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The importance of timing for self-regulation: The tale of the tortoise and the hare

29 October 2017

From the age of three years, children spend much of the school day honing their capacity for effortful-control and mental focus. These efforts help to build foundations for self-regulation and goal-directed behaviour, which gain momentum from four years of age (Rothbart, Sheese, Rueda and Posner, 2011). Self-regulation involves the use of behaviours and strategies that support a desired outcome, as well as the suppression of any unhelpful impulses that would divert attention away from the desired goal.

It is unsurprising therefore that self-regulation, characterised by cognitive control, perseverance and self-discipline predicts academic attainment, and it is fascinating to find that this topic chimes in an interesting way with Aesop’s Tale of The Tortoise and the Hare. The fable tells of a boastful hare, who when challenged to a race by a tortoise was so confident in his ability to outrun the tortoise at the very last minute, that he went to sleep. The hare failed to wake up in time and the tortoise won the race.

Just as Aesop’s hare misjudged the timing of the race and underestimated the perseverance of the tortoise, so too are children with poor self-regulation prone to problems relating to social communication and overcoming procrastination. The underlying problem is this: unless attention is rhythmical, all of the child’s efforts to concentrate are spent on suppression. This is why a meaningful deadline appears to be helpful; it generates a target that enables the child to organise their attention ‘in time’. In truth, the systematic use of sanctions and rewards to manage difficulties with self-regulation and social communication may appear to ‘work’, but the danger of this type of approach is that it simply trains the child to become increasingly dependent on the intervention of a specific teacher, further decreasing their capacity to self-regulate.

What is required is a programme that realigns the child’s inherent sensitivity to timing in terms of (i) language and reading skills, (ii) selective attention and (iii) social group skills. Realigning a child’s sensitivity to rhythm at several levels simultaneously achieves an integrated result and lasting impact on several domains: phonemic awareness, cognitive control, inhibition, reading accuracy, reading comprehension, reading fluency, a sense of self-worth and a sense of social belonging. Addressing the underlying issues of weak self-regulation in this comprehensive and natural way, resets the child’s educational outcomes in alignment with an emotionally healthy and academically positive path. Read more.

Rothbart, M.K., Sheese, B.E., Rueda, M.R. and Posner, M.I. (2011). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation in early life, Emot rev: 3 (2) 207-213.

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