the familiar game of "Head, shoulders, knees and toes" to allow children in the four countries to be equally challenged despite cultural differences.
Researchers evaluated 814 children in total, the largest number was 310 in the U.S. followed by South Korea, Taiwan and China. In a quiet setting, they told children that when they said, "touch your head," they instead meant "touch your toes," and vice versa. As the game progressed, knees and shoulders were added. The students who reached for the wrong body part but realized it and corrected themselves halfway earned one point. Those who controlled their impulses without hesitation earned two points, and those who missed the mark got zero points.
But when the researchers had the children's teachers rate their own students' ability to play the game in a bustling classroom environment, there was a new difference noted.
In the U.S. the results looked similar to when the researchers participated in the quiet-space game. However, in Asia, there wasn't a pattern in the behaviors of boys and girls.
Ms. Wanless said this is because the teachers in Asia may have bias toward certain students, or the children can be more easily distracted by chaotic surroundings.
The results raised more questions for the researcher about what strategies Asian countries are using to help children, especially boys, develop self-regulation. These strategies could then be translated in a way that works in the U.S.
"To me, all these different countries are sort of like nature's laboratory," she said.
Thousands of miles away from Asia, Ms. Wanless spoke to teachers in the Children's School at Carnegie Mellon University about self-regulation -- something the school has its children practice on a daily basis.
The children work in a garden and are taught how deep to dig, how to work a tool. and how to wait for their lettuce, sunflowers and peas to erupt at different times.
They play sports and are taught not to swing the club too hard when putting in golf and to wait to hit the ball in baseball.
And for one of the most important tasks, they are taught to wait until it is their turn to talk instead of shouting out the answer.
These tasks involve improving a child's delay of gratification and inhibitory control, both of which are basics of preschool and part of a child's long-term emotional intelligence, according to Sharon Carver, director of the Children's School.
Yet, according to Ms. Wanless, many educators in the U.S. have an intense focus on academic achievement instead of these specific self-regulation strategies.
"We can teach them math. We can teach them reading," she said. "But if they can't sit still and listen, you can't teach them anything."
Ms. Carver said the key for educators and parents is to find the "sweet spot." Children who are too regulated may fail at college because they cannot choose, for example, the right balance between friends and homework.
On the other hand, she said, studies have shown this same problem could happen if parents or teachers are too concerned with reinforcing their children's self-esteem, rather than their efforts. Later on, the children can't handle a situation or problem because they haven't been challenged enough.
"You might think it's the smarter people who do better," Ms. Carver said. "It turns out that there are a lot of smart people who don't regulate well, and so they end up dropping out of school."
For Ms. Carver, living in a privileged society is a key argument for the difference in children's behavior between the U.S. and places like Asia and Africa.
"There is so much for children [in the U.S.], even if they don't achieve," she said. "But [in other societies], children have to achieve in order to gain."
Both experts said that at home, parents can play games like "Simon Says" and "Red Light, Green Light" with their children, especially during any time they are waiting, so they can learn how to follow directions, listen carefully and complete tasks better.
"If we can get [self-regulation] in place, then the academic achievement comes so much more easily," Ms. Wanless said. "If it's something that's teachable, and it's something that predicts so far down the road, then it's really worth the time in preschool to put our attention here."education - mobilehome - health
Marina Weis: 412-263-1889 or firstname.lastname@example.org.