The ability to self-regulate is critically important to success in school and in life. The full maturation of brain areas responsible for these abilities takes many years. However, experiences in the first months and early years of life have a dramatic impact on wiring the brain in ways that will lead to the capacity for self-control. Through the guidance and consistency of responsive parents and caregivers a child’s brain eventually gains an increased ability to pause, think, and plan, before reacting.
A recent report from Science Daily, shared the results of a long term study on the self-control of 1,000 children. The researchers looked at behaviors in childhood such as, "low frustration tolerance, lacks persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, over-active, acts before thinking, has difficulty waiting turn, restless, not conscientious."
The study followed these children into adulthood and found: “the kids scoring lowest on those measures scored highest for things like breathing problems, gum disease, sexually transmitted disease, inflammation, overweight, and high cholesterol and blood pressure. The impulsivity and relative inability to think about the long-term of the lower self-control individuals gave them more difficulty with finances, like savings, home ownership and credit card debt. They also were more likely to be single parents, have a criminal conviction record, and be dependent on alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and harder drugs."
The wonderful news is, self-control can be learned! The article quoted the researchers to say, “Self-control is something that can be taught, and doing so could save taxpayers a pile of money on health care, criminal justice and substance abuse problems down the road.”
The current newsletter from Bright Horizons includes a wonderful article on the importance of self control. This article provides valuable ideas and links on how to help develop this essential skill. Bright Horizons has given permission for me to share this information below:
A researcher in the 1960’s by the name of Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University and now at Columbia, studied self-control in young children. Working individually with four-year-olds in a laboratory setting, he put one marshmallow in front of each child. He told the child she could eat that one marshmallow, but if she wanted two marshmallows, she would have to wait longer. Those who chose to wait for two had to wait up until 15 minutes. Only 30% of children were able to exercise the self-control to wait for two marshmallows.
Mischel followed these children over time and found that those who waited for two marshmallows (demonstrated impulse control), had higher SAT scores when they were in high school and were more goal-oriented in academics and other pursuits, got along better with others and were more effective problem solvers. Apparently being able to delay gratification to achieve a greater goal is an important life skill.
It turns out there are ways to teach delayed gratification to children. For example:
· Give children ideas for things to do while they are waiting (hum a favorite song, tell a favorite story, etc.). You can help children learn distractions to keep from focusing only on eating the marshmallow or another activity they are waiting for.
· Use natural waiting times (riding in the car, waiting at the doctor’s office, etc.) to reinforce this life skill. Talk about how long you have to wait. “When the little hand on my watch gets to the 6, it will be time for us to go in.” Or, “I see you are looking at your book. That is a good thing to do while you are waiting.”
· Validate that it is hard to wait. “I know it is hard to wait, but you are doing a good job. I sometimes find it is hard to wait too.” Acknowledging your child’s feelings is a powerful way to strengthen a behavior. At the same time, don’t expect children to wait just for the sake of waiting. There will be plenty of natural opportunities to wait without creating opportunities.
· Help children develop their imagination during waiting times. “While you are waiting, can you think of a time you were really happy?” Or “If you could have any animal in the world for a pet, which would you choose? What do you think it would be like to have that kind of pet?”
If you try this with your child, don’t worry that their fate is sealed if they immediately eat the marshmallow! You can help build this important life skill of self-control.
· To learn more about the marshmallow study, self-control and other life skills children need, read Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs by Ellen Galinsky. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2010. Or read a NY Times review of the book.
· Get some more ideas to do while waiting - I Spy with My Little Eye, Packing Up for a Picnic Word Game, and What If?
· Learn more ideas in the article - Teaching Your Child Self-Control - from KidsHealth.org
Braininsights activity packets provide several activity ideas to have on hand while waiting for appointments, in a checkout lane, at a restaurant, for a ride, etc. http://www.braininsightsonline.com/brainDevelopmentProducts.asp