Easy ways to help preschoolers develop self-control, and why it matters
Preschoolers with good self-control have a better chance of growing up to become healthy, wealthy and crime-free. Here are 8 simple ways teachers can improve children’s self-control – and make classrooms more harmonious.
You may have heard of the well known marshmallow test – the Stanford University experiment that discovered young children who could show restraint in the face of temptation tended to do better in school and, later, in life.
Now a pioneering long-term study has confirmed that self-control is a key to future success.
The study, which has followed the lives of every child born in the New Zealand city of Dunedin in 1972-73, found that children with more self-discipline are more likely to be healthier and wealthier as adults, and less likely to be involved in crime.
“Our 40-year study of 1,000 children revealed that childhood self-control strongly predicts adult success, in people of high or low intelligence, in rich or poor.”
The good news is that even small improvements in self-control can make a big difference to adult outcomes. And the best time to make those improvements? When children are at preschool.
Professor Terrie Moffitt, part of an international team of researchers who analysed the findings of the Dunedin study, says children who had low self-control when tested at the age of three were more likely as adults to have:
- health problems
- financial problems
- trouble managing their money
- a criminal record.
Signs to watch for
Problems for children with poor self-control started to show when they were teens. Many started smoking early, had an unplanned baby and left school with no qualifications.
However, Professor Moffitt says children whose self-control improved over time tended to have better lives as adults than initially predicted.
“Self-control can change,” she says.
“This is a highly uplifting message. Not only could the most vulnerable children have a better chance at a happy and healthy life, but there is potential for across-the-board benefits in personal, social and economic well-being.”
So what is self-control? Here are some of the signs that the Dunedin researchers say point to a lack of self-control.
9 signs of poor self-control
- Flying off the handle
- Can’t tolerate feeling frustrated
- Short attention span
- Easily distracted
- Poor impulse control
- Acting without thinking
- Difficulty waiting or taking turns
The Dunedin researchers say there are many promising programs to improve young children’s self-control.
Learning music, a martial art or a new language can be helpful, as can programs that involve teachers encouraging children to “plan, do, then review”. But there are even simpler methods.
8 simple activities that increase self-control
- Encourage dress-ups. Cooperative pretend play develops children’s self-awareness, self-discipline and ability to empathize with others.
- Try yoga or meditation. In one study, preschoolers who followed a program of simple yoga and meditation exercises for 10-30 minutes a day over six months were less impulsive and better at waiting.
- Give children independent tasks. Encouraging preschoolers to take on tasks without a teacher’s help shows them how rewarding it can be to persevere with challenges.
- Promote hobbies. Whether it’s collecting baseball cards, making crafts or learning facts about dinosaurs, hobbies encourage children to set goals and develop concentration.
- Play games. Rule-based games like Snap, Jenga, Simon Says and Red Light/Green Light teach children to delay gratification and control their impulses.
- Offer children a choice between a treat now or a better treat later. If children can be helped to imagine the future goal, they are more likely to be able to control their impulses. And each victory over temptation strengthens a child’s self-control skills.
- Praise effort rather than results. Instead of congratulating children on their achievements, say how impressed you are that they kept on trying until they succeeded.
- Model self-control – in yourself and others. Research found that preschoolers who watched a video of Cookie Monster controlling his desire to eat a bowl of chocolate chip cookies were able to wait four minutes longer than children who watched a different Sesame Street video. As Cookie Monster says, “Me want it. But me wait.”
Impact on teachers
Helping preschoolers develop self-control has benefits for teachers as well as children – not least because children who can control their emotions, take turns and think before they act are easier to teach.
One longitudinal study of twins found children with low self-control can sap teacher’s energy for teaching other children, and may even lower their job satisfaction.
However, even self-control can be taken too far.
Walter Mischel, the psychologist who led the marshmallow test, has stressed in interviews that it’s important to strike a balance between being striving for long-term goals and taking the time to enjoy the moment.
You can read more about the ground-breaking Dunedin study here:
Including access the many research articles about early childhood:
A full transcript of Professor Terrie Moffitt’s lecture on this subject is available here: