“I can control my reactions to my environment.”

Self-Control

Self-control, sometimes called self-regulation, refers to the ability to manage one’s emotions and behaviors, inhibit negative responses, and delay gratification in ways considered socially appropriate for any given situation.

For children, this means being aware of their feelings and, when necessary, adjusting their responses and actions, in order to cope with varying circumstances. One aspect of self-control that is particularly important for children’s success in school, especially in the preschool and elementary school years, is impulse control.

Impulse control is the ability to manage one’s desire for immediate gratification, control urges (yelling out in class, for example), and instead find socially acceptable ways to have one’s needs and wants met (raising a hand and waiting to be called on). Children who can exercise impulse control are able to follow simple rules, accept not having a need/want met immediately, and use adult support to cope with not having those needs/wants met immediately. Research demonstrates that children with good impulse control get along better with others and have more social confidence. Conversely, poor self-control is associated with aggression, antisocial behavior and higher rates of juvenile delinquency.

The ability to self-regulate is what enables children to stay on task during academic work and to persevere in the face of frustration. Its importance emerges early in children’s education; kindergarten children with greater self-control show faster gains in math and reading skills, which puts them on track for academic success. Cultural differences can alter what is considered socially acceptable, for example, whether or not children are expected to stay seated in a group setting. Therefore, part of helping children develop impulse control is teaching them about the expectations of different social situations.

The Research on Self-Control

There is strong evidence linking self-control and self-regulation to higher academic achievement and other positive outcomes. In fact, it has been argued that self-regulation is as important for academic success as is intelligence (Blair, 2002).

A number of rigorous studies have examined the relationship between children’s self-control and various outcomes of interest. In a hallmark study of self-control, children were presented with a marshmallow and then given a choice: they could either eat one marshmallow right away, or wait a few minutes and receive a second marshmallow (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Raskoff Zeiss, 1972). The number of seconds that children were able to wait was observed, serving as an indicator of self-control. When these children were tracked years later, their ability to wait for the second marshmallow (i.e., their level of self-control) was related to a wide range of outcomes in adolescence, including higher levels of academic and social competence, greater verbal fluency, being more rational and planful, and being better able to deal with frustration and stress (Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988). A later study showed that they also had higher SAT scores (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). Taken together, these results provide powerful evidence that self-control, as measured by the “marshmallow test,” is highly predictive of good academic, and other, outcomes.

Other studies have confirmed the importance of self-control for elementary-aged children. One used teacher ratings of first graders’ self-control, which assessed children’s ability to plan, evaluate, and self-regulate, and found that higher levels of self-control were related to stronger achievement in language and mathematics (Normandeau & Guay, 1998). Another study measured self-control by asking children to push a button when presented with certain stimuli, but to refrain from pushing a button when presented with other stimuli (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2003). Children who were better able to sustain attention – i.e., pushed the button when they were supposed to – and who were less impulsive – i.e., refrained from pushing the button when they were not supposed to – scored higher on assessments of reading, math, and language abilities, and also were rated by teachers as exhibiting better social competence and fewer behavior problems. A third study, focused particularly on children from low-income families, found that self-control was associated with both improved academic achievement and improved social skills (August et al. 2002; August, Egan, Realmuto, & Hektner, 2003).

Other studies have followed children over time, revealing that higher levels of self-control predict more positive outcomes years later. Higher teacher ratings of self-control in preschool, for example, are related to stronger math and language skills in kindergarten (Blair & Razza, 2007). And, self-control in first grade is related to reading achievement in third grade (Liew, McTigue, Barrois, & Hughes, 2008).
 
Like self-control, self-regulation has been linked closely with stronger academic performance. For example, children rated by parents as having higher levels of emotional regulation scored higher on assessments of math and literacy, even after controlling for IQ (Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007). In middle school, self-regulation (including young people’s self-reported suppression of aggression, impulse control, consideration of others, and responsibility) has been associated with higher levels of academic achievement overall (Wentzel, Weinberger, Ford, & Feldman, 1990). Furthermore, self-regulation has been linked to lower levels of risky sexual behavior, delinquency and aggression, substance use, and depression.

Interestingly, the benefits of good self-control and self-regulation appear to be life-long. Research has found that adults with higher levels of self-control have better grades in college and are more emotionally stable (Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L., 2004). They also have higher self-esteem and better interpersonal skills and relationships (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004).  

For a summary of the research and a detailed bibliography, see Child Trends' working paper on our Reports & Tools page.

Strategies for Improving Self-Control

Research suggests a variety of strategies that can help children develop and exercise impulse control. These include:

  • Goal setting and feedback loops, where the child and adult set goals for impulse control, talk about progress, and provide feedback. Eventually, the child can do this herself.
  • Helping the child implement a simple routine that includes “self-talk”—that is, reminding one’s self of the behavior one wants to display, and other ways to cope when not getting what one needs/wants immediately. For example, a child could remind themselves to “stop, look and listen,” which provides the time needed to think before acting (rather than being guided by an instant emotional response). Children, particularly those in the preschool or early elementary years, will need assistance developing and maintaining these routines.
  • Taking pre-emptive actions to head off potentially difficult situations, such as engaging a child in another activity while waiting to do something.
  • Clarifying expectations. This is important because norms and expectations vary across contexts (for example, what’s acceptable in gym class and math class are likely not the same). Adults should explain expectations for each new setting and help children adjust their self-control strategies accordingly.

Learn more about the other three essential life skills:

Persistence

Mastery Orientation

Academic Self Efficacy

Social Competence