Your Teen’s Self-Discipline: Why It Matters and How It’s Formed

Posted on August 20th, 2012, 0 Comments

Labor Day has come and gone. Homework season is upon us. And if your household is like most, you have at least one kid who makes homework a hassle.

You know the drill: How he engages you in debates to avoid getting at his schoolwork. How she waits until late to start her homework each night. The way he rushes through the assigned work and fails to focus. Her lack of persistence and quickness to give up when the work gets challenging. And the hours he’d spend playing video games or watching TV on school nights instead of studying if left unsupervised.

This whole list of hassles has to do with self-discipline – a trait we all have to varying degrees. My two kids’ capacity for self-discipline varied so much that I sometimes wished I could pour what each had in a bowl, mix it up, and hand it back out in more equal helpings. I cared because as a middle school teacher I’d seen firsthand how crucial self-discipline is to academic success.

A range of studies over the last several years has confirmed what I observed in my classroom. Self- discipline matters when it comes to school achievement. In fact, it matters even more than you might think.

In one study (journal article found here), researchers Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman followed over 160 eighth graders for an entire school year. Their goal was to find out what matters more in predicting school grades – IQ or self-discipline.

Once school started in the fall, each eighth grader took an IQ test, and each of them (as well as their parents and teachers) answered survey questions that probed for traits related to self-discipline. Students were asked “Can you work effectively towards long-term goals? Are you good at resisting temptation? Or does fun sometimes keep you from getting work done?” In addition, students’ ability to delay gratification was measured using a real-live test: Each was given an envelope with a dollar bill inside and told they could keep the dollar or give it back and get two dollars a week later.

When the researchers returned at the end of the school year, they took a look at the students’ report cards and then compared each student’s final grades with their IQ scores and how self-regulated each had been back in the fall. The researchers found that self-discipline was not only highly predictive of success, but accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in a student’s end of year grades.

What’s more, highly self-disciplined kids outperformed their equally smart peers on every academic performance variable measured: They earned higher standardized achievement test scores, had fewer school absences, spent more time on their homework, watched less television, and started their homework earlier in the day.

As I read this research, I thought about how my kids would have responded if as 8th graders they’d been given that delayed gratification test. No doubt, my daughter would have handed the dollar bill right back to the researchers without wavering. My son, on the other hand, would have probably pocketed the dollar. For years I wondered how two children raised in the same home with the same rules and expectations could differ so much when it came to self-discipline. I suspected the difference had to be in their genes – at least to some extent.

Sure enough, a just published study (discussed in brief here) of more than 800 sets of twins suggests just that. Researchers found that the identical twins (who have the same DNA) were twice as likely to share character traits as their non-identical twin counterparts. And of all the traits examined, the genes were most influential on individual’s self-discipline. In fact, genes mattered more than home environment in forming self-discipline.

So it seems that some people are simply less tempted by short-term pleasures and distractions than others. They’re born that way. But this does not mean that we should just throw-up our hands as if the whole thing is beyond our control. Because researchers have recently discovered that self-discipline – a trait so important to success in school and beyond – is like a muscle. With regular exercise this trait will grow and improve even into adulthood. The downside is that, just like a muscle, self-discipline can get worn out from overuse.

Next week’s posting will take a look at some specific things you can do to help your teen build self-discipline and some quick-fix approaches for restoring it when their supply has been depleted.



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