The specter of Asian academic superiority keeps growing — a new study finds that while girls in the United States tend to show more self-control than American boys, there is no such gender gap among young children in China, South Korea, or Taiwan.
The study investigated self-regulation, a child's ability to control his or her own behavior, set limits, and stay motivated towards completing tasks and achieving goals.
Previous studies have linked self-regulation to academic and long-term success, and the capacity of many American children for the skill seems to be declining — along with their academic performance relative to kids in other nations. For some time, American boys have been falling behind girls in academic achievement.
Comparing Preschoolers' Self-Regulation Skills
Using a variety of directly assessed behavioral and academic readiness tasks, researchers at Oregon State University compared the self-regulation abilities of 814 children aged 3 to 6 years old in the United States, China, South Korea, and Taiwan.
The preschools in the United States were chosen based on accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and the ones in the Asian countries met national educational standards.
In all four samples, the participants were evenly split by gender. The American preschoolers were based in Oregon and Michigan, and were demographically mostly white. Students in the other samples were based in the capital cities of Beijing, Seoul, and Taipei.
To test individual self-regulation, the researchers used the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) task, in which children have to touch the "opposite" body part from what they're instructed to touch. When they are told to touch their shoulders, for example, they are supposed to touch their knees instead.
The task is relatively complex for young children, testing their working memory and inhibition because it requires them to keep overarching rules in mind that are different from immediate verbal cues.
No Gender Difference Among Asian Preschoolers
The results, published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, showed that American girls had significantly higher self-regulation during the HTKS task than boys, but Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese children showed no significant gender differences.
"These findings suggest that although we often expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys, this may not be the case for Asian children," said lead author Shannon Wanless, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, in a news release.
For children of both genders in all four societies, the researchers also found that self-regulation was linked to better performance on academic readiness tests.
"We know from previous research that many Asian children outperform American children in academic achievement," said coauthor Megan McClelland in the news release. "Increasingly, we are seeing that there is also a gap when it comes to their ability to control their behavior and persist with tasks."
Closing the Gap Between American Boys and Girls
Wanless believes that Asian cultural factors may put young boys and girls on a more equal footing for academic success than many American children.
"When we see differences in developmental patterns across countries it suggests that we might want to look at teaching and parenting practices in those countries and think about how they might apply in the United States," she said in the press statement.
McClelland and Wanless encourage parents to teach children of both genders self-regulation skills early in life.
Playing games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light can help kids learn to listen carefully and control their behavior, they suggest, setting them up to be more disciplined and goal-oriented as they grow older.
"Low self-regulation in preschool has been linked to difficulties in adulthood, so increased focused on supporting young boys' development can have long-term positive benefits," concluded Wanless.
Wanless S B, McClelland M M, Lan X, et al. Gender Differences in Behavioral Regulation in Four Societies: The U.S., Taiwan, South Korea, and China. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2013.