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Promoting Self-Control in Young Children

Updated: Jan 30

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 our 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.

  • Recognize the child’s great power to influence outcomes! "Since we are cleaning up so quickly, we will get five more minutes of play time!” “Nice work team! We all do so great when we work together!"

Children will start to recognize their power to positively influence outcomes and increase their investment in controlling their impulses to remain connected to the group. Win win win.

Want more on this? Check out this video which contains three concrete scenarios you can easily get children to listen and "buy in" to clean up, mealtime, and learning time!


Yes, times have changed. But, do children really have less self-control today?

Most adults in my “Promoting Self-Control” workshops and live webinars perceive that self-control skills are much reduced in "today's children". Many believe they’re “out of control" and lack impulse-control more than ever. Some blame parents, others fault the media, and others modern caregiving styles. But do children actually have less?

In fact, studies support children have increased self-control today! Higher academic standards and more adult-directed activities, combined with reduced free play, has resulted in self-control fatigue and the stress behaviors that follow.

Have you heard about the renowned marshmallow study conducted by researchers led by Dr. Walter Mischel at Stanford University back in the 60s? Children were given a choice. Eat one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows later. Why did 50% of children fail to control their impulse to eat the gooey treat? What influenced their ability to delay gratification so they could reach their goal of obtaining two marshmallows?

In one major "redo" of the famous marshmallow test, the children actually had more self-control than the children who participated in the '60s and '80s! The study asked the question– “Would today's children be able to wait as long as children in previous decades had for the promised second marshmallow? Could they still resist swallowing the wonderful white goo for the full 15 minutes?” The results? - Today's children were actually able to wait two minutes longer on average for the second marshmallow!

"Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests that today's kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s," said University of Minnesota psychologist Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD, lead researcher on the study. Visit the research article for more.



*Build in sufficient unstructured time for children to explore, play, and rejuvenate.

It is natural to question this outcome when we see more challenging behaviors. However, think about how life has changed for today’s little ones. When I went to preschool, we played! When I got home from preschool, I played! Free time was abundant and helped to recharge. Preschoolers today might wake up early, attend a full day of learning experiences, and then go on to other adult-directed activities. Of course that dance teacher says children are out of control. But, the children in her class could also just be experiencing control fatigue that results in outbursts in all of us. Could they just be “at the end of their rope,” as I was the day of the cup explosion? Luckily, there is an easy answer…

The reality is, too much is too much - for any of us! When we are stressed or overwhelmed, we might not behave well either. After school, childcare, or a lot of adult-directed time, give children time to decompress, run outside, do art or explore other creative activities - WITHOUT an adult directing, interrupting, or taking over!



When children trust their adult caregivers, they exhibit an improved ability to control their impulses and delay gratification. In contrast, if trust has been broken, children are less likely to hold out and maintain control.

Enter in – another marshmallow test – Redo Number TWO! Social scientists have revisited the marshmallow study to gain a deeper-level of understanding why some children are able to wait and others are not. In this study, before the marshmallow challenge, researchers have the children experience one of two interactions with art supplies to build or reduce trust and see how this might impact children’s ability to wait. Children are in one of two different groups... They are given an art project to complete with broken crayons. Or, they can wait for a robust set of art tools. With one group, the researchers followed through and provided the promised supplies. However, in the other, they failed. They told the second group of children (after the children had waited for the special supplies, that they were now out of supplies. The children could still finish the project. But, they needed to use the original broken crayons. The results were astounding! That one encounter had a huge influence on kids' willingness to wait when presented with the marshmallow test. In the group that received the promised supplies, almost 70% of the children successfully waited for the second marshmallow. However, with the “unreliable condition” where trust had been broken, only one of the 14 children in this held out for the full 15-minute wait as opposed to more than half of the children who experienced the reliable encounter!

What does this mean for early childhood educators and others who care for young children? Yes…

*Build trust with routines, dependable cues, and consistent rules and limits. When you say it, mean it.

If children are to maintain control, delay gratification, and learn to override their impulses in the moment, they need to know they can depend on us to follow through. So, when you say it, mean it. Sounds easy right? Ah, no, not for me either!

  • When I encourage sharing with, "You can have a turn next", Do I make sure to follow up?

  • After promising, "You can come back to the train set later today." Do they get that opportunity? Or, do I just get too busy?

  • Does the prompt, "We are heading out the playground in five" end up being five... or ten minutes?

  • If you say no... do you mean it and stick to the limit? Or, do you bend to pressure during intense moments?

When adults consistently provide reliable routines and follow through with commitments, it helps children build self-regulation skills and resist their strong impulses that disrupt early childhood environments.



"Co-regulate” and introduce calm to help children react appropriately and recover during taxing situations.

Children learn self-control from the examples they see around them. Human brains have a "Mirror Neuron System" that is activated both when doing something and when merely seeing an action being done! Our minds copy the response as if the action that is seen is our own. Scientists have found evidence that this is one reason yawns are contagious!

As you see in these pictures, the infant is mirroring the facial expressions of the adult. The mirror neuron system is activating and syncing the brains of the adult and infant. Therefore, in order to teach a child what we need them to learn, we need to mirror the reaction/action we want to see in the child.

Imagine… A toddler has just hit another toddler. Visualize the different reactions created in the toddler when the adult

1) Yells sharply at the child who just hit, “NO HITTING! We do NOT hit here! Say you are sorry!”

2) Calmly and empathetically focuses on the child who has been hit, “Oh no. Are you okay? Ouch. Hitting hurts. Do you need a hug?”

The child sees your action and intention, and the child’s brain reacts as if it is also doing that action. When an adult loses control, yells, points, reprimands, this action is creating a pathway in the child’s brain as if they have done it. The child literally mirrors the action in their mind, as if they were actually the one acting. Consider which reaction would “mirror” what you wanted to happen in the child’s body and mind? When we can model empathy during tense interactions between children, we create empathy in the child’s mind and body.

First adults need to infuse calm into a situation, then the children will follow along.



Use specific reactions, activities and games, to promote the critical skills children need.

Adults can help children bolster self-control skills through specific games and activities that reinforce the behaviors we want to see. We can help develop the brain pathways needed to learn to self-regulate, calm independently, and avoid aggressive behaviors with fun games, no need for drills or flash cards!


Remember, what adults do matters but not one child (or adult) will be perfect. It takes time to develop the skills needed to regulate our emotions. Each of us works to give children what they need to grow and learn, we teach, direct, assist, enroll, and provide input, over and over and over. But, we all need time to find a calm space, hear our inner voice, and explore our wonderful world. Give it, and you will find a more balanced, less anxious, and more "in control" child.

Thank you for reading this blog! We truly are more together!

Raelene Ostberg

Early Childhood Specialist and Lifelong Learner

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, take our Self Paced course on your own time with On Demand.


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