Helping young children develop self-control

Helping young children develop self-control

Recently, the most asked question that has come my way is “what do you do with a child who won’t behave in the classroom?” Well, to tell you the truth, this question isn’t always that simple to answer because it can depend on so many factors including the age of the child, the needs of the child, the classroom environment, the classroom schedule,  the teaching approach in the classroom and more.  But there is one strategy that should be in every teaching approach and that is the process of helping young children develop self-control.

Bam Radio Discussion

I recently participated in the Bam Radio Discussion titled “Five Ways to Get Young Children to Sit Down and Shut Up, Well Sort of” along with Rae Pica, Ellen Galinsky, and Sandra Aamodt.  In this radio show, the experts give some important insight on how to help young children develop self-control…

Yes, self-control can be taught

First of all, it is important to note that self-control can be taught in the early childhood classroom. The key is understanding what kinds of activities help promote the development of self-control and what doesn’t necessarily promote self-control.

Why teach self-control

At the beginning of this conversation, Ellen Galinski shares this research finding…

“There’s a study by Meghan McClellan that uses self-control as a very important predictor of school readiness and school success and showing that during the four year old or five year old years, if children make improvement in their self-control, then they also improve in the kinds of measures of math and literacy that they’re being assessed on.”

The value of self-control

As a teacher, it can be easy to think that the only reason for promoting self-control is so that the children in your classroom will behave. But this can be a poor reason to use as the only reason for teaching young children self-control.  Why you ask? If a child doesn’t exhibit progress in good behavior, teachers can easily give up and decide that the better approach (or easier approach) is to be strict or to take away privileges or to somehow focus on punishment rather than on growth and development.

For this reason, it is important to truly understand that the child who develops self-control will ultimately be more successful in school and home all throughout his life.  So my point here is to make sure you understand that self-control isn’t about making kids behave, it is about giving children the tools they need to guide their own behavior and as they accomplish this goal, they will be building the tools they need to be positive participants in the classroom experience.

What doesn’t promote self-control?

First of all, let’s take a look at what doesn’t promote the development of self-control.  Our experts highlight one main point on what doesn’t work…

  • Strict discipline: Strict discipline may be needed for certain occasions but strict discipline does not teach self-control. Strict discipline is about doing something because someone else told you to. Strict discipline may keep kids quiet and doing what you insist they should do but it doesn’t teach them to regulate their own behavior and to do something because they want to do it.

What does promote self-control?

The experts in this Bam Radio Show share several different strategies for helping young children develop self-control. The exciting thing about each of these strategies is that they are very doable and more than likely, already in place in your classroom.  The key is, recognizing that each of these strategies should be in action in your classroom and do indeed promote self-control…

  • Playing Games Games like ‘Red Light – Green Light’ and ‘Simon Says’ are simple and fun activities that come with rules of play. In order to play the games, children must learn the rules and then seek to follow the rules.  As children play active and fun games such as these, they are developing a sense of fairness, right, wrong, and processing how to successfully follow the rules so they can successfully play the game.
  • Complex Dramatic Play: In the process of dramatic play – children plan their activities, negotiate with other children, and make up rules for play.  Dramatic play encourages children to work together, communicate with each other, and follow those “unwritten rules” of social conduct that they need in the process of developing self-control.
  • Building on children’s interests:  In order for young children to develop self-control, there needs to be a “want-to” aspect in the process. Building on children’s interests makes them want to participate and want to succeed so take time to find out what the children enjoy and bring those elements into your classroom.

One final thought

One thought that really stood out to me in this conversation was this statement…


There is more

These are just a few highlights from this enlightening discussion on teaching children self-control. Click on over to Bam Radio  to learn more about what you can do to help children develop self-control.

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  • Lisa Claxton Posted May 21, 2012 7:22 am

    Can you share more about the red light green light game please?
    Thanks, Lisa

  • Margaret@growingplay Posted May 21, 2012 9:24 am

    If you need more ideas for developing self control I have a wonderful article on my website provided by Megan McClelland, Ph.D. who you mention above. She provided us with the activities/games they used for the study. There are directions for 6 activities when you scroll down – you can view it at

    I have been meaning to do a blog post with several other ideas for developing self regulation – maybe I will finally get to it this week!

  • Allison Posted May 21, 2012 5:17 pm

    I couldn’t agree more Deborah! As always, well written. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • School Sparks Renee Posted May 21, 2012 7:12 pm

    This is a wonderful blog, Deborah! You make an important concept so easy to understand. I hope many, many parents and teachers read this! Renee

  • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. Posted May 21, 2012 9:29 pm

    Thank you Margaret for those extra resources! I would love to read your blog post on this topic so when you get it done, be sure to give me a heads up!!

  • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. Posted May 21, 2012 10:00 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    I have written a post just for you on how to play this game. It will be available to view tomorrow morning at this link:


    I hope this helps!


  • crystal@growingajeweledrose Posted May 21, 2012 10:48 pm

    Self control is definitely an important concept for successful life practice. I personally struggle with self control from time to time. This post was very helpful. Thanks Deborah!

  • Malika Bourne Posted May 22, 2012 3:22 pm

    I hope you don’t mind, I was so impressed by your style that I passed your link on in a blog post. My layout doesn’t allow me to grab links, so I just posted it as a blog. I love passing on great information. Malika the No Non-cents Nanna

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