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AERA: For Young Children, It's Not Just What You Teach, but Who You Are


Teaching self-control is not like teaching math or history. A teacher's own self-control, and even her ethnicity, can affect whether young students will learn self-regulation skills, according to new research at this year's American Educational Research Association meeting here. ASU-GSV-slug.gif

Researchers at Boston University's social learning laboratory looked at how well preschool and kindergarten-age children learn from adults to delay gratification.

In another variant of the so-called "marshmallow test," children first watch an adult try to wait without taking a sticker or treat in order to get two treats later. Some adults tried to wait—successfully or not—while others said they wanted the treat immediately. In all cases, the adult demonstrated a few different strategies, like pushing the treat away to hide it or singing a song to distract herself.

After the adult's test was finished, the researchers gave the children the same choice of one treat now or two later. Then they watched to see not just whether the children waited, but if they imitated the adult strategies to do so.

Grace Min, a counseling psychologist at Boston University, said the children generally ignored adults' "do as I say, not as I do" approach. "Even if the adult said they wouldn't wait, if they were successful [at waiting] the student was more likely to use the strategies," Min said.

However, students were also significantly more likely to follow the adult's lead if she was of the same ethnic group, Min found. In a separate experiment using the same format, using Chinese and Caucasian students and teachers, she found that about a third of children imitated adults' strategies to wait for a treat— but only 16.7 percent did so when the teacher was of a different ethnicity.

"Learners were more likely to decide learning is relevant if the teacher is of the same social group," Min said.

The results are still preliminary, as the sample was very small: only 12 4- and 5-year-old Chinese-American children and 64 white children of the same age. Min and co-author Kathleen H. Corriveau, director of the social learning laboratory, are now repeating the experiment with a larger sample, and including black students as well. 

"The challenge for us as educators is, there's often a mismatch between teachers and learners in our classrooms, so how do we take that and move past it?" Corriveau said.

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