As you move through the ups and downs of life with toddlers and young children, you confront issues of self-control on a daily basis. The “socialization” of your child began with your first efforts to get your newborn’s sleep patterns to match your own. And now, consciously or unconsciously, you teach daily lessons about time management (“We have to leave for school NOW”), inhibition (“Wait until your sister is finished playing with that”), organization (“Your trucks go on the top shelf”), inhibition and emotional self-control (“Take a deep breath and tell me what happened”), and flexibility (“We’re not going straight home from school today”) All of these lessons are critical preparation for good “executive functioning,” currently a major area of focus for educators striving to help bright and capable students who struggle to get their homework done, turn in assignments on time, work successfully in a group, keep track of their belongings, and make and stick to good decisions.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/2693) confirmed that difficulty with self-control in preschool can persist into adulthood and have negative consequences for success and feelings of self-worth. But early interventions work. We all have individual strengths and challenges with respect to self-control, the ability to self-monitor, plan and organize, but it’s important to note that teaching and reinforcing these skills in preschool can make a difference in adulthood. The same self-control that allows a preschooler to accept putting a lollipop away until after lunch, allows an adult to curtail spending when finances are tight. The same organizational skills that help a young child put his clothes away in the right drawer, help an adult plan a trip or a business meeting. And the same emotional control that supports a child in the face of disappointment, allows an adult to curb his or her own reactions to disappointment, anger, and frustration. Along with intelligence and family background, studies show that self-control has the greatest impact on adult success – in a career, in relationships, and in self-satisfaction.
Teachers use a myriad of techniques to teach children the responsibility, ability to transition, organizational skills, and self-monitoring that encourage good executive functioning. They plan the classroom to facilitate clean-up and the logical organization of materials, use consistent signals and one- and two-minute warnings to let children know it will soon be time to shift gears, and support children in learning to hang up their own coats and keep their cubbies in order. With the same encouragement and support at home, children learn to control their impulses, consider the needs of others, and make an important start on developing the self-discipline that will support them as they make decisions that are more consequential than whether or not to knock over a sibling’s block tower.
As your children get older, your struggles with bad behavior in the grocery store will naturally diminish, but conscious and conscientious efforts to support the development of self-control and responsibility will also give your children a better chance of a safe and successful journey through school and into adulthood. As you focus your parenting on teaching new skills, keep in mind that learning the ABC’s is rivaled by learning to control impulses and emotions, plan, and function successfully in a community.
Elizabeth Brady Andrews
Head of Preschool