Promoting Self-Control in Young Children

Updated: Nov 1

A common question from those caring for young children is:

What can I do to STOP this child from biting, hitting, yelling, fidgeting, poking, throwing, talking back, running away, or refusing to follow my directions!?

The reality is, for children to avoid these instinctual reactions and behave well, they will need help (and a lot of patience) from adults.

What you do matters! Adults can bolster a child’s ability to self-regulate over time, through specific daily interactions and fun games or activities. With adult assistance, children can learn to resist their unhelpful and instinctual reactions and replace them with more acceptable behaviors. When adults incorporate planned responses to promote the skills children need, they teach the child to manage their impulses, avoid troublesome behaviors, and help them learn to use more appropriate responses to tense situations in the future. These critical self-regulation skills will set the child up to thrive in school and in life.

What the child experiences matters!

Over time, the children you care for will learn to replace challenging behaviors with other more suitable actions – the heart of having self-control. Just like lifting weights at a gym, the more a muscle is pushed to activate, the stronger it grows. If a toddler interrupts and, every time, the adult immediately attends to the toddler, that child will have more difficulty learning to wait. However, if the child has many experiences where they need to wait, starting with a few seconds and working up to longer as the child is capable, they will build the skill! By five year old, the child will have developed their “waiting muscle” and their ability to wait, without even needing to put as much energy into resisting the urge to interrupt.

In this SUPER blog, you will find:

The research is clear - negative behaviors will decrease when children learn the skills needed to control their impulses. Adult caregivers have a significant impact on the child’s behavior, today and tomorrow!


To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities with Raelene, visit

To learn more and gain more tips and tools, join us for the Live Webinar on November 12th or take it as a Self Paced course on your own time with On Demand.


What is self-control, really?

When many adults assert that young children need to control themselves, they often mean they need to follow adult direction. In reality, self-control is not about obedience and doing what someone else tells you to do, without question. Roy Baumeister, a Social Psychologist specializing in will power and self-control, defined self-control as

"Any effort by a human being to alter its own responses. Self-control prevents your normal or natural response from occurring and substitutes another response or lack of response in place. It includes the ability to stop, change, substitute, and start behaviors" - "Losing Control” by Roy Baumeister

We are all more likely to cognitively control our behavior when we buy into the reason behind the rule or request. Imagine I set aim to “get fit” by regularly visiting my local gym. Then, on a sunshiny day, my friend texts about an impromptu happy hour. Which do I choose? What ensures I stick to my goal and resist my first impulse? Am I able to override my first gut response to ditch the workout for a tasty beverage?


Journey back with me twenty years. I am working at Early Childhood Family Education as a Family Educator and parenting two children – a two-year-old and a six-year-old.

I spent years working with families and studying child development, investigating effective adult-child interactions, delving into child psychology, and amassing other critical information. Most days, I effectively steered young children away from unhelpful behaviors and increasing cooperation. I was teaching over 100 parents per week in my early childhood parent groups and successfully navigating challenging behaviors working in toddler and preschool classrooms. I literally had a toolbox full of successful tools to use in a variety of challenging situations.

On a tension-filled Fall day, as I rushed to get out of the house, I offered my toddler a simple choice.

""Do you want the red cup or the green cup?" She chose the red cup.

Minutes later, as we sped blocks away to get to an appointment, she insisted, "I want the green cup!" After trying numerous proven strategies, she continued to escalate. "GREEN CUP! I WANT IT!" As my frustration boiled over, I exploded - "IT'S A CUP! IT’S A CUP! WHO CARES WHAT COLOR IT IS?! You just DRINK OUT OF IT!" As I propelled anything within reach throughout my vehicle (Not my proudest parenting moment, for sure.)

Why did this happen to me? Where was the self-control I could mustered day in and day out in the classroom? Why would someone who has years of experience, a collection of effective methods, an M.Ed. in Family Education, and years of training on how to maintain control still lose it?!

The reality is, achieving consistent impulse-control is difficult for all humans. Our ability fluctuates depending on what is happening around and within us.

You may have also discovered that maintaining self-control is a journey. And, for humans, it’s a never-ending one. Loss of control can occur for any of us when stress hormones are pumping through our bodies. Regretful behavior easily ensues when we feel powerless, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, or have had early childhood experiences that have laid an explosive neural pathway in our brain from prolonged stress or trauma.

The good news? We can improve our own self-control at any age as well as promote the same critical skills in young children.


Young children lack the “Executive Functioning” skills needed to control their impulses.

Humans’ ability to alter their responses depends on their “Executive Functions.” In the book “Mind in the Making”, Ellen Galinsky outlines the group of abilities collected under the umbrella term “Executive Functions” (EF). EF help us manage our attention, our emotions, and our behavior to reach a goal. Executive Functioning Skills include:

Before the infamous cup day, I had set a goal. I had learned that harsh adult yelling is similar to striking a child, especially sensitive children. I did not want to yell. Yet, there I was losing it. What would have helped me control my impulse to scream and throw things when pushed to my limit? Participants in our live “Promoting Self-Control” sessions report they are better able to inhibit their instinct to yell by walking away, taking a few deep breaths, reminding themselves of the end goal, and telling others of their goal so they are more accountable. Over time, I learned to use my experience and knowledge to recognize when I am reaching my limit and take a break before getting so stressed. I could identify the moment I want to lose it and insert another behavior in its place (stop the car, deep breath, turn on some music, etc.) This “over-riding” illustrates EF in action, my adult brain’s ability to manage the emotions, thoughts, impulses, and other signals and decide what the best response is. Unfortunately, these skills often take a hiatus when we have stress hormones coursing through our veins. And… These are complex skills that are not fully developed until the mid-twenties! If EF skills prove difficult for adults with clear goals, how can we hope to bolster them in young children? When children exhibit negative behaviors that disrupt our early childhood settings, it is important to realize the lack these skills involved and take the time to teach those skills. With hitting, for example, it will take 3 ½ - 4 years to even start to control the basic instinct to hit when furious. (Let’s face it, many adults do not have these skills!). In order to resist the urge to hit, the child will need to learn to identify what they are feeling and what options they have (working memory) that would be appropriate in the given situation (mental flexibility). And, even if they can remember the rules and options, they will need to impulse control to override that first gut response. Children, especially those with intense temperaments, will need help from adults to develop the needed skills.

To learn by video, check out this nugget on promoting impulse control or read on..


Improving Impulse-Control in Young Children

According to Adele Diamond from the University of British Columbia, a specialist in developmental cognitive neuroscience, inhibitory control is defined as “the ability to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.” Studies support that our ability to modify our behavior increases when we buy into the reason behind the rule or request. Strict discipline does not result in better behavior overall because it negatively impacts the relationship and trust with caregivers. At its core, self-control is about being able to manage a very strong unhelpful impulse in order to reach one’s goals. It is, after all, self-control.

*We need to teach children why something is important in order to gain buy-in.

Do you stop at a stop sign? I mean, 100% stop every time? Most participants in my sessions report that no, they do not. Why? It is the law?! You can get a ticket if you don’t!

The truth is, we all decide which rules are important to follow. When I was pulled over for rolling a stop, the officer explained his reasons for stopping me. “Ma’am, I know that stop sign seems unimportant… it is on a country road where trains rarely go. However, it is actually a very dangerous intersection. Trains do still run through here occasionally and, because of the way the crops have grown up beside the tracks, you might not see it coming! I pulled you over to tell you this so I can keep you safe.” Well, what are the odds I stop every single time now? 100%.

Children are no different. They behave in ways that align with their own goals and beliefs. If we can tap into their motivation, children will choose to behave better. Why don't we hit our friends? Because we want others to play with us! We want to take care of others so they will take care of us. It feels good to be kind to others. We want to be good friends so the world is a wonderful place to live and we all thrive together. If a child buys into this, they will work harder to avoid hitting and develop the important motivation to resist the instinct to hit (even when your back is turned).

Great news! Getting “buy-in” is relatively easy with many typical misbehaviors and, there are a couple easy solutions that helps turn around resistance and gain cooperation. For example, if a 4-year-old child needs to help clean up because "you said so", they will naturally resist (power and control is one basic need at this stage of development). Instead…

  • Make it fun! Play a "race the clock" game and - BAM! - Children are jumping up to engage in picking up toys.

  • Capitalize on a child’s inherent need for attention! Children have a major need for attention and a sense of belonging. A simple enthusiastic statement such as "WOW! Look at what a great team we are! We are working together!" can intensely reinforce the positive behavior.