Self-Control in Young Children

The latest and most relevant findings point to the conclusion that a child’s level of self-control can be nurtured and developed by the important adults in the child’s life. It has also been learned that early self-control skills lead to long-term success in academic and social areas. We love this article on self-control, and 9 ways you can help your child develop greater self-control:


Can Self Control Be Taught:

Did you realize that the level of a young child’s self-control is considered to be an accurate indicator of that child’s later academic success? New and interesting research has come to the forefront recently showing a direct correlation between the level of a child’s self-control and their current and future academic success. In fact, it is now being argued that self-regulation is as important for academic success as intelligence. Studies have followed children over time, revealing that higher levels of self-control predict more positive outcomes years later. Higher teacher ratings of self-control in preschool, for example, are related to stronger math and language skills in kindergarten. And self-control in first grade is related to reading achievement in third grade. Obviously, young children lack the self-control of adults or even older children. Self-control develops over the years, with some of the biggest changes happening between the ages of 3-7. So, can we foster the development of self-discipline? Can self-control be taught? Recently, there have been numerous experimental studies that suggest that parents and teachers can have a profound effect on the development of a child’s self-control. We decided to pull together some of the more pertinent information on this topic to share with our faculty and staff and thought that you, as a parent, might also find it useful.

Here are a few of the most effective ways for helping children learn self-control.

1) Nurture trust between the adult and the child. The foundation of self-control is trust. Adults who are responsive to a child’s needs foster trust. In the earliest days of life, when a hungry infant wakes up crying and a caregiver picks him up and feeds him, he learns to trust that food will come. Every time he’s soothed, his brain strengthens the neural pathways to calm anxiety and regulate emotions, which will eventually allow him to comfort himself. As trust is developed, a child learns that every need or desire does not have to be addressed immediately. Simultaneously, patience and self-control are being developed.

2) Young children take their cues from us. When a toddler climbs too high, gets frightened, and wants to come down, how do you respond? If you can guide her down, speaking calmly, you are teaching her self-control. She is again creating the brain pathways needed to talk herself through difficult situations in the future. The child is learning to regulate herself to make rational decisions. The majority of our decision making abilities are found in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is barely developed in a three year old and does not reach maturity until the age of twenty-five but is strengthened each time the child controls her impulses.

3) Create an environment where self-control is consistently rewarded. You have likely heard of the famous “marshmallow test”. Preschoolers were given the choice between eating one treat now or two treats later, and the children who demonstrated the greatest capacity to wait ended up, in subsequent years, with better outcomes. They performed better on academic tests, had parental reports of better social skills, and were more likely to finish college. When researcher, Celeste Kidd, revisited the findings of this study, she found herself wondering how much depended on a child’s expectations. As a child, if experiences have taught you that adults don’t keep their promises, or that institutions don’t enforce fair allocations of rewards, why would you wait patiently for a hypothetical prize? Kidd tested this idea in a landmark experiment and the results bore her out. It only took a couple of disappointments to undermine children’s willingness to delay gratification. Subsequent studies confirm that our willingness to wait depends on how we weigh the risks and benefits.

4) Support young children with timely reminders. It’s hard to stick with a program if you don’t remember the rules, and young children have more trouble keeping our directions in mind. They are easily distracted. So it’s helpful to remind young children about our expectations. In recent experiments, by Jane and Yuko Munakata, three year olds were asked to perform a simple task requiring impulse control. The children were given these directions, “Open a box to get a prize, but only after you’ve been given the correct signal. If you see a blue square, that means go ahead and take the prize. If you see a red triangle, that means leave the box alone.” The researchers tested two different approaches to coach the children for the task and found one approach was clearly superior. When an adult reminded the children of the rules just before each trial, the children were more likely to control their impulses and follow the directions. By contrast, giving the children a few seconds to stop and think, without any reminders, did not have the same effect. This study confirms that giving children specific instructions and clearly stating your expectations frequently and especially right before an activity will increase a child’s chances of success.

5) Play games that help children practice self-control. Any time we ask children to play a game by the rules, we’re encouraging them to develop self-control. For instance, take the traditional game, “Red Light, Green Light.” When a child hears the words, “Green light!” he moves forward. When he hears the words, “Red light!” he must freeze. In its classic form, the game is about following directions. But with an added twist, the game can be more challenging. Once the children know the game, reverse the colors. Make “red light” the cue to go and “green light” the cue to stop. Now the game will test a child’s ability to go against habit. He must inhibit his impulses, practicing what is known as self-regulation. Researchers, Shauna Tominey and Megan McClelland, wanted to know if playing such games would help children develop self-regulation and self-control. They measured the self-regulation skills of 65 preschool children, and then randomly assigned half of them to participate in a series of game sessions. The sessions featured the modified version of “Red Light, Green Light” and several other games designed to give children a selfregulation workout. (See Appendix A) The children in the study played the games twice weekly in sessions of 30 minutes each for 8 weeks. When re-assessed, the preschoolers who started with low self-regulation skills (below the 50th percentile) had markedly improved.

6) Instill a mindset for tackling challenges and learning from failure. Many people think of intelligence and talent as gifts that we inherit and cannot improve upon. When these people fail, they feel helpless and give up. By contrast, people who believe that effort shapes an outcome rather than pure intelligence and talent are more resilient. We can help children develop this sort of resilience and determination by being careful with our feedback. Experiments show that offering praise for general traits (“You’re so smart!”) make children adopt the wrong mindset. So does general criticism (“I’m disappointed in you.”) What works better is praise for effort, and feedback that encourages children to try different strategies. (“Can you think of another way to do it?” or “You worked really hard on that, well done!”)

7) Teach children to come when they are called. It seems like a simple idea but it can be a powerful tool for helping children learn selfcontrol. When an adult calls a child, that child should not yell, “What?” from across the house, classroom, or playground. Children can learn to come to the adult, in order, to have a dialog with the adult. This helps the child learn that self-control sometimes means that we must give up what we would like to be doing in order to do something else.

8) Use bed times to teach self-discipline. Some children have a difficult time going to bed without creating a battle so this becomes a great opportunity to teach self-discipline. After all, it requires a lot of self-control for a child to stay quietly in bed while their parents are still awake. Set a bedtime, develop a routine which covers all the necessary bed time tasks and work at getting your child to stay in bed without mom and dad falling asleep in their room. This requires work on the part of the parent but will pay tremendous dividends in the end.

9) Routines, chores, and family schedules are opportunities to learn responsibility and self-discipline. Responsibility can be defined as doing the right thing even when no one is watching. The rewards for being responsible are privileges. The child who is responsible to get ready and be at breakfast by 7:30am is allowed the privilege of staying up until their 8:00pm bedtime. Being able to choose one’s own clothes is the privilege for getting dressed before the deadline. Simple benefits of life are seen as privileges associated with basic responsibility. Most all parents, at some point, have tried to give their child an easier life than they had or make their child feel good even at the expense of building their character. Unfortunately, this often translates into more freedom and less self-control. It is wise to use childhood to prepare a child for future success and self-discipline is one of the most important character qualities a child can develop.

So, the good news is we can help children develop self-control. Since the brain is like a muscle, it strengthens throughout life, depending on how it is used. When we build trusting relationships with children, set firm limits, provide modeling, instruction, and opportunities to practice self-control, we help them develop this fundamental life skill. These early years are a critical time to build a strong foundation that will allow our children to have future academic and social success. As we know, the first five years really are forever!


Appendix A:

  • The Freeze Game: Children dance when the music plays and freeze when the music stops. Dance quickly for fast-tempo songs, slowly for slow tempo songs. Then reverse the cues and dance quickly to slow music and slowly to fast music.
  • Color-Matching Freeze: In this variation of the freeze game, children don’t just stop dancing when the music stops. First, they find a colored mat and stand on it. Then, before they freeze, they perform a special dance step. There are several, different colored mats on the floor, and each color is linked to a different dance step.
  • Conducting an Orchestra: Children play simple musical instruments (like maracas and bells). When an adult waves the “conductor’s baton”, the children increase their tempo when the baton moves quickly and reduce their tempo when the baton slow down. After a time, children are asked to reverse the tempo directions.
  • Drum Beats: An adult tell the children to respond to different drum cues with specific body movements. For example, children might hop when they hear a fast drum beat and crawl when they hear a slow drum beat. After a time, children are asked to reverse the cues.