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Self-Discipline and School Success

The Importance of Self-Discipline for Success in School

By

Updated July 30, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If you're looking to improve your tween's success in school, you might want to think about encouraging his or her self-discipline. Self-discipline not only relates strongly to school grades, but also to positive school-related behaviors and the avoidance of problem behaviors like substance use.

Elements of Self-Discipline

When we talk about "self-discipline," we're actually talking about a number of different personality factors. One element of self-discipline is low impulsivity. A child with low impulsivity is able to wait their turn, to avoid interrupting others' conversations and to stay seated and quiet when appropriate. Self-discipline also includes the ability to control one's own thoughts, emotions and actions. Finally, a child's ability to delay gratification is an important element of self-discipline. A child with strong delay of gratification skills can refuse a small, instantaneous reward in exchange for a larger reward later on.

Self-Discipline & Academics

Recent studies by psychologists have shown that self-discipline is key to academic success. For instance, a study of eighth-graders found that self-discipline was strongly associated with marking period and final GPAs, student achievement test scores and selection into a competitive high school. Children with high self-discipline also behaved differently in relation to school. In particular, they were less frequently absent, did more hours of homework, spent less time watching television and began their homework earlier in the day compared to children with low self-discipline. Perhaps most interesting of all, these scientists found that self-discipline was more important than IQ in predicting every outcome.

Self-Discipline & Problem Behaviors

Self-discipline not only seems to be related to academic success, but it also makes a child less likely to have problem behaviors that can interfere with school performance. A group of psychologists tested middle school students' delay of gratification by asking whether they wanted to receive $5 immediately or $7 a week later. Those who waited for the $7 reward not only earned higher grades than their $5 peers, they also were less likely to have had discipline problems in school and had lower rates of substance use. In particular, the kids with strong delay of gratification used marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes all less frequently than the kids who demonstrated poor delay of gratification. Interestingly, the researchers also found that the ability to wait for a reward was associated with higher self-esteem. In other words, self-discipline seems to be related to many variables that are key to school success.

The Importance of Self-Discipline Beyond the Tween Years

Although here we have been focusing on studies conducted with tweens, self-discipline continues to be important for academic and career success well beyond the tween years. For instance, the findings regarding problem behaviors and grades have also been repeated with high school students. In addition, college students with high self-discipline have been found to be more likely to be inducted into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society than peers with low self-discipline, even when they are equally gifted intellectually. All in all, encouraging self-discipline in your child now may have a big payoff both now and down the road.

Sources:
Duckworth, Angela, and Seligman, Martin. "Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents." Psychological Science. 2005, 16: 939-944.

Wulfert, Edelgard, Block, Jennifer, Santa Ana, Elizabeth, Rodriguez, Monica, and Colsman, Melissa. "Delay of gratification: impulsive choices & problem decisions in early & late adolescence." Journal of Personality. 2002, 70: 534-551.

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