Guest blog post by Alice Honeycutt

Self-control is an important life skill for kids to learn, ideally at a young age. If they know how to control their impulses, they will study instead of watching TV, save money for retirement, and otherwise “defer gratification”. Research shows that kids with self-discipline do better in school, get along better socially, and are more cooperative. They grow up to be competent, confident and content with their lives. These are not theories or assumptions, but proven insights from Walter Mischel, the psychologist of the famed marshmallow study.

Aren’t those some great reasons to help your young kids develop self-control? Here are 10 easy ways to help develop this useful trait in your child.

1. Reward Self-Control, Consistently.

Young kids respond to cues from their environment. The stable, reliable environment you create for them can help them make smart choices and learn to control their impulses better. When you consistently reward good behavior, you reinforce it. Dr. Gwen Dewar designed a clever new marshmallow test that added a “reliable” adult component into the mix and the results were astonishing!

2. Give Prompt Reminders

If you play board games, you know how it feels when a new game is being introduced. The rules are repeated a few times until everyone understands and engages in fluid play. If adults need to be reminded of the rules a few times, then how much more will it be for young kids? There are many ways to set these reminders in place. For example, you can have a chalkboard with daily chores or a sequence of bedtime routines to follow. An interesting box-test by Jane and Yuko Munakata concluded that young kids who got prompt and consistent reminders made better choices.

3. Play Games to Help Practice Self-control

Games have rules, obviously. But the more games are played, the more rules the young kids have to remember and follow. Playing simple games such as “red light, green light” or “Simon says” can teach self-control in young kids. Through games, kids develop memory, cognitive flexibility, and impulse control. To see how games helped, a series of game sessions was carried out with 5-year-olds. Researchers concluded that kids who played a variety of games showed remarkable improvements in self-regulation tests.

4. Offer Downtime between Tasks

As adults, if you had a long, rough day where you’ve exhausted all your brain cells, chances are, you will exert less self-discipline by the end of the day. The same is true for kids. Have you noticed how young kids show more self-control when they’ve had adequate rest and sleep? If you’ve challenged them with problem-solving, following specific orders or a performing a new activity, give them some downtime to avoid overtaxing their mental and physical capacities. The best way for kids to learn is through short practice sessions, followed by some downtime to explore and experiment.

5. Turn a Chore into a Game

If you think of doing dishes as rinsing muck and cold water, then this chore will be last on your priorities. But as an adult, you figure out the importance of doing dishes and you do them anyway – even if you don’t enjoy it. Young kids don’t work like that; they don’t have the mental capacity to figure all this out. Young kids like to do things they enjoy doing. You can help improve self-control by focusing on the shifting priorities and the motivation of the task.

6. Be Careful with Your Feedback

Kids (and adults) who work hard and practice can achieve great levels of expertise. If they know they can improve and that making mistakes is part of the learning process, then they are more likely to work hard and not give up easily. The way you give feedback – “praise” or “criticize” young kids – can affect their self-control capabilities. Studies showed that praise for intelligence undermines motivation and performance of young kids. Praise, instead, for making the effort and give open feedback that helps young kids try different approaches to their painting, Lego building or anything else they create.

7. Improve Working Memory

According to research, a young kid’s working memory is a great indicator of academic achievement. A working memory is about following specific directions, answering direct questions in class, being attentive and engaged in group activities etc. Young kids don’t learn if they can’t remember most of things they hear or see. You can help young kids develop self-control by improving their working memory with practice. Studies by Tracy Alloway show that simple computer games practiced routinely can have a profound change in working memory of young kids, within six weeks!

8. Talk with Kids about Their Emotions

Young kids have hot emotions. If their reactions to emotions are dismissed (there’s no reason to get angry) or disapproved of (stop crying!), then kids have a hard time to self-regulate. A parent or teacher who acknowledges kid’s acts as meaningful, talks about their feelings and shows empathy, helps kids understand what others are feeling and have a stronger understanding of mental states. Understanding mental state languages helps kids learn and of course, become more sensitive to others. These are the kind of people who develop secure relationships in the future.

9. Monitor Access to Media

Whether it is TV shows, cartoons, movies or advertisements, exposure to inappropriate media can adversely affect self-control in young kids. Exposing kids to positive models teaches them self-discipline. Researchers recommend you to explore media together. Do not allow young kids to access media in isolation, and limit TV time to no more than 1-2 hours a day.

10. Model Self-control

When you regulate your own emotions, you are modeling good behavior to young kids. Young kids are impressionable, remember? So when you focus on problem-solving instead of punishment or getting angry, you can teach kids how to control their own emotions. When you explain calmly that you are angry or admit your own mistakes, children learn from you to do the same. This is because you are reframing the situation to focus on the positive.

We hope these tips are helpful. Do you have any tips of your own? We’d love to hear from you!