Ready. Set. Learn.

Researchers with the Dallas Preschool Readiness Project measured how well children can self-regulate their behavior, for example, waiting for a toy instead of immediately grabbing it.

Dallas project investigates the skills behind school success

"I'm going to set the car right here, but don't touch it until I get back," explains the researcher as she exits the room.

The toddler with big brown eyes watches her leave, and then stares at the tantalizing blue toy race car placed on the rug in front of her. Like a little adult, she crosses her legs and waits.

Seconds pass.

She tiptoes her fingers across the floor and touches the car with the tip of her pinkie. Moments later, she tentatively pushes it with her thumb. The contact sends her over the edge. She HAS to touch it. She grabs and revs the car backwards, launching it across the floor.

Nazly Dyer, Ph.D.

Less than two minutes have elapsed. Not too shabby for a two-year-old, says Nazly Dyer, Ph.D., a researcher on the project at The University of Texas at Dallas.

"Some kids can wait the entire 150 seconds of the experiment, and they use a lot of creative strategies to distract themselves," Dyer says. "But others pick up the car as soon as the researcher leaves the room."

The "Forbidden Toy" experiment described above is part of Dallas Preschool Readiness Project, a research study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development to explore why some low-income, minority kids thrive when they enter school, while others struggle. The study was launched in 2009 by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus and The University of Texas at Dallas.

“We are interested in social and emotional readiness—what some people call soft skills—that can predict how well children do in school,” says Margaret Caughy, Sc.D., the study’s principal investigator and director of the school’s Maternal and Child Health Training Program. Margaret Tresch Owen, Ph.D., a professor at The University of Texas at Dallas, is co-principal investigator.

Soft skills include self-regulating behavior such as sitting still, following directions and impulse control, for example, waiting for a toy instead of immediately grabbing it.

“We know that ethnic minority children are at high risk of school failure, but there were no data on these key regulation skills for this population of children,” adds Caughy, also interim dean of the Dallas Regional Campus.

To learn more, Caughy's research team visited the homes of young children in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to observe parent-child interaction and test children on mental skills associated with school success. Home visits were conducted when children were 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years old, and during their kindergarten and first grade years. The study has followed more than 400 low-income African American and Latino children and their families from preschool to first and second grade.

Forbidden toy

Data from the study’s six published papers and four manuscripts under review offers an important glimpse into the emergence of self-regulation and school readiness. Children in the study sample were 8 to12 months behind in self-regulation development in early childhood, but these skills grew rapidly over time. Those with better impulse control, also called inhibitory control, achieved more in math, while children who could easily shift attention from one task to another did better in reading.

Not surprisingly, the poorest children had the worst inhibitory control and working memory (the ability to remember and use information while in the middle of an activity). But poverty isn’t destiny, Caughy says. When parents were more child-oriented and sensitive in their parenting approach, their children had better inhibitory control, better academic achievement and fewer behavior problems.

“We have some families that are doing very well, despite the economic stress they are dealing with in their lives,” she says. “There are a lot of myths about low-income parents — that they are neglectful and disengaged. Sometimes when we focus on families in poverty, we focus on what’s bad, instead of what’s positive.”

She brings up a single mom in the study who leads her three kids in nightly group homework sessions, and runs a structured, organized household. Caughy calls these strategies, “markers of resilience” that help students succeed. Unfortunately, poor quality schools and struggling neighborhoods negatively affect how well children can regulate their behavior and can set them back academically.

Caughy hopes to track the students through middle school for a big-picture view of school readiness that will inform future interventions and influence policy aimed at closing gaps in academic achievement.

“The problem is that there’s a huge segment of kids who are developmentally off track, but not enough to qualify for services,” Caughy says. “It would be better to intervene earlier, before these children are three or four.” 

I can’t wait!

Waiting is hard enough for adults. But for preschoolers, who are just beginning to develop crucial cognitive skills, delaying gratification can be excruciating. See how they handled it in these two tests.

Snack delay

The temptation: The melt-in-your-mouth, not in your hand king of candy—the M&M.

The challenge: “Remember you have to wait until I ring the bell to pick up the M&M’s.”

The wait: The bell rings at increasing time intervals of 10, 20 and 30 seconds.

The verdict: Some kids survive the wait just fine. Others snatch the treat early, grab the bell and ring it themselves or get even more creative.

“We’ve had children who just bend down and snatch the candy with their mouths,” laughs Dyer. “It’s true, they aren’t actually touching the M&M’s.”

Wrapped gift

The temptation: A wrapped present set right in front of the child.

The challenge: “Oh no! I forgot the bow. I’m going to get it. Don’t touch the present until I get back.”

The wait: 90 seconds

The verdict: Through extreme, and visible, mental effort, some kids made it to the end, while others quickly ripped into the gift. Thinking she was about to be discovered, one guilty study subject hastily tried to rewrap the gift. 

— Written by Anissa Anderson Orr