10 Ways to Give Your Kid's Self Control a Boost

by Sanya Pelini March 17, 2017

Blonde baby playing with puzzle pieces while sitting on bed

Starting school is a major transition. It can be an exciting but challenging moment for both children and their parents. A number of researchers have found that how well children navigate this transition may depend on self-regulation. They argue that developing children’s self-regulation skills gives them the tools to create successful social interactions. According to the book Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Applications, self-regulated learners demonstrate a higher sense of self-efficacy. Self-regulation is associated with school readiness, well-being and academic achievement, well beyond the childhood years.
  • According to one study, self-regulated learners are accountable. They believe that success and failure are not determined by external forces but rather, are within their control.
  • A different study found that self-regulated learners take on more challenges and consider that success involves hard work and practice.
  • A third study found that self-regulated learners are happier and more successful in life.
Self-regulation involves teaching your child to follow instructions and persist in the face of enormous challenges. According to a recent study undertaken by well-known self-regulation researchers, self-regulated children are able to listen, pay attention, think, then act. These findings are consistent with professor Adele Diamond’s theory that self-regulation should take into account three components: 1. Self-control, i.e., the ability to do what is appropriate rather than what your child wants to do. 2. Working memory, i.e., “holding information in mind while mentally working on it or updating it.” 3. Cognitive flexibility, i.e., the ability to think outside the box. The good news is that teaching self-regulation requires neither fancy equipment nor external intervention. Many self-regulation strategies can be easily applied at home. Below are 10 tips to help your child listen, focus, follow instructions, keep rules in mind and practice self-control. Many of these tips have been adapted from the studies undertaken by McClelland.

1 | Play Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders

The natural tendency with the Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song is to touch the part of the body mentioned. However, research has shown that asking children to do the opposite of what they are told (for example they touch their toes when they are asked to touch their head) helps develop their concentration.

2 | Play Simon says

Simon says is a perfect game to develop self-regulation because it forces your child to stay focused and follow directions.

3 | Try the day-night task

The day-night task is a tool researchers have used to improve children’s concentration. It involves showing a child a card (or picture) and asking him/her to say the opposite of what is on the card. For example, a child is expected to say “day” when shown a dark card with stars.

4 | Use a Mandala

A mandala is a circular abstract design with evenly distributed patterns that create a feeling of balance and harmony. Mandalas are not only an excellent art therapy to calm kids, they also help them increase their concentration. You can make your own mandalas or download them for free here.

5 | Practice “I feel”

Children with poor self-regulation skills often have a difficult time calming down when upset. Helping your child put feeling into words makes it easier to deal with difficult emotions. There are multiple resources and cards to help you teach your child to differentiate between different emotions. You can also teach young children to speak to stuffed animals to help them learn to express their emotions in an appropriate way.

6 | Try a “pairing chart”

You can use a “pairing chart” to teach your child self-control. This is a chart in which you identify a specific problematic emotion (I feel angry) (you can use pictures of angry people from magazines or get some from the internet) and pair it with an appropriate response to that emotion (I take my anger stone, I ride my bike, I draw). A “pairing chart” is more effective when placed where your child can see it.

7 | Encourage make-believe play

Vygotsky is well-known for his cognitive development theory. One of his central arguments is that intentional make-believe play is an important aspect of learning which helps young children develop cognitive skills. According to Charles Schaefer, the play therapy expert, role playing helps a child learn to think ahead and reflect on appropriate responses to frustrating situations. Children who engage in role playing are thus more thoughtful, flexible and creative when they encounter everyday problems.

8 | Tell stories

Storytelling is an effective way to develop your child’s concentration because it requires him/her to stay focused for a long period of time. However, all books are not created equal. Choose age-appropriate books that captivate your children, teach them things and open up their world.

9 | Try play planning

Play planning involves asking children to draw a picture or write what they would like to do (or will do) during a specific moment (for instance when they’re bored). You can then guide them back to their plans when they get bored.

10 | The freeze game

The freeze game was successfully used by McClelland and Tominey in a study to develop children’s concentration. Everyone dances to music and must freeze when the music stops. To begin with, you can ask your child to dance slowly to slow songs and quickly to fast songs. When this is mastered, ask your child to dance slowly when fast songs are played, and quickly when slow songs are played. The Freeze game teaches your child to listen attentively and follow instructions.

Sanya Pelini


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