Teaching self-control: Evidence-based tips

© 2011 - 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Self-control has been defined in many ways--as willpower, self-discipline, or conscientiousness.

But however we define it, self-control is about being able to regulate yourself.

Can you resist distractions? Get a handle on your own emotions? Inhibit your impulses? Delay gratification and plan ahead?

To a large degree, the answer depends on your developmental level.

Obviously, little kids lack the self-control of older people. Self-control develops over the years, with some of the biggest changes happening between the ages of 3 and 7.

But there is a lot of individual variation too. Some kids have more trouble regulating themselves, and they suffer for it.

Kids with poor self-control and planning abilities are more likely to have aggressive behavior problems (Raaijmakers et al 2008; Ellis et al 2009). They are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression (Martel et al 2007; Eisenberg et al 2010).

Over the long term, impulsive kids are more likely to become obese, more likely to smoke, and more likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs (Sutin et al 2011; Moffit et al 2011).

They are more likely to commit crimes and less likely to become wealthy (Moffit et al 2011). They may even suffer shorter life-spans (Kern et al 2009).

And what about school?

To get along in the classroom, kids need to pay attention, follow directions, stay motivated, and control their impulses.

So we might expect self-control to play an important role in academic achievement.

Recent studies support the idea.

For example, Megan McClelland and her colleagues tracked over 300 preschoolers across the school year. They found that children with advanced self-regulation skills at the beginning of the school developed better academic skills over time (McClelland et al 2007).

A subsequent study of young children in four countries-- China, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States—reports that kids with stronger self-regulation skills had bigger vocabularies and better test scores in mathematics and early literacy skills.

So how do we foster self discipline in children?

Skeptics might argue that we can’t. Behavioral geneticists are discovering links between certain genes and impulsive behavior (Reif et al 2009). Attention problems seem to be highly heritable (Smith et al 2009). Maybe self-discipline just runs in the family, and you’ve either got it or you don’t.

But there’s good reason to reject this idea. Just because there is a genetic basis for a trait doesn’t mean you can’t modify it. And recent experimental studies suggest that parents and teachers can have a profound effect on the development of self-discipline. Here’s how.

1. Create an environment where self-control is consistently rewarded

You may have heard of the famous “marshmallow test.” Preschoolers were given the choice between eating one treat now or two treats later, and the kids who demonstrated the greatest capacity to wait ended up, in subsequent years, with better outcomes. They performed better on scholastic achievement tests, were more likely to finish college, and less likely to develop substance abuse problems.

But when Celeste Kidd revisited this research, she wondered how much depended on a child’s expectations. If experience has taught you that adults don’t keep their promises, or that institutions don’t enforce the fair allocations of rewards, why should you wait patiently for a hypothetical prize?

Kidd tested her idea in this landmark experiment, and the results bore her out. It only took a couple of disappointments to undermine children’s willingness to delay gratification (Kidd et al 2011).

Subsequent studies confirm that our willingness to wait depends on how we weigh the risks and benefits. Adults opt for immediate gratification when they have reason to distrust the person promising to deliver a future prize (Michaelson et al 2013). And even two-year-olds have resisted the temptation of cookie – when the rewards for waiting were sufficiently high (Steelandt et al 2012). You can read more about these studies here.

2. Support young children with timely reminders 

It's hard to stick with the 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 (2015), three-year-olds were asked to perform a simple task requiring impulse control: Open a box to get a prize, but after you've been given the correct signal. If you see a blue square, that means go ahead. A red triangle means leave the box alone.

What's the best way to coach children for such a task? The researchers tested two different approaches, and found that one was clearly superior. When an adult reminded children of the rules just before each trial, kids were more likely to check their impulses. By contrast, giving children a few seconds to stop and think -- without any reminder -- had no such effect.

3. Play games that help kids practice self-control

Any time we ask kids to play by the rules, we’re encouraging them to develop self-control. But some games are more challenging than others.

For instance, take the traditional game, “Red light, Green light.” When a child hears the words “Green light!” he’s supposed to move forward. When he hears “Red light!” he must freeze.

In this classic form, the game is about following directions. But with a twist, it gets trickier:

After the kids have adjusted to the rules, reverse them. Make “Red light!” the cue to go and “Green light!” the cue to stop.

Now the game tests a child’s ability to go against habit. He must inhibit his impulses, practicing what psychologists call “self-regulation.”

Do such games help? That’s what researchers Shauna Tominey and Megan McClelland wanted to know. So 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 (Tominey and McClelland 2009).

The game sessions featured the modified version of “Red Light, Green Light” and other games designed to give kids a self-regulation workout:

  • The Freeze game. Kids dance when the music plays and freeze when it stops. Dance quickly for fast-tempo songs, slowly for slow-tempo songs. And then reverse the cues: Fast music = slow dancing. Slow music = fast dancing.
  • Color-matching freeze. In this variant of the freeze game, kids 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, differently-colored mats on the floor, and each color is linked with a different dance step.
  • Conducting an orchestra. Kids play musical instruments (like maracas and bells) whenever an adult waves her baton, increasing their tempo when the baton moves quickly and reducing their tempo when the baton slows down. Then the opposite rules apply (e.g., kids play faster when the baton moves slowly).
  • Drum beats. A teacher tells kids to respond to different drum cues with specific body movements. For example, kids might hop when they hear a fast drum beat and crawl when they hear a slow drum beat. After a time, kids are asked to reverse the cues.

The kids played these games twice weekly is sessions of thirty minutes each, and after eight weeks, the researchers re-assessed the children's self-regulation abilities. Kids who began the program with above-average self-control showed no improvements, but the story was different for children who had been struggling. Preschoolers who started with low self-regulation scores (below the 50th percentile) had gotten better.

Other researchers have tested a fantasy-themed program of games on 5-year-old school children. Three times a week, kids pretended they were helping a couple of hapless goblins by performing "magical tasks." For instance, one game asked kids to listen carefully to a story about the travels of an elephant, and then recreate his route by putting representative toys in the correct spatial order. Other activities resembled traditional games like "Red Light, Green Light" (e.g., asking kids to either jump or stop according to rules that shift over of the course of the game). And kids were frequently required to coordinate their behavior, as when each child had to remember and locate a different ingredient for a magic potion they were making.

Overall, the games were designed to reinforce inhibition, shifting between rules, and working memory (see item #7 below). And they seemed to work. After four weeks, the kids outperformed control group peers in a variety of tests, including tests of impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory (Traverso et al 2015). For details, see the original paper and download the "additional data file" to read about the specific games used.

4. Give kids a break

If you ask people to complete two tasks in row, both of which require lots of self-control, their performance on the second task is usually worse. Why?

One popular account is that self-control gets used up during the day. We literally lack the energy to keep going. Another account, proposed by Michael Inzlicht and his colleagues (2014), is that our brains are designed to seek a kind of balance between drudgery and seeking out easy rewards. A creature who sticks with the same old work routine, never taking a break, is apt to miss important changes in the environment. By taking time out to play and explore, we increase our chances of discovering profitable new opportunities.

Whichever account is correct, the upshot is the same. If you ask kids to go straight from one unpleasant duty to the next, their self-control is likely to suffer. Giving kids a break can help them re-charge, and it’s also a good way to learn. Studies suggest that kids learn faster when lessons are shorter and separated by some downtime.

5. Turn “have to” tasks into “want to” tasks

A kid who won’t cooperate in the classroom might seem like the poster boy for poor self-regulation. But give him his favorite set of Legos or a beloved video game, and he’s all focus, persistence, and drive. He doesn’t lack self-control. He lacks motivation. He needs to find enjoyment in the things he’s asked to do, and that’s where he needs our help.

Savvy adults know how to get psyched up for an assignment – how to find ways to get personally interested, or to combine work with a bit of pleasure. They also know that approaching a task as if it’s a nasty chore always makes things worse, even if it is, in fact, a nasty chore. But children have a hard time figuring all this out, especially if adults are themselves modeling the wrong attitude.

Turning a chore into a game takes time and energy. Discovering the right “hooks” to get kids interested may require a lot of patience, observation, and flexibility. But as many successful teachers and therapists know, it’s an investment that pays off. And it may be the key to beating “self control fatigue” (Inzlicht et al 2014). It’s much easier to plow through a pile of homework when you’ve learned to find at least some of it enjoyable.

6. Instill the right mindset for tackling challenges and learning from failure

Many people think of intelligence and talent as “gifts” that we inherit and can’t improve upon. When these people fail, they feel helpless and give up.

By contrast, people who believe that effort shapes intelligence and talent are more resilient. They are more likely to take on challenges and learn from their mistakes.

We can help kids develop this sort of resilience and determination by being careful with our feedback.

Experiments show that praising kids for general traits (“You’re so smart!”) makes them adopt the wrong mindset. So does general criticism (“I’m disappointed in you”). What works better is praise for effort, and feedback that encourages kids to try different strategies (“Can you think of another way to do it?”)

For more information, see my articles about praise and intelligence and the best way to counteract helplessness in children.

7. Help kids develop their attention skills and expand working memory

Even if you have the right mindset, it can be hard to follow through.

What if you have trouble staying on task?

Paying attention?

Remembering what you’re supposed to do next?

Many distracted, impulsive kids suffer from low working memory capacity. That’s the mental workspace or notepad we use to keep information “in mind.” When you are trying to solve a math problem…or trying to remember those verbal directions to the post office…you are using working memory.

Experimental studies suggest we can help these kids improve their working memory skills with practice. Computer-based training programs ask kids to pay attention to new information and repeat it back.

For instance, a child might watch as a series of shapes “light up” on a screen in a specific sequence. Then they must recreate the sequence themselves. Remember the old electronic game “Simon?” It’s the same principle.

In one study, kids diagnosed with poor working memory skills practiced these tasks for 35 minutes each day. The tasks were adaptive—i.e., they got more difficult as a player’s performance improved. And they were effective, too.

After six weeks, the kids had improved so much they no longer met the criteria for poor working memory.

To read more about this research—and training resources—see my article about working memory in children.

8. Be an “emotion coach.”

Adults react in different ways to a child’s negative emotions.

Some are dismissive (“That’s no reason to be sad.”).

Others are disapproving (“Stop crying!”)

These approaches aren’t helpful, because they don’t teach kids how to regulate themselves.

By contrast, kids benefit when parents talk to them about their feelings, show empathy, and discuss constructive ways to cope.

Researchers call this “emotion coaching,” and it’s associated with better child outcomes. For instance, in one recent study, adolescents who had been coached by their mothers showed a pattern of decreasing behavior problems over time (Shortt et al 2010).

For more information about the benefits of talking with kids about their emotions, see this article on mind-minded parenting.

9. Encourage kids to practice planning

Planning is an important component of self-discipline. Can we teach kids to plan? I haven’t seen any experiments testing the idea. But everyday experience suggests that practice is helpful, and research offers relevant insights.

Merely reminding people to plan ahead can improve their performance on certain puzzle-like tasks. In experiments on kids (Lidstone et al 2010) and adults (Unterrainer et al 2006), people didn't always plan ahead when they tackled a problem. But they changed their approach--and often had more success--after they were explicitly instructed to think before tacking action.

Some games reward players for planning ahead, and these games might teach lessons that kids will apply to other situations. In one study, researchers asked people to work on a standard planning task called the Tower of London. Some people were experienced chess players, others were not. The chess players were no more intelligent than their peers, but they showed better planning skills and spent more time planning their moves (Unterrainer et al 2006). Does chess teach kids to plan ahead? Maybe.

Kids can benefit from “self-talk.” Ever solved a problem by talking to yourself? Research suggests that our ability to plan depends, in part, on our verbal abilities. In one experiment, researchers asked kids to work on the Tower of London task without “thinking out loud.” The imposed silence hurt their performance, most likely because it interfered with their ability to create and follow a plan (Lidstone et al 2010). Another study found that preschoolers who used words to describe time (like "soon" or "later") were better at delaying gratification (Kumst and Scarf 2015). Perhaps they could better explain to themselves the advantages of waiting for a larger reward.

And what about parental discipline?

Many researchers suspect that parenting styles have an influence on the development of self-control.

For instance, as I explain in this blog post, a recent study of American preschoolers (Piotrowski et al 2013) found that kids were more likely to exhibit poor self-regulation skills if they had parents who agreed with statements like

"I ignore my child’s bad behavior," and

"I give in to my child when he/she causes a commotion about something."

Other research suggests that permissive parenting during middle childhood puts kids at greater risk for social aggression (Ehrenreich et al 2014). It makes sense. How do you develop self-restraint if nobody ever asks you to practice it?

But it seems likely that parents can also go too far in the other direction. In the preschool study, kids with parents who took an "obey me without question" approach weren't as badly behaved as were children with permissive parents. But they were still lacking in self-regulation skills. And other research suggests that corporal punishment--when used as a routine method of control--may interfere with the development of self-regulation.

For more information, see my articles about authoritarian parenting and spanking.

References: Teaching self-control

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