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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

OK. Let's move beyond the dinner table. A new study says that self-control in childhood makes the difference between getting a good job or going to jail in adulthood. And we learn it back in preschool. NPR's Nancy Shute reports.

NANCY SHUTE: Four-year-olds aren't known for the self-control, so when you walk into this classroom at the Clara Barton Children's Center in Cabin John, Maryland, you'll hear 16 very young children very busy playing. And you won't hear hitting or whining or yelling. They've got it under control.

Unidentified Child: But by accident I did it.

SHUTE: Social scientists say three things matter for success in life: I.Q. family socio-economic status, and self-control. Only one of those things is easy to change, and it's self-control. A child who has self-control at age four is more likely to be happy and healthy as an adult. That's what Terrie Moffitt says. She's a professor of psychology at Duke University. She studied a group of 1,000 young people since birth.

Professor TERRIE MOFFITT (Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University): Children who had the greatest self-control in primary school and preschool ages were most likely to have fewer health problems and least likely to be addicted to any kind of a substance when they reached their 30s.

SHUTE: But the children who struggled with self-control had problems as young adults.

Prof. MOFFITT: We found that they were more likely to have a criminal conviction record.

SHUTE: They were also more likely to be poor or to be single parents.

Prof. MOFFITT: And finally, we found that the children with low self-control had great difficulty in their 30s with financial planning.

SHUTE: That means they were more likely to be in debt, have bad credit or have declared the bankruptcy.

Moffitt's study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the best evidence yet on the payoff for learning self-discipline early on and it can be taught.

Prof. MOFFITT: Identical twins are not identical on self-control. And that tells us that it is something that they have learned, not something that they have inherited.

SHUTE: Teaching self-control has become a big focus for early childhood education. At the Clara Barton preschool, it starts with expecting a four-year-old to hang up her coat.

Linda Owen is the center's director.

Ms. LINDA OWEN (Executive Director, Clara Barton Center for Children): The very fact that they have to put away their lunches, hang up their own clothes, then choose where they're going to play, all those things help with self-management.

SHUTE: Of course, not all four-year-olds can manage that, but this classroom has been setup to help them manage themselves. They are all sorts of cues and clues to help them make independent decisions.

(Soundbite of children talking)

Ms. EDEN ARANOFF: The first step.

SHUTE: When Eden Aranoff washes her hands, she sees seven pictures that show her just what to do.

Ms. ARANOFF: Soap on your hands, turn on the water, scrub.

SHUTE: When the children disagree, they can turn to the solution kit. It's a poster that shows them 10 different ways to end the argument. Rowan Miller and Miles Gordon name a few.

Mr. ROWAN MILLER: Sincere.

Ms. OWEN: Yeah.

Mr. MILES GORDON: Of sharing.

Ms. OWEN: Good, good one.

Mr. GORDON: Play together.

SHUTE: And when things do go wrong there are consequences.

Linda Owen points to a group of children building a huge tower of blocks.

Ms. OWEN: If one of our children who we know has impulse control problems, came by and kicked that over right now, the consequence would be they would need to come back and help rebuild it.

(Soundbite of building blocks)

Unidentified Child: Oopsie.

SHUTE: Sure enough, those blocks get bumped over and with a little prompting, the children work together to rebuild it.

Unidentified Child: Okay, how do you want me to build it?

SHUTE: Parents also can help their children learn self-control.

Mary Alvord is a clinical psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. She says start with one simple thing...

Dr. MARY ALVORD (Clinical Psychologist; Author, "Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents"): Learn delay of gratification, which means simply that you don't get what you want immediately and you may have to wait a little while.

SHUTE: Teenagers can learn better self-control too.

Dr. ALVORD: You can't have any screen time until your homework is done.

SHUTE: But researcher Terrie Moffitt says the earlier children can learn these skills of self-discipline and perseverance, the better.

Prof. MOFFITT: The later you wait in life to try to learn self-control skills, the more problems you have to reverse and overcome.

SHUTE: All the more reason to start picking up blocks when you're very young.

Nancy Shute, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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