Development of Self-Control in Young Children: A Life Coach’s Perspective


Development of Self-Control in Young Children: A Life Coach’s Perspective

Kids acquire several important emotional, social, academic and spiritual skills during early childhood that equip them for later success in life. Fruitful learning in early childhood covers the ability to focus one’s attention, follow rules, appropriate response to authority figures and peaceful interaction with peers. All of them are foundational for their later achievement in language, literacy, and maths. But paramount to a thriving early childhood experience is the development of self-control, which is often inhibited by impulsivity, aggression, and hyperactivity. Children having these negative traits struggle emotionally, socially, and academically throughout life. One researcher goes to the extent of calling it a “treasured ability”.

The importance of developing self-control can be illustrated with a classic longitudinal study conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s. Some hungry four year-olds were given two options – one marshmallow right away or get two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. About one-thirds of them opted for one marshmallow. A follow-up study years later found the children who waited (for the second marshmallow) to be more successful people, positive, self-motivated, and persistent in pursuit of their goals. These habits are predictors of successful marriages, higher incomes and better health. Alongside, the study also showed that those kids who did not wait, had lower scores in achievement tests, were indecisive, less confident, and stubborn. Even a more recent longitudinal study confirms that kids with high levels of delay-of-gratification have more cognitive control than those with lower levels of delayed gratification.

A child passes through so many developmental phases on its journey from infancy to adulthood. Each such stage in a child’s life is marked by clearly defined, observable and distinct changes in terms of physical, psychological, emotional, inter-personal, social and moral arenas. Among these changes, developing the capability of self-control is a crucial step on the way to maturity and responsible adulthood.

Self-control is variously defined as willpower, self-discipline or conscientiousness. Despite the differences in the way it is defined, self-control is all about one’s ability to self-regulate behavior and actions -resisting distractions, inhibiting impulses, bouncing back from difficult emotions,  delaying gratification and planning ahead.

Obviously, we cannot expect an infant (0-18 months) to exercise self-control as it is yet to develop many capabilities necessary for achieving self-control. Toddlers, too, lack the self-control found among older kids. The ability to self-control develops slowly over the years, with some remarkable, big changes happening between the ages of 3 and 7. Just like with other facets of development, there is a lot of individual variation here, too. Some kids find it difficult to self-control and they face its consequences.

A raft of relevant psychological studies confirm that young kids with poor self-regulation make less academic progress and are more likely to be anxious, depressed and aggressive. Besides, child counseling experts say that such poor self-control kids have a higher risk of obesity, drug addiction, committing crimes and being poor.

Overview of Self-Control

During the early years, kids acquire emotional, social, spiritual, and academic skills that equip them for later success. Paramount to a thriving early childhood experience is the development of self-control, expressed by the ability to trust adults, internalize rules, delay gratification, control angry impulses, find internal ways to be more patient, empathize with others’ feelings, take turns, and find ways to cheer up amidst sadness. Self-control expects them to “delay, defer, and accept substitutions without being aggressive/ disorganized and to cope with arousal, due to environmental challenges or fatigue. These constructs make the idea of self-control a multifaceted concept. Self-control is therefore interchangeably used with self-regulation, emotional regulation, delay-of-gratification, and self-discipline.

Examine the following scenarios to understand the emergence of self-control among kids:

Four-something Swarn went mad over Jaggu hogging the big building blocks. He stood disgruntled nearby. Only a week ago, his teacher had had a group discussion about hitting and hurting….. No one was to hit anyone else…but Swarn was so frustrated that impulsively, he clenched his fist and raised his arm above his head. The class teacher looked straight at him with a reminding look. ‘I wasn’t going to hit him. I was only raising my arm, Ma’m,’ Swarn explained. The teacher smiled encouragingly and helped Swarn take up another activity.

Dingy, a nursery student, was in a crowded shopping mall with her parents. The trip was getting very tiring for her. Father said, ‘Dingy, we didn’t realize we would have to buy so many extra things, and that our trip would be this long. We’re sorry. Thanks for being so patient.’ Dingy sighed, ‘Well, I guess it was necessary’.

Parents’ role in kids’ self-control


Those involved with child counseling services soften report that a strong parent-child attachment increases a child’s ability to control impulses and develop self-control. Young children need plentiful practice and patience from their parents as they work on achieving self-control. Authoritative parents, those who are firm yet nurturing and do not accept any defiant behavior, teach self-regulation with warmth and consistency and expect the kids to show control in a variety of situations. Such parents try to become role models of self-control for their kids and do not resort to punitive or controlling methods of parenting. Their discipline style is more effective because they explain to the kids the reasons behind what they do.

Of course, young children need clear and consistent rules to learn self-regulation. To teach social skills effectively, parents and teachers would need to communicate their expectations clearly to the kids.

Development of Self-Control

Experts dealing with parent counseling services believe that self-control develops with the kids beginning to differentiate between short-term and long-term outcomes. When they realize that a long-term outcome is greater, they delay gratification in their best interests. This capacity to choose a future reward is a function of the prefrontal lobes in the brain. This capacity requires a special memory, which stores information about the past and the future, while carrying out the responses needed to accomplish the goal.

Can we really teach it?

From a life coach’s perspective, this one is a very vital question in the child counseling arena. While tackling the billion dollar question of fostering self-control among young children, some people will tell you that we can’t do so since it’s “all in the genes.” But science says otherwise, offering us some hope. Repeated studies confirm that our genes DO play a significant role in shaping the development of self-regulation but so do parents and teachers, too. Besides, many studies also confirm that it’s really possible to teach self-control to kids. Kids certainly benefit when we remove temptations and distractions, and create such environments as reward self-control. Besides, kids also need to be given timely reminders to stay on track, practical advice for being motivated, overcoming roadblocks and sticking to a plan.

Top 10 Tips To Develop self-control

Here are Top 10 Tips for developing self-control among kids, coming from experts in parent counseling services:

  1. Out of sight, out of mind

It’s rather commonsensical! We all have seen self-controlled, high-functioning adults trying to diet lose their will power at the sight of a tempting ice-cream. So the most important tool to facilitate self-control among kids is to change the environment by keeping such temptations hidden from their view!

Now, for young kids, it may imply putting away a toy that is likely to create conflict during a game or avoiding the ice-cream side of the supermarket, while  shopping together. For older children, it might mean keeping electronics gadgets away from their study table. But we can go even further with older kids by teaching them to identify temptations on their own, and then take the necessary steps to eliminate them.

Remember, the kids who remain trouble-free and are better achievers aren’t always blessed with a greater strength of character. Rather, they can better anticipate and avoid situations that can trigger impulsive behaviors.


  1. Consistent rewards for self-control

Refer back to the “marshmallow test” wherein pre-schoolers were given a choice between eating one treat now or two treats later. Remember, the kids who demonstrated a better capacity to wait ended up later with better outcomes – better school achievement and less likelihood of drug abuse.

Later research also showed that only a couple of disappointments were enough to erode the kids’ willingness to delay gratification and exercise self-control. Our willingness to wait depends on how we weigh the risks and benefits of a particular action.

As any life coach would confirm, humans select immediate gratification if they distrust the person promising a future prize. And even two-year-old kids can resist the temptation of eating a cookie if the rewards of a wait are sufficiently high.

  1. Timely reminders

If you don’t remember the rules, it’s difficult to stick to a programme. Young kids face more trouble keeping directions in mind as they can be easily distracted. So to tide over the problem, it’s useful to remind young kids of our expectations.

In a recent experiment, three-year-old kids were asked to perform a simple task involving  impulse control. They were to open a box to get a prize, but only after getting the correct signal from the experimenter. If they saw a blue square, they could go ahead while getting a red triangle meant leaving the box alone.

The researchers tested two different approaches in this experiment. When an adult reminded the kids of the rules before each trial, they were more likely to have self-control. In contrast, giving the kids a few seconds to stop and think, without any reminder, failed to have any such effect.

The lesson? Remind yourself to remind them.

  1. Play self-control games

Whenever we ask kids to play by rules, we’re, in effect, asking them to develop self-control. But some games can be more challenging than others. For example, in the traditional “Red light, Green light” game, when a child hears “Green light!”, they are supposed to move forward and upon hearing “Red light!”, they are expected to freeze.

In this classic shape, this game is all about following directions but it can become slightly trickier. Once the kids have adjusted themselves to the rules, simply reverse them i.e. make “Red light!” the signal to go and “Green light!” the cue to stop. This one challenges a kid’s ability to go against habit. The kid must control impulses i.e. show “self-regulation.”

Do such games help? Researchers say yes. The experiment involved a modified form of the  “Red Light, Green Light” and other games designed to give kids practice in self-regulation. In the Freeze game, kids dance when the music plays and freeze whenever it stops. They dance fast for fast-tempo songs, slowly for slow-tempo songs. And then the cues are reversed i.e. Fast music = slow dancing. Slow music = fast dancing.

The kids played these games twice weekly and after two months, their self-regulation abilities were assessed. Though the kids with above-average self-control had no improvement, the story was different for those who had been struggling. Those with low self-regulation scores (below the 50th percentile) had got a better degree of self-control now.

  1. Give kids a break

Kids benefit from breaks after following directions and working hard. Studies confirm that people don’t maintain the same self-control over time. If they are given two demanding tasks one after the other, they tend to show lesser self-control during the second task.

One reason could be that our “quota” of self-control gets exhausted and we literally lack the energy to keep going. Another account says that our brains are designed to seek a balance between bearing drudgery and getting easy rewards. One, who sticks to the same old work routine, sans a break, is going to miss important environmental changes. Therefore, by taking time out to play and explore, we improve our chances of finding profitable new opportunities.

The upshot: If you ask your kid to go from one unpleasant duty to the next, they are going to have lower self-control. Give your kid a break to help them recharge, and that’s a good way to learn, too. Many studies on kids’ learning confirm the oft-believed idea that kids learn faster with shorter lessons separated by breaks.

  1. “Must do” vs. “Want to”

A certain kid, who doesn’t cooperate in the class, may be the poster child for poor self-regulation but just give him his favorite toy or a video game to turn him into a picture of complete focus, persistence, and drive. The thing is – the kid doesn’t lack self-control. Actually, he lacks motivation and needs to find enjoyment in the things he’s asked to do. This is what we need to address.

The savvier among us adults know how to brace up for an upcoming assignment, how to become interested and how to mix work with a bit of pleasure. We also know that approaching a task as a nasty chore makes things even worse. But in contrast, kids face a hard time figuring it out, especially if adults themselves display the wrong attitude.

Making a chore a game takes time and energy. Finding the right things to get kids interested may need great patience, observation, and flexibility but as many successful teachers would vouch, it’s an investment that has great pay offs. It may be the key to beating “self-control fatigue” as it’s much easier to tackle a pile of homework if you’ve learned to find at least some of it to be enjoyable.

  1. Tackling challenges, learning from failure

Many people often think of intelligence and talent as “gifts” that we inherit and which can’t be improved upon. Therefore, when these people fail in doing something, they feel helpless and give up easily. In contrast, those who believe that efforts can shape intelligence and talent, are more resilient in nature. Life coaches would confirm that such people, in general, are more likely to face challenges and learn from their mistakes.

We, too, can help kids develop this kind of resilience and determination by being careful about the feedback we give them. Several experiments show that praising a kid for their general traits (“You’re so sharp!”) makes them adopt a wrong mindset as does general criticism (“I’m unhappy with you”). Instead, what works far better is praise for effort and feedback, which  encourages kids to try out different strategies (“Can you think of some other way of doing it?”).

Remember, pinpointed, consistent and proportionate praise and criticism always deliver the desired outcomes with most kids.

  1. Develop their attention and working memory

working memory

Many distracted, impulsive kids have low working memory. Our working memory is the “mental notepad” which we use to keep information “in mind.” While solving a maths problem or trying to remember those directions to a bank, we use our working memory.

Young children don’t perform as well as adults on working memory tasks, which is perfectly okay. But some kids face more difficulty than others, and while there is no cure-all for working memory problems, seeking professional help can improve the kid’s working memory capacity.

  1. Emotion coaching

Adults often  react differently to a kid’s negative emotions. Some of these reactions are dismissive in nature (“There isn’t any reason to be so sad.”), while others are disapproving (“Stop that crying!”). Such approaches aren’t exactly helpful as they fail to teach them how to regulate themselves.

In contrast, kids benefit more if parents talk to them about their feelings, exhibit empathy and discuss with them some constructive ways to cope with their feelings i.e. “emotion coaching,” which generates better outcomes. Adolescents “emotion coached” by their mothers show reduced  behavior problems over time.

  1. Practice planning

Planning is a very important component of the process of developing self-discipline. People are likelier to succeed if they can think about the obstacles and think of specific steps about when, where, and how they are going to take action. Everyday experience and research indicates that practice in this regard can be helpful.

In an experiment on kids, they didn’t always plan ahead while tackling a problem. But when they were asked to change their approach, they had more success solving the puzzles given to them. There are some games that reward the players for planning ahead, which might teach lessons that kids can apply to other situations.

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