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Help Your Preschooler Learn Self-Control

(Because Having Self-Control Is More Important Than You Think)

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Teach your young child to think before he acts. He’ll be glad you did.
Help Your Preschooler Learn Self-Control

You probably figure your child needs to “have it all” to live his best life. You know—athletic prowess, standout good looks, and exceptional academic talent. And why wouldn’t you? Spend time on social media and you’ll see that’s the message we get.

Not so fast, say a growing number of experts.

While there’s no single childhood trait that guarantees a happy, healthy adulthood, scientists increasingly believe that kids who possess self-control may have a leg up on the competition. Kids who can resist impulses and understand consequences tend to become good listeners, and better at focusing their attention, prioritizing, and completing important tasks.

In a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, University of Pennsylvania psych professor Angela Duckworth and colleagues followed 304 eighth-grade students. They assessed their subjects’ self-control through self-reports, questionnaires completed by parents and teachers, and a set of behavioral delay-of-gratification tasks. Kids who demonstrated greater self-control racked up better grades and higher scores on standardized tests. The U Penn research showed, too, that greater self-control was linked to other desirable behaviors, including fewer absences, more time spent studying, and less time spent watching TV.

Another important study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, produced similar findings. Investigators from New Zealand who followed a group of over 1,000 people for 32 years (yes!) found that those who showed good self-control as young children were the most successful as adults. That was true whether the researchers defined “success” in adulthood as having good physical, emotional, or financial health; whether or not the kids showed advanced intelligence in their early years; and whether or not they had certain socioeconomic advantages.

Why Self-Control Matters

When kids have self-control, it puts them in a position to do well in school. If they can regulate their bodies and brains in the classroom, they can remember what they’re hearing, get along with teachers and classmates, and other adults and children too. They can build the confidence they need to learn and try new things, solve problems, and think creatively.

In the preschool years, self-control might look like:

  • A growing ability to follow directions
  • An increasing attention span
  • A decreasing number of tantrums or meltdowns
  • A willingness to keep working on a difficult task
What You Can Do

If that list doesn’t describe your child, don’t despair! Remember, her self-control skills are still developing and will be for a while. And unlike innate intelligence, these skills can be taught and strengthened, like with these 7 phrases that help kids think before they act. Playing games helps, too, because they so often require taking turns and following rules.

The New Zealand-based researchers who found the link from self-control to success described the environment it needs to flourish: warm, sensitive, and stimulating. So look for a preschool classroom that offers these qualities. At home:

  • Warm is easy because you already adore your kid! Keep that unconditional love coming. It helps create trust and a sense of safety.
  • Sensitive means you know your child well and respond to his needs. Along with that trust and warmth, this helps your child feel comfortable exploring new things and taking risks.
  • Stimulating your little one’s brain doesn’t mean grilling her on the ABCs and 123s. It means filling her up with words and letters through books, conversation, and songs, and incorporating numbers into your daily routine. It means helping her find out more about topics that interest her and exposing her to new concepts that might spark that interest.

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