Managing Behavior: Teaching Self-Control to Young Children

Self-control is difficult for young children, but a skilled caregiver can help teach children how to control their actions and feelings

Self-control is an important part of emotional regulation and can be a challenge for people of all ages – especially those in early childhood. Young children have difficulty controlling their impulses and feelings, and while some of this has to do with their phase of brain development, it also relates to their lack of knowledge about emotions and acceptable behavior.

The ability to control your actions is essential to leading a successful life, making it a crucial skill to develop in childhood. Help the children in your care learn self-control by offering activities and guidance to teach them to develop this ability.

Growth and development

Some areas of the brain mature more slowly than others, such as the prefrontal cortex, which manages executive function. As a result, young children struggle with impulse and emotional control. However, the ability to pay attention, engage the memory and self-regulate actions can be taught and practiced.

It’s also an educational goal worth pursuing. Several studies conducted on the same subjects over a long period – show that children who demonstrate behaviors relating to self-control experience more academic success and are less likely to engage in risky behavior as teenagers. Teaching children how to manage their impulses is a lesson that can have a lifelong impact.

Brain development generally evens out between the ages of three and seven, and children begin to manage their behavior and emotions appropriately. Until then, caregivers can focus on aspects of self-control such as being a good listener, paying attention, interacting positively with peers, and resilience during challenging learning tasks.

Suggestions for teaching self-control

Incorporate the following strategies into your daily activities and curriculum to help young children learn skills that will help them develop self-control.

Follow a routine

Although young children can’t tell time yet, they can follow a schedule. Establish a daily routine by creating a picture chart outlining each step of the day, reviewing it together every morning, and reminding the children about what will come next near the end of each activity.

Understanding that time with their favorite activity center happens every day after lunch may help a child develop the patience necessary to wait calmly.

Make it fun

There are a lot of games and group activities that encourage paying attention, listening carefully, and controlling behavior. Physical activities such as Simon Says; Red Light, Green Light; Follow the Leader, and freeze dancing are all good examples and can be modified to accommodate younger children.

Make an easy version of the game Memory by gluing illustrations or pictures on to flashcards in pairs. Using four to six at a time, show children the cards to let them study their placement before turning them over, and then ask them to pair them up without looking.

Be realistic

Keep in mind that self-control is a challenge at this phase of development. Set children up for success by building in time to burn off energy through fun periods of movement. Alternate quiet learning activities with independent free play and group activities that allow for more volume and speed.

Encouraging and modeling prosocial behaviors is an everyday aspect of caring for young children and is one of the most beneficial ways to teach self-control. Teach the children in your care about feelings, compassion, and empathy by setting clear expectations for social behavior that will help them learn that it feels good to cooperate and contribute in a positive manner. The desire to be and do good can help curb impulsive outbursts and lead to the ability to self-regulate while paving the way to a better future and life. 

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.


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