A Cognitive Skill that Predicts Children’s Academic Achievement

What do young children need to be successful in school? Most people would say learning the ABCs and counting to 10. However, other important cognitive skills also are important.  Inhibition (also sometimes labeled “inhibitory control” or “impulse control”) is a skill that is very important for children’s early success in school. 

What is an Example of Inhibition?

Pretend you ate cookies every day after lunch.  You decide to go on a diet. Today, when you finish your lunch and see the cookies, you must inhibit your behavior of reaching for them. Perhaps a voice inside you said, “Don’t eat a cookie!” when you looked at the cookies. This behavioral control of reaching for a cookie illustrates inhibition. You must stop yourself from doing something that you routinely did in the past.

How Does Inhibition Apply to a School Setting?

When I taught first grade in a rural community in Ohio, I had a child who hit other children.  If another child took his toy, he would hit that child.

I asked the child’s mother what to do. His mother said, “I told him not to let others give him a hard time.”  She thought it was appropriate for her child to hit other children, so they would not take advantage of him.

My resolution was to tell this child, “At school, you may not hit other children. When someone takes something from you, tell that child to wait his turn.”  I was asking him to inhibit a behavior that was routine in other contexts, and to substitute a new behavior at school.

Inhibition can also be applied to thinking or attention. In my current university position, I often do research in schools.  When I walk into a kindergarten classroom, some children barely notice me. They are focused on the book they are reading with their teacher or the story they are writing. Others notice me immediately.

What Is an Example of Inhibition for Early Academic Success? 

Inhibition is an important skill for early academic success. For example, inhibition is required for early reading. Here is an example.

During preschool, children learn to name to name the letters of the alphabet. For example, they learn to say “ᾱy” when they see the symbols “A” or “a,” and to say “ēē” when they see the symbol “E” or “e.”  However, when they begin formal reading instruction and learn to sound out words, they learn that vowels may have different sounds.  Sometimes the vowel sound is the same as the letter name (the “ᾱy” sound in the word “cake”), but at other times the sound is different (the short “ᾰ” in the word “cat” or the silent “e” in the word “cake”). The previous behavior of saying the name of each letter no longer works routinely when they sound out words.

Assessments of inhibition during the preschool years predict children’s later academic achievement.

Is There a Game that Helps Children to Practice Inhibition?

One familiar game that can help children to practice inhibition is “Simon Says.”  To play Simon Says, children copy what the adult does, but only if the action is preceded by the words “Simon Says.” Therefore, if the adult said, “Simon says, touch your knees,” the children would touch their knees.  However, if the adult only said, “Touch your nose,” the children would not touch their noses, because Simon didn’t say to do it. This requires children to inhibit doing what they see the adult doing and saying.

Children’s ability to inhibit behaviors does improve during the preschool and early grade school years. However, there are ways that may give children practice with inhibition. One way we are investigating is though participation in a preschool music program.

Why Would a Preschool Music Program Enhance Young Children’s Inhibition?

Suppose you gave a group of children drums to play. You would get a headache if they started banging them in free form. Instead, when they are taught to play the drums, you teach them to inhibit this random drumming behavior and to learn to play their drums with a steady rhythm and to a beat.  This requires inhibition.

Jennifer Bugos and I are studying the impact of a preschool music program she developed on young children’s cognitive development, and we included measures of children’s inhibition. Our early results (Bugos & DeMarie, 2017) revealed more improvement in children’s inhibition for those children enrolled in the preschool music program than for those enrolled in the Lego-building control condition. With a grant from NEA, we are offering and assessing the impact of a 10-week program with children enrolled in Head Start.

This music program is “multi-modal.” It includes not only singing, but also playing instruments (e.g., drums) and creating original music (e.g., innovation). Unfortunately, many schools in our region are cutting music programs that once were offered by music educators to children in kindergarten. Those who make decisions about curriculum may not see the value of a comprehensive music program.  Many would claim that children have music in school; however, for many early childhood teachers music consists of singing songs to help with other tasks (i.e., washing hands, cleaning up). Few teachers consider the value or have the expertise to offer musical concepts to children in kindergarten using a multimodal approach.

Teachers:  Does you school offer children opportunities for participating in a comprehensive music program offered by a music educator during the early grades?

About the Author

Darlene DeMarie, Ph.D, is the University of South Florida’s (USF) Fulbright Faculty Advisor. Under her leadership, USF was named the number 1 top producer of faculty Fulbrights of all research universities for 2015. She has been on the educational psychology faculty since 1998 and served as educational psychology’s Program Coordinator from 2004 to 2010. Before earning a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Florida, she taught 1st grade, 2nd grade, and children with learning disabilities/behavior disorders in 1st-3rd and 7th-8th grades in Ohio. She also co-created two child development centers during her career. One was within the psychology department of Muskingum College. The other was at the University of Limpopo in South Africa, where she was a Fulbright Scholar from 2007-2009. Darlene has publications on children's memory development, using digital media with children and teachers for professional development, and children's executive functions. She represents the Board of Scientific Affairs on the American Psychological Association’s Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education.
  • Deborah Christie

    I remember playing Simon Says in first grade back in 1960. I just thought of it as a fun game. I wonder if my teacher realized she was teaching inhibition? I like the way you handled the cultural differences between home and school: You enforced the school rules without disrespecting the home rules.