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Noticing a Child’s Hidden Successes


Adapted from PAUL TOUGH

Published: September 25, 2009 New York Times


“Come on, Abigail.”

“Wait!” Abigail said. “I’m not finished!” She slowly scratches out the letters in title, one by one: “T H E…”

“Abigail, we’re waiting!” Jocelyn said. Henry sighed dramatically.

“I’m going as fast as I can!” Abigail said, looking harried. … “I’m pressing it!” Henry said. His finger hovered over the button on the CD player . . . but it did not fall, not until Abigail etched out her last few letters. Only then, could the three listen to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

For some pre-school teachers the skills the children displayed before the story started were the important ones: when all three were wrestling with themselves, fighting to overcome their impulses — in Abby’s case, the temptation to give up on writing out the title and just submit to the pleas of her friends and for Henry, the urge to start the CD already.

As it turns out, the ability of young children to control their impulses is a remarkably strong indicator of future success. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. Accordingly, the most important goal of prekindergarten is to teach children how to overcome their tendency to be slaves to their environment. What some teachers see in this play is that these three children are able to control their reactions, direct their interest and inhibit their impulses. Often when children manage this critical task, their success goes unnoticed. It appears only as the absence of squabbling and the continuation of harmonious play. We may find simply that we are less exhausted at the end of the day. However, becoming attuned to children’s hidden self-regulation successes is one key step to nurturing such development.

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Lisa Scalapino is a School Psychologist and Educational Consultant. Questions? You can reach Lisa at

Campbell Fiver Family Network