The Development of Self-Control in Young Children

Jul 14th, 2011 | Category: Research in Education
By Sudi Kate Gliebe


During the early years children acquire emotional, social, spiritual, and academic skills that equip them to succeed later in life. Paramount to a thriving early childhood experience is the development of self-control. This article explores the development of self-control in young children. It concludes that young children who fail to develop self-control experience emotional, social, spiritual, and academic deficits throughout life. Topics covered include, 1) an overview of self-control, 2) the crucial role of parents, 3) the important role of teachers, 4) the dynamics of peer relations and play, 5) the connection between self-control and language, 6) techniques that promote self-control and 7) a theological reflection.

During the early years children acquire spiritual, emotional, social, and academic skills that equip them to succeed later in life. Fruitful learning in early childhood includes the ability to focus attention, follow rules, respond appropriately to authority figures, and interact peacefully with peers (Spira & Fischel, 2005). These skills are foundational for later achievement in language, literacy, and math (Spira & Fischel, 2005). Paramount to a thriving early childhood experience is the development of self-control. Impulsivity, aggression, and hyperactivity hinder children’s ability to learn self-control at a young age. Children who exhibit these undesirable traits struggle emotionally, socially, and academically throughout life (Spira & Fischel, 2005). Honig (2010) believes that impulse control is a “treasured ability” (p. 135). She believes that children that possess it are “markedly less likely to use drugs and alcohol in their teens” (Honig, 2010, p. 135).

The importance of developing self-control during preschool is illustrated by a classic longitudinal study conducted at Stanford University in the 1960’s by Michael Mischel. The researcher presented two options to hungry four year-old children. They could have one marshmallow right away or get two marshmallows fifteen minutes later when the researcher returned after running an errand. One third of the children opted for one marshmallow. Years later a follow-up study was administered when the same participants graduated from high-school. Mischel found that the children who waited (for the second marshmallow) now possessed the habits of successful people (Beachman, 2009). They were positive, self-motivated, and persistent in their pursuit of goals (Beachman, 2009). These habits point to successful marriages, higher incomes, and better health. The study also showed that the participants who did not wait earned lower SAT scores, were indecisive, less confident, and stubborn; all predictors of unstable marriages, low incomes, and poor health (Beachman, 2009).

A similar and more recent longitudinal study showed that preschoolers who exhibited high levels of delay-of-gratification, later displayed greater cognitive control than teens who had exhibited lower levels of delay-of-gratification during preschool (Eigsti, Zayas, Mischel, Shoda, Ayduk, Dadlani, Davidson, Aber, & Casey, 2006).

Overview of Self-Control

Self-control in the early years is expressed by the ability to trust adults, internalize rules, delay gratification, control angry impulses, find internal ways to be more patient despite frustrations, empathize with others’ feelings, take turns, and find ways to cheer up when feeling sad (Honig & Lansburgh, 1991). Young children are expected to regulate their behavior and emotions. They are expected to “delay, defer, and accept substitutions without becoming aggressive or disorganized by frustration, and [to] cope with arousal, whether due to environmental challenge or fatigue” (Bronson, 2000 p. 71).

The many constructs that self-control encompasses make it a multifaceted concept. Self-control is therefore synonymous with terms such as self-regulation, emotional regulation, affect regulation, delay-of-gratification, and self-discipline. Throughout the remainder of this article these terms will be used interchangeably. The following two scenarios illustrate the emergence of self-control in young children:

Four-year-old Tommy felt mad that Jonah was hogging the big building blocks. He stood nearby disgruntled. Just a week ago, his teachers had carried out a group discussion about hitting and hurting. No one was supposed to hit…but Tommy got so frustrated. Impulsively, he clenched his fist and raised his arm above his head. Ms. Ida glanced over and looked straight at him with a reminding look. ‘I wasn’t going to hit him. I was only just raising my arm, Ms. Ida,’ Tommy protested. She smiled encouragingly and helped Tommy find another activity (Honig, 1991, p. 22).

Three-year-old Deanna was in a crowded shopping mall with her parents. The shopping trip was growing very long and tiring for the little girl. Papa said, ‘Deanna, we did not realize that we would need to buy so many extra things, and that our shopping trip would take this long. We’re sorry. Thank you for being so patient.’ Deanna sighed and said, ‘Well I guess it was necessary’ (Honig, 1991, p. 21-22).

A study conducted at the University of Virginia showed that preschool children have the ability to work longer on a task such as a puzzle or a coloring book when focused on a reward. The presence of the reward such as a cookie or a sticker creates enough frustration and arousal to energize and facilitate goal-oriented work. It was also observed that children required to wait for the reward, instead of working while waiting for the reward, found the presence of the reward debilitating. That is because these children could not do anything while waiting (Patterson & Carter, 1979).

Other researchers have observed that self-control increases with age. A group of three-year-old and four-year-old preschoolers were offered one sticker right away or more later. Depending on how long the children were willing to wait they would receive two, three, four or five stickers. “Three-year-olds reliably chose the immediate reward, whereas 4-year-olds chose in a manner that suggested they were trying to satisfy both immediate and future desires” (Lemmon & Moore, 2007, p. 502).

Neuroscientist Russell A. Barkley has done extensive research on self-control. He explains “that self-regulatory behaviors can be thought of as functioning to achieve a change in the long-term best interests of the person—a net maximization of both the short and long-term outcomes for behavior” (Barkley, 2007, p. 52). Lemmon (2007) expresses it this way, “Anyone who is concerned about the future self and who has a choice between enjoying rewards now or saving them for later should opt to save at least some rewards. Put simply, one would not want to deprive the future self of all of the fun” (p. 506).

Self-control develops when children begin to differentiate between short-term and long-term outcomes. When they realize that a long-term outcome is greater, they choose to delay gratification in their best interest. Researchers have found that the ability to choose delayed rewards increases with age and levels off in the early 30’s. The capacity to choose a future reward is a function of the prefrontal lobes of the brain. Such capacity demands “a special kind of memory in which information about the past and the future can be held in mind, while carrying out the responses needed to accomplish the goal” (Barkley, 2007, p. 52).

The study previously mentioned where the four-year-olds chose to wait to get more stickers illustrates this principle. These children were able to connect the present and the future in their mind. The conflict presented to them between getting one sticker right away versus two, three, four, or five stickers later forced them to think about the future and to make decisions based on the imagined future desire. “Truly prudential decisions are those that involve competing interests across time such that the interests of the future self are incompatible with the interests of the current self” (Lemmon & Moore, 2007, p. 503). This new and complex understanding of time is called “episodic future thinking” (Lemmon & Moore, 2007, p. 502). In all events that initiate self-control “the net gain anticipated from both the immediate and delayed consequences of a response must be appreciated” (Barkley, 2007, p. 52).

The Role of Parents

Affirming relationships are essential ingredients in the healthy development of children. More specifically a strong attachment between children and their parents increases a child’s ability to control impulses and develop self-control (Honig, 1991, Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson & Collins, 2009). Young children need plenty of practice and patience from parents as they work on bringing themselves under control (Bronson, 2000). Honig (1991) believes that authoritative parents are “for” their children. They teach self-regulation with warmth and consistency. They expect their children to show control in a variety of situations. They are firm yet nurturing and they do not accept defiant behavior. Their discipline style is effective because they explain to their children the reasons why they discipline as they do. Authoritative parents strive to model self-control and do not resort to punitive or controlling parenting methods (Honig, 1991).

Young children need clear and consistent rules from parents and teachers to learn self-regulation. A group of researchers set out to determine if there was any difference between the expectations of parents and teachers on preschoolers’ behavior. The hypothesis of the study was that social competence is a better predictor of academic success in first grade than are cognitive skills. If children exhibit problematic social behaviors in preschool they are more likely to struggle academically in subsequent years (Lane, Stanton-Chapman, Jamison & Phillips, 2007). It was also established that to teach preschoolers social skills effectively, parents and teachers would need to communicate their expectations clearly. Researchers asked themselves, do parents and teachers have the same expectations when it comes to the social behavior of preschoolers?

Researchers found that “there was a significant difference between teacher and parent ratings of importance of assertion and self-control skills, with parents rating both domains significantly higher as compared to teacher rating” (Lane et al., 2007, p. 86). Teachers rated self-control lower than parents. The discrepancy between parent and teacher ratings could result in confusion for children who would be required to adhere to a different set of expectations at home and at school. Researchers recommend that parents and teachers work in close collaboration to help preschoolers learn emotional regulation through consistent rules and expectations (Lane et al., 2007).

As previously mentioned self-control develops in the context of close relationships and clear expectations. A study was administered to preschoolers in South Korea where children’s self-control ratings were very high. Researchers believe the high ratings could be explained by cultural differences between western and eastern cultures. For example, Korean parents promote helping and sharing. Speech directed at babies focuses on actions and relations as opposed to a Western emphasis on objects. “Almost 90% of children younger than 7 years of age sleep with their parents, who explain this practice as emphasizing familial bonds and interpersonal relationships” (Oh & Lewis, 2008, p. 96). Researchers also observed teacher-child interactions in the classroom. When the children became very vocal the teacher would say “Please look at…[and the children would all reply] your teacher” (Oh & Lewis, 2008, p. 86). Every ten minutes the children and teacher would sing the attention management song, “My eyes are for watching, ears are for listening” (Oh & Lewis, 2008, p. 92).

The crucial role parents play in the development of self-control in young children is further illustrated by a study led by Columbia University. Researchers implemented The Peaceful Kids Early Childhood Social-Emotional Conflict Resolution Program (ECSEL) among young children enrolled in Head Start centers. Each classroom was assigned one of three conditions: 1) day care staff, parents and children, 2) day care staff and children (no parents) and 3) control, no training. ECSEL teaches children self-control, emotional independence, cooperation, pro-social skills, and problem-solving skills. Participating parents spent between 15-45 minutes working on assignments at home, they attended workshops, and filled out questionnaires. Researchers found that:

The children in the parent condition decreased significantly in problem behaviors as compared to the staff condition. Children whose parents were involved in training were rated as having higher self-control that those in the staff condition or control group. [Confirming that] the quality of the parent-child relationship determines the extent to which the child develops satisfying peer relationships (Sandy & Boardman,  2000, p. 339, 350-351).

Parents who participated in the ECSEL program reported an improvement in their parenting skills. They learned to decrease permissive behavior and over-reactivity. They also reported adopting a more authoritative parenting style (Sandy & Boardman, 2000).

Fathers and the Development of Self-Control

Aggressive behaviors are observable in children as early as 18 months of age (Flanders, Leo, Paquette, Pihl & Seguin, 2009). Researchers have observed that parent-child physical play is an important component of socialization. In fact both boys and girls enjoy physical play and prefer their father as play-mate. A group of researchers led a study on rough and tumble play (RTP) between fathers and their preschool children. RTP can contribute to the child’s ability to regulate aggression. Their findings show that RTP can be beneficial as long as the father is in control and sets limits during play. RTP where the father is the dominant (firm and assertive) player is associated with lower levels of aggression in children (Flanders et al., 2009). However, when fathers are not able to contain and set limits on play interactions (child takes the upper hand), RTP is associated with behavior problems in children (Flanders et al., 2009). This is because controlled confrontations can teach children how to manage aggression and arousal. This dominance dynamic is encouraged only during RTP (hot play contexts). In cooler play contexts both parent and child can share control (Flanders et al., 2009). Five years later a follow-up study was conducted to rate aggression among the children who were now school-aged. The previous results were confirmed. Children who scored higher on aggression had engaged in RTP with their less dominant (passive) fathers (Flanders, Simard, Paquette, Parent, Vitaro, Pihl & Seguin, 2010).

Mothers and the Development of Self-Control

Children learn self-control by watching caregivers deal with uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, anger, and fear. If parents exhibit self-control (during conflict situations) children learn how to handle and control strong emotions in themselves (Bronson, 2000). A study conducted in 2008 examined the links between attachment, mother-toddler conflict, and child temperament. One of the researchers’ assumptions was that even though conflict is beneficial when it involves discussion about emotions, rules, needs and consequences, it can be harmful when conflict is frequent and emotionally charged (Laible, Panfile & Makariev, 2008). Both high levels of physical activity and high levels of emotional reactivity in the children were found to create more negative conflict (Laible et al., 2008). Children who were less impulsive and less reactive experienced less negative conflict and were more securely attached (Laible et al., 2008). Researchers concluded that mothers can enhance the development of self-control in their young children by creating coherent, orderly, and peaceful environments where children are safe and can learn to self-regulate (Laible et al., 2008).

Mothers’ limit-setting style is a worthy consideration in the development of self-control among young children. The Oregon Health and Science University administered a study to determine if mother’s limit-setting style influenced young children’s social competence, self-concept, and delay-of-gratification. Three limit-setting styles were identified: 1) teaching-based mothers provide firm control and sensitive support, 2) power-based mothers assert control and power with little sensitivity and 3) indirect mothers who do not assert limits clearly. Researchers found that children with indirect mothers scored the lowest, children with power-based mothers scored average and children with teaching-based mothers scored the highest results on self-concept and social competence (Lecuyer & Houck,  2006). Teaching-based mothers are responsive, sensitive, and use fewer commands (Lecuyer & Houck,  2006). These mothers enhanced delay-of-gratification through active engagement. They were good at creating a distraction for the child. They “often got down on the floor and played games, sang songs, or ran together around the room with the child” (Lecuyer & Houck,  2006, p. 363). Power-based mothers also provided distraction but as commands (Lecuyer & Houck,  2006). This dynamic did not produce positive results because power-based mothers did little to facilitate the child’s engagement in the distracting activity. Researchers concluded that the teaching-based limit-setting style is the most effective (Lecuyer & Houck,  2006).

The Role of Teachers

Other than parents, teachers are the most influential adults in the lives of young children. Teachers spend many hours a day with children; their impact is substantial and long-lasting. If a teacher “shouts, acts very irritated, or blows up at naughtiness, then children are being given a message that it is OK to have a short fuse and lose control” (Honig, 1991, p. 25). As it was mentioned earlier, children learn to self-regulate as they watch caregivers handle their own emotions appropriately. The following dialogue powerfully illustrates how a teacher can model and teach self-control:

Four-year-old Vern had hit a child just a few minutes ago. The teacher had quietly and firmly restated classroom rules about hitting. Now he again raised his fist angrily, about to hit another child. The teacher swiftly moved over and kneeled in front of him, looking him directly in the eye. “Vern, what are you going to do with your hands?” she asked. He was silent. “You were about to hit someone,” the teacher said. “That makes me feel angry. We just talked about what hands are for. And hands are not for hitting or hurting someone. Now, you tell me, Vern, what are hands for?” “For hugging…for playing with toys,” Vern answered tentatively. “When I am angry with you, do I hit you?” Vern said, “No, never.” The teacher pursued, “Vern what am I doing with you? Vern replied, “Talking.” “Yes” agreed the teacher. “And what could you do when you are feeling angry?” “I could talk,” suggested Vern. (Honig, 1991, p. 22)

Self-control is not easy to learn. Children need the adults in their lives not only to talk about the importance of self-control, but more importantly to model self-control and to patiently contain children’s strong and uncomfortable emotions. An important aspect of teaching self-control is the power of labeling. Teachers sometimes make the mistake of labeling children that exhibit troubling behaviors. However, labeling children in positive ways might be a much better alternative. A study conducted in the University of North Carolina two decades ago illustrates the power of words. Seventy-five young girls were studied and divided into 3 groups in an experiment involving delay-of-gratification. Group 1 was told by the researcher, “I hear you are very patient.” Group 2 was told, “I hear that you have some very nice friends.” Group 3 was told nothing. Researchers found that the label, “I hear you are very patient,” was very potent and that it facilitated self-control. Children internalized the message and their behavior was altered. Girls in Group 1 scored highest on self-control. Researchers concluded that “positive labeling may be an effective mechanism to increase resistance of deviation” (Toner, Moore & Emmons, 1980, p. 618-621).

Teacher Education and Self-Control

In order for teachers to model self-regulation they must be aware of their own self-regulation skills and practices. A study was administered to thirty-five German kindergarten teachers. They were given a pre-test, self-regulation training (five sessions), and a post-test. Researchers had two goals: first, they wanted teachers to learn self-regulation skills for themselves and second, they wanted teachers to transfer that knowledge and skill to kindergarteners. The training consisted of five sessions that included setting goals, learning methods, and implementing strategies that enhance self-regulation. Teachers were introduced to the effective use of encouragement, modeling, and verbal rewards (praise). Teachers were also asked to keep a journal and develop the habit of self-reflection. Researchers found that teachers who received the training improved their own self-regulation and were effective at teaching self-regulation to kindergarteners (Perels, Merget- Kullmann, Wende, Schmitz & Buchbinder, 2009).

There is a growing emphasis on teaching emotional (self-regulation) and social skills to children in schools. Therefore it is important to inspire early childhood educators to reflect on their own emotional regulation skills. Emotionally healthy teachers can be powerful models for young children. Kremenitzer (2005) illustrates this point by saying, “an analogy can be seen in the need for adult passengers on a commercial airline traveling with small children to be instructed by the airline personnel that before one puts an oxygen mask on a child, one must first place a mask on oneself” (p. 3-4).

In the same way teachers must evaluate their own emotional and social skills including self-regulation before they can transfer those useful skills to young children. Honig (2010) asserts, “Reflectivity is a priceless caregiver disposition. Strong reflectivity is particularly needed when the stress in the classroom is caused by a child’s aggressive behavior” (p. 39). Kremenitzer (2005) developed a user-friendly journaling method for teachers. Journaling exercises are divided into four branches. Branches one to four include questions like:

  1. Am I able to identify when my students are angry, sad, bored etc.?
  2. What can I begin to do to increase my perception of emotions?
  3. Am I good at identifying emotional swings in myself and others?
  4. Can I also identify optimal times for my students to work on certain projects?
  5. Am I good at finding the right words(s) to use to express my feelings?
  6. Am I good at understanding what causes children to feel and behave in a certain way? Am I good when I am “caught off guard” and good at responding to an unexpected event?
  7. Can I model good self-regulation for my students and use this as a “teachable moment” for how they could similarly regulate in the future? (Kremenitzer, 2005, p. 4-5)

A teacher who has used this method asserted, “My secret weapon is now being able to control my emotional response by flipping the switch to neutral and handling a situation in a coherent and professional manner” (Kremenitzer, 2005, p. 5). The ability to appropriately regulate emotion is very important for teachers of young children. Throughout the day, they are exposed to stressful situations such as aggressive behavior among children, health emergencies children might have, emotional outbursts in children who are experiencing abuse, and interactions with disgruntled parents. Therefore “the ability to respond to unanticipated and difficult spontaneous situations is perhaps the most challenging of all” (Kremenitzer, 2005, p. 7). Kremenitzer (2005) concludes that it is essential for early childhood teachers to do regular self-checks so they can remain the wonderful role models that they intend to be for young children (2005).

Another helpful practice for early childhood teachers is known as “reflective supervision” (Bronson, 2000). This supervision is characterized by trust, respect, modeling, and acceptance. This provides care not only for children but also for teachers. The supervisor or counselor observes teacher-child interactions, listens to teachers’ frustrations, and models the implementation of more effective alternatives. For instance, a four-year-old was in the habit of running out of the classroom and yelling, “I can’t do this. I don’t know where my mother is” (Bronson, 2000, p. 214). The teacher would respond by saying, “You know better than to leave the class. You know your mom is at work and will be here at 5:00. Be a big boy and stop running” (Bronson, 2000, p. 214). The supervisor, after having several conversations with the teacher allowing her to vent about this frustrating scenario, modeled a more sensitive approach to dealing with the child’s challenging behavior:

You really miss your mom. It’s hard to stay in class when you are sad, even though you know your mom is coming at 5:00. You miss your mom and you want to run in the hallway. Now is the time for being in class. You can play in the class while you wait for her (Bronson, 2000, p. 214).

Peer-relations, Play, and Self-Control

During the early years children are increasingly interested in spending more time with other children. Establishing positive relationships is an essential piece of their development. The ability to regulate emotions and control behaviors ensures their success at interacting and influencing others. In the past researchers concerned themselves only with the cognitive development of preschoolers. Recently however, researchers have found that preschoolers are very capable of learning pro-social and affective skills (Honig, 1991, Bronson, 2000, Lane, Stanton-Chapman, Jamison, & Phillips, 2007). Researchers have also discovered that poor self-regulation hinders peer relations (Bronson, 2000, Lane et al., 2007). Lecuyer & Houck (2206) have found that self-regulation and social competence work together as protective factors that enable children to establish positive relationships, protecting them against victimization, isolation, and academic failure.

Successful relationships at a young age predict academic success. Children’s success in school is not merely a matter of cognitive competence, but a complex combination of factors such as temperament, peer relations, social, and emotional skills. In fact school satisfaction, involvement, and attendance are all associated with positive peer relationships (Fantuzzo, Sekino & Cohen, 2004). Consequently, negative peer interactions increase avoidance of school and dropout rates (Fantuzzo at al., 2004). Successful peer-relationships encompass a number of skills children must learn. For instance, children must be able to enter a peer play group while assessing other children’s reactions. Children must also employ cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional abilities (Fantuzzo et al., 2004). Problem-solving, reasoning, and perspective-taking are essential elements to cooperation and conflict resolution (Fantuzzo et al., 2004). The above characteristics of successful peer-relationships point to the pressing need to develop self-regulation skills during the early years.

Peer-relations, Impulsivity, and Aggression

Fantuzzo (2004) conducted a study on peer-relations and self-regulation. He identifies three types of play. Play Interaction reflects pro-social play, Play Disruption encompasses aggression and disruptive behaviors, and Play Disconnection reflects withdrawal and avoidance of peers. His study shows that children who exhibit higher levels of play disruption are those with poor self-control. Fantuzzo (2004) defines self-control in terms of “flexibility, situational responsiveness, and modulation of one’s emotional arousal” (p. 326). Children who exhibited play disruption were aggressive, demanding, hostile, inattentive, and prone to start fights. On the other hand, children with highest scores in play interaction demonstrated emotional regulatory skills in the classroom. They were also more likely to take turns and share with others. These positive skills determine school readiness and are assets later in life. Fantuzzo (2004) concluded that the link between pro-social skills and academic success can be easily explained. “When children experience acceptance, support, and pro-social interactions with peers, they develop the motivation to succeed in school” (Fantuzzo et al., 2004, p. 333). Children who frequently engage in peer-conflict and experience rejection are less engaged in academics (Fantuzzo et al., 2004).

The University of Sydney in Australia conducted a study to explore the links between impulsivity and peer relations. Researchers assert that “peer acceptance is the extent to which a particular child is liked by the peer group; while peer rejection is the degree to which a peer groups actively dislikes a particular child” (Gomes & Livesey, 2008, p. 763-764). It has also been found that peer acceptance is associated with sharing, good conversation skills, and pro-social interactions (Gomes & Livesey, 2008). The sixty participants (kindergarten children) were given a stop-signal task. They were also assigned a peer relation rating by their peers and an impulsivity rating by their teachers. Researchers found that high impulsivity (impatience, acting without thinking, and failure to wait one’s turn) results in poor peer relations. Researchers suggest incorporating relaxation techniques and problem-solving skills to early childhood curriculum (Gomes & Livesey, 2008).

A similar study was administered to kindergarten students to observe their entry behavior in play (entry to a peer-play group). Two groups of children were compared, the aggressive/rejected and the nonaggressive/popular. In this study 780 kindergarten children were studied. Wilson (2006) found that aggressive children are demanding and have poor entry skills. Peer problems are exacerbated by hyperactivity, impulsivity, rule breaking, and verbal aggression (Wilson, 2006). Even when aggressive children made adequate attempts to join a play group; if they handled rejection inappropriately their reactions were likely to hinder their acceptance into the group later on (Wilson, 2006). In other words, it was not enough for children to make positive attempts when entering play situations; it was equally important for children to stay calm when they were rejected and to persevere in pro-social ways. This intricate dance between acceptance and rejection demands that children learn to self-regulate. Impulsive children were more likely to become disgruntled in the face of rejection, which led to aggressive behavior and failed entry attempts (Wilson, 2006).

Early childhood teachers can support the development of self-control by teaching children appropriate social skills. Bronson (2000) suggests giving children reasons for social rules using simple cause-effect statements such as: “If you push him, he will fall down and cry” (p.104). These statements can be accompanied by a clarification concerning the victim’s feelings like: “He was not trying to take your toy; he only wanted to play with you” (Bronson, 2000, p. 104). Teachers can model caring actions toward others. They can also use pro-social reasoning emphasizing the effects of behavior on others. Punitive discipline methods and physical punishment that demean children must be replaced by encouraging words (attributing pro-social qualities to children). It is important to note that “negative peer and media models many increase antisocial behaviors” (Bronson, 2000, p. 108).

Play and Self-Control

In recent years there has been an unfortunate reduction of play in early childhood education (Nicolopoulou, Sa, Ilgaz & Brockmeyer, 2010). Play has been replaced by an almost exclusive emphasis on academic instruction. The fact that play approaches to teaching are largely misunderstood led a group of researchers from Lehigh University to conduct a 2-year-long experiment. The premise of their study was based on two important implications of psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s research on play. First, pretend play promotes cognition, language, and social competence (self-regulation and cooperation) (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010). Second, play must be integrated to early childhood curriculum as opposed to simply alternating between cognitive teaching and play time (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010). Vygotsky believed that play encourages children’s abstract thought (imagination) and internalization of rules (imposed by the game) (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010). For play to be effective it cannot be seen as merely a natural childhood play, nor can it turn into an excessively structured endeavor ruled by adults (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010).

Researchers implemented Vivian Paley’s storytelling/story-acting practice. Paley is a pioneer in early childhood education and play. Her storytelling/story-acting play practice consists of the following elements:

All children in the class typically participate in three interrelated roles: (a) Composing and dictating stories, (b) taking part in the group enactment of stories (their own and those of other children), and (c) listening to (and watching the performance of) the stories of other children in class. The children’s story telling is voluntary, self-initiated, and relatively spontaneous. (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010, p. 46)

Researchers relayed the story of Destiny, one of the participants in the study. Destiny came from a low income family. She was an African American four-year-old who suffered from severe anxiety. Her relationships with peers were marked by failure and rejection. She cried a lot and had poor self-regulation skills which led to frequent temper tantrums. Not surprisingly, Destiny’s home life was marred by heart-break and instability (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010). Children like Destiny often display “developmental and speech delays, poor social skills, inability to self-regulate, and inability to learn, [as well as] insecure attachment, poor relationships with adults, depression, and out-of-control behavior” (Schaefer, Kelly-Zion, McCormick & Ohnogi, 2008, p. 205). These are the characteristics of at-risk children.

After only a few months of participating in the storytelling program, researchers witnessed a remarkable transformation in Destiny. Because the nature of storytelling and story-acting is very social, she learned to understand her peers and she became adept at cooperating with them. She learned to wait her turn, as she was always eager to dictate a story. Since she was a good actor, other children gave her roles in their plays often, which was another triumph for Destiny’s peer relations. The consistency, structure, and predictability of the researchers’ method (twice a week at the same time for several months) allowed Destiny to learn to trust adults, including her teacher with whom she had had a tumultuous relationship. Her narrative score went from 12 points to 35 points. More impressively, her self-regulation score went from one to nine points. Researchers concluded that Paley’s storytelling/story-acting practice indeed promotes cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional development in early childhood (Nicolopoulou et al., 2010).

Language and Self-Control

Language provides young children with a medium to express emotional states and needs. “As the child learns speech, he can begin to express in a “cooler” medium, in general, what before could be expressed only in action, image, or affectivity” (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993, p. 77). Young children transition from being their affect to being able to represent affect through language when they become verbal. Language provides a powerful avenue for self-control and self-expression. Language mediates between impulse and behavior (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993). It serves as a technique for controlling action and thought. Internal thought, reflection, and planning are all facilitated by language. These mental processes allow children to consider alternatives before acting (Bronson, 2000). Not surprisingly, children with language delays exhibit more impulsivity and behavioral problems (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993).

Through language young children find a new way to cope with unpleasant emotions. “Furthermore, the child can begin to learn how to monitor his or her internal physiological state and to understand that internal affective states can be regulated [controlled] through language directed to the self” (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993, p. 81). Teachers and parents play a crucial role in helping children to label feelings and needs in appropriate ways (language). Therefore the development of language and self-control are inseparable during the early years (Greenberg & Kusche, 1993).

Language, Peer-relations, and Self-Control

Language is a vital component of interpersonal relationships. A study was conducted to determine if children with speech/language impairment (SLI) scored lower on social competence than non-language impaired children (NLI). Researchers observed that SLI children are often misunderstood during social interactions; and tend to be impulsive and physically intrusive (McCabe & Meller, 2004). While language is an essential component of social interactions, it can also be said that social interaction enhances language development. This means that SLI children’s poor social skills deprive them not only of the social benefits of positive peer-relations but also of the language benefits that social interactions often afford (McCabe & Meller, 2004). Researchers found that parents rated SLI children significantly lower in self-control. This calls for an intentional effort on the part of teachers to help SLI children to improve language and social skills, including self-control (McCabe & Meller, 2004).

A similar study was administered to compare typically developing preschool boys (TL) and Language Impairment preschool boys (LI). Researchers observed that there are two types of strategies that children employ during peer-relations. The first type involves affiliative strategies such as “play invitations, body contact, objects offerings, symbolic offerings, self-ridicule, apologies and ritualistic rhymes” (Horowitz, Westlund & Ljungberg, 2007, p. 239). The second type includes non-affiliative strategies such as “retaliation, redirected aggression, displacement activities, and avoidance” (Horowitz et al., 2007, p. 239). Researchers found that LI boys earned lower scores on emotional regulation. They exhibited non-affiliative strategies more often. LI boys who experienced rejection from peers often attributed hostile intent to others and tended to escalate aggression. They also made fewer attempts at reconciliation. Their language impairment hindered their access to problem-solving alternatives and their ability to regulate emotional intensities. Conversely, TL boys overcame aggression and sought reconciliation to a greater extent than LI boys (Horowitz et al., 2007). Researchers suggest that LI boys need to be taught emotional recognition and regulation as well as strategies to decrease aggression (Horowitz et al., 2007).

Strategies to Foster Self-Control in Young Children

Some of the following strategies focus on parents, some are applicable to the classroom, yet others enhance the development of self-control at home and at school. Both parents and teachers should be aware of all these strategies. By knowing what is beneficial for young children in school parents can be proactive in seeking positive school environments for their children; environments that foster emotional and social development, not just academic learning. By knowing the strategies that pertain to parents, teachers can educate parents and encourage them to parent intelligently and deliberately.

Attachment and Self-Control

Secure attachment during early life is a priceless gift to children. Securely attached young children are less defensive and better able to handle negative emotions without getting stuck in destructive patterns of anger and hopelessness (Honig, 2002, Honig, 2010). They show persistence in the face of obstacles and are more compliant with their mothers (Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson & Collins, 2009). The presence of a stable and loving adult in the life of young children cannot be overestimated. Children who experience a strong attachment (strong emotional bond) during the early years of life outperform children who do not experience secure attachment (Sroufe et al., 2009). Self-control is one of the many developmental tasks deeply affected by a strong attachment or lack thereof (Honig, 2002). Secure attachment provides a safe haven where young children learn self-control. The following story illustrates the link between a close emotional bond and self-regulation:

The solution to this classroom stress was found in the relationship Sandy had developed with Mr. Lars, one of the teachers. Sandy, whose daddy had abandoned the family before his birth, was deeply attached to Mr. Lars. Sandy seemed able to master impulses to hurt others and remain quietly attentive when Mr. Lars worked one-on-one on a puzzle or took him on his lap and read him a story. (Honig, 2010, p. 58)

Praise, Admiration, and Self-Control

As mentioned previously developing self-control is not an easy task. While it comes naturally for parents and teachers to notice when children do not exhibit self-control, being willing to notice when they are being controlled is very important. “Children need to know that their special persons, value their struggles to work toward self-control” (Honig, 1991, p. 26). Words of admiration and praise reinforce positive behavior. They accentuate the behaviors parents and teachers want to see in children. Lecturing children about self-control when they are out of control is not the most effective method because receptivity during stress is low (Glasser & Easley, 1998). However, if self-control is highlighted when children display it, then self-regulation is strengthened. The caregiver could say to a young child, “You look very angry. I appreciate the effort you’re making to control your strong feelings. You’re being successful” (Glasser & Easley, 1998, p. 53). Words of admiration, praise, and encouragement are powerful tools for parents and teachers. “Children who feel successful, think and act successfully” (Glasser & Easley, 1998, p. 52).

Modeling and Self-Control

Children develop self-control when they see their caregivers focusing on problem-solving instead of punishment, retribution, and anger (Bronson, 2000). When parents and teachers use words to express their anger calmly, children learn to do the same. Adults do not always realize that children are very sensitive to their caregivers’ emotional states. In the face of fear or anger caregivers must model controlled behaviors. One way to do this is by reframing other people’s actions during social interactions. If a child is bumped in the park, the mother might say, “She didn’t mean to hurt you; she bumped into you by accident” (Bronson, 2000, p. 206). This reframing ameliorates the anger of both the mother and the child. Additionally, reframing teaches children how to interpret others’ behavior in a positive light.

The Learning Environment and Self-Control

Overcrowded and chaotic environments sabotage the development of self-control (Honig, 1991). Self-regulation develops in a coherent environment, where expectations are clear and rules are explained and enforced (Honig, 1991). Learning areas must include materials and props that children can manipulate and access freely. Classrooms where children cannot touch anything or where materials are hard to reach and choices are limited hinder a sense of agency (Bronson, 2000). Ideal environments provide enough challenge for children to strive toward new levels of self-sufficiency and productivity. Working through difficulties and achieving success bolsters self-control and perseverance (Bronson, 2000). Coherent environments foster motivation which is a key ingredient for learning. This is particularly important to young children whose standard of performance increases (Bronson, 2000).

Parents, Media, and Self-Control

Parents can monitor young children’s media access. They can avoid exposing children to inappropriate television programs, video games, and internet content. “Although this requires vigilance and firm determination, exposing children to primarily positive models during this vulnerable period can lead to long-term benefits” (Bronson, 2000, p. 207). The relationship between television violence and regulatory status was observed in seventy preschoolers. Researchers noted that exposing young children to violent television hinders self-regulation, and that poor self-regulation is the biggest predictor of aggressive behavior in later years. Researchers asserted that frequent exposure to violent programming creates a perpetual state of fear, trauma, and stress. This produces highly reactive children who are not able to manage their own arousal. The fact that most children watch television alone further hampers self-regulation because isolation hinders the development of self-control. It is worth noting that when exposed to the same amount of violent media, it was the boys who showed even more susceptibility to violence (Daly & Perez).

Theological Reflection

Christ-likeness is the ultimate goal of Christian discipleship. “Christ was the epitome of self-control” (MacArthur, 1987, p. 169). He was holy and possessed perfect control. He was never tempted or tricked into doing or saying anything that was not consistent with His Father’s will and His own divine nature (MacArthur, 1987). Self-control was the hallmark of his life and is a virtue every Christian must posses.

Biblical Examples of Lack of Self-Control

Giving way to impulses and lusts leads to sin and death. A lack of self-control carries terrible consequences according to the Bible. The following examples capture the destructive nature of indulgence: Cain’s murderous act against Abel (Gen. 4), Joseph’s brothers’ deceit and betrayal (Gen. 37), the Israelites’ idolatry and revelry with the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), Samson’s disregard for his Nazarite vow (Judg. 13-16), Saul’s jealous persecution against David (1 Sam. 18-19), Jezebel’s diabolic plot against Naboth (1 Kings 21), King Uzziah’s prideful acts in the temple (2 Chr. 26), Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews (Esth. 3), Job’s wife’s discouraging words (Job 2:9), Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogant pride and rage against Daniel (Dan. 3), Judas’ betrayal and greed (Lk 22), the Pharisees’ murder plot to kill Jesus (Jn. 18), and Ananias and Sapphira’s greed and deceit (Acts 5).

All of these examples point to a desire to do what is right in the person’s eyes. Acts of disobedience and lack of self-control are driven by instincts, sensual lusts, appetites, and gratifications that take over reason and logic (Younger, 2002). Assuming that they could get away with their acts of disobedience, in the heat of the moment, these biblical characters were lured by temptation and sinned against God and man (Chafin, 1989). Even David, known as a man after God’s own heart indulged in adulterous and murderous acts that unleashed painful consequences for himself and his descendents (2 Sam. 11).

The Fruit of the Spirit

Galatians 5 teaches that a life led by the Sprit is characterized by certain virtues, one of which is self-control. Out of his infinite goodness, God provided the Holy Spirit not only as a comforter but as a source of power towards living a victorious life and as the most reliable moral guide for holiness and love (McKnight, 1995). Just as Jesus is the ultimate example, the Holy Spirit is the source of power for holy living.

Instructions for Parents

Children are instructed to obey their parents. This commandment to honor and obey parents (Ex. 20:12, Eph. 6:1-3) applies to children of any age. God expects children to obey and honor their parents (with the exception of when parents ask children to do something immoral, unethical or unbiblical) (Barton, 1996). To obey is to give regard to parents’ instructions and to follow their direction. To honor means to show respect and high esteem. God placed parents in authority over their children to guide, protect and safeguard them (Barton, 1996). The commandment to honor parents comes with a reward, the promise of a good and long life.

Christian parents can expect their children to obey them. They must set boundaries and expectations of behavior. Requiring obedience is the first line of defense for the parent. Instilling obedience in young children prompts them to refrain from activities parents do not approve. For instance in the case of anger, parents can teach self-control based on Ephesians 4:26. Parents can teach their children that it is okay to be angry but it is not okay to sin while angry. The best way to teach this principle is by example. When parents control their own anger, children see the Bible in action. Parents who indulge in pride, hatred, outbursts, or self-righteousness during anger are poor role models (Barton, 1996). Children learn through godly role models and through instruction. Parents can talk to their children about what causes anger and what kinds of sins accompany it. Parents can also teach children how to seek peace and restitution before the “sun goes down” (Eph. 4:26).

Parents are given a very specific command after children are instructed to obey and honor their parents. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” God is not pleased when parents provoke their children to anger. This is the opposite of fostering self-control. Here the apostle is not only saying parents must model self-control by training them in godliness, but he is also warning parents not to fan the flame of anger in the child’s heart. Parents exasperate children when they nag, label, criticize, or dominate them (Barton, 1996). Tyrannical, belligerent, insensitive, and harsh discipline methods frustrate children and breed hostility and resentment (Sproul, 1994). Paul’s reminder to parents to “treat their children as human beings and consider their feelings [is] revolutionary” (Barton, 1996, p. 122). Paul knew that God’s discipline though firm is always motivated by love and carried out with mercy (Sproul, 1994).


Christian parents and teachers have the responsibility and delightful opportunity to model self-control to young children. This article explored the development of self-control in young children. It concludes that young children who fail to develop self-control experience emotional, social, spiritual, and academic deficits throughout life. The crucial role of parents has been emphasized along with the important role of teachers. Although instruction is essential to teaching children self-control, sensitive modeling is an even better teacher.


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Author Information

Sudi Kate Gliebe is a doctoral student in Childhood Education and Foundations of Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX where she also completed the Masters in Christian Education. Her work is framed in integrating the spiritual and emotional formation of the child and that a faith-based perspective on education which critically engages empirical research holds no contradiction. Consistent with the Great Commission, Christ-followers in science, education and other fields of study have the privilege of submitting their endeavors to the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Sudi Kate Gliebe may be contacted at

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