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A framework for strengthening self-control in kids

A framework for strengthening self-control in kids


A framework for strengthening self-control in kids

The importance of delayed gratification and self-control in children has consistently been shown as a predictor of future success. But the task of teaching these concepts is often unclear. You can teach your child to wait for the 2nd marshmallow, but is that actually strengthening their self-control?

What is self-control?

Self-control is an umbrella term that includes delayed gratification, impulse control, executive function, willpower, and self-awareness. As we’ve seen in the marshmallow experiment, kids who can delay gratification showed greater achievement and success as adults. In fact, another study of 1037 children conducted by Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development showed that self-control was just as important as socioeconomic status and intelligence in predicting future wealth, health, and acts of crime.

The source of self-control

Before getting into tactical ways to improve self-control, it’s important to understand how self-control works. As mentioned, the sub-disciplines of self-control include concepts like delayed gratification, impulse control, and executive function. These capacities are all powered by our prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain that doesn’t fully develop until we’re around 25. Furthermore, some children’s prefrontal cortex develops quicker than others, making the acquisition of self-control easier for some. But, research has shown that, like a muscle, the prefrontal cortex can be exercised, strengthening self-control.

A framework for strengthening self-control in kids

We’re going to look at one general framework for improving self-control that can be applied to a variety of situations.

Donald Meichenbaum, one of the founders of cognitive behavior therapy, researched the subject of teaching self-control to children. In his research, he developed a training curriculum that’s still widely utilized today. Below, we provide a general framework using some key themes from his work.

Setting Criteria

First, it is important for your child to understand the expectations for whatever they are doing. This is a great opportunity to collaborate with your child to make them feel heard. If it’s chores, make sure they fully understand what success means. Additionally, it’s important to discuss with children what the consequences of not meeting your specified criteria may be. An example of a consequence could be increased screen-time if successful, or a lack thereof if not. Then, agree on these criteria with your child. It’s important to write the criteria down, so when your child self-evaluates, they can check against it.

Self-Evaluation

Multiple studies have shown that self-evaluation leads to an increase in positive behavior. Furthermore, also improves your child’s ability to self-reflect, a core executive function task that is important throughout the lifespan. So, after your child has completed something, like chores, allow them to evaluate how they did against the agreed upon criteria. You should review their self-evaluation with them, and have them talk through it.

Reinforcement

Finally, it’s important to reinforce good behavior. There are multiple ways to do this, including self-reinforcement, or external reinforcement (i.e. by you). Studies have shown both types of reinforcement can be equally effective. The consequences previously agreed upon by you and your child should be the reinforcement mechanism. For example, if they get extra screen-time for completing their chores, that reinforces the behavior.

Conclusion

Self-control is a complex skill that is an umbrella term for many other sub-disciplines, all of which play an important role in becoming a happy and successful adult. The above framework is a great starting point for improving executive function, impulse control, and self-awareness–all core components of self-control. As a final note, modeling behavior is always a super important part of teaching children. This means you should utilize the above framework in your own life when applicable!

It is important for your child to understand the expectations for whatever they are doing. This is a great opportunity to collaborate with your child to make them feel heard. If it’s chores, make sure they fully understand what success means.
Isaac Eaves

Co-Founder @ Joon, Product