4 Essential Skills for Teaching Your Preschooler Self-Control

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Portrait of surprised angry emotional blond boy child kid at the table

Envision your four-year-old, alone in a room, with a plate full of doughnuts right in front of him or her. You’re probably imagining something along the lines of “the cookie monster”; your child diving into the doughnuts, with no regard for cleanliness or fear of love handles.

The first thing we think about when looking at our three to five-year-olds is not impeccable self-control, although it is not completely outside of their capacity. And now is the perfect time to ramp up their self-control training! The earlier they start to learn skills to regulate their own emotions and behavior, the greater their success will be in later years.

Research shows that delayed gratification is one of the most important tools for producing success in school, relationships, protecting against high risk behaviors (like drug and alcohol use), and sexual promiscuity. It’s important to realize your children are still learning and developing and will continue to improve their self-control over their lifetime; but don’t put off teaching and modeling these important skills until they are older because they struggle to implement the right decisions now.

Normal Development and Limitations:
By three years old, our kids are walking, talking, and becoming more interactive in their relationships with parents, siblings, and peers. They play more vigorously, and accidents and conflicts become more common. “Mine!” is a favorite word, and exploring why things are the way they are becomes a full-time job. These exciting new developments make this time a perfect time for teaching self-control, but also make it challenging. The Center on Brain Injury Research and Training reports that three- to five-year-old children will show large increases in their attention, self-control, concentration, and inhibition if their environment matches their learning capacity. They also will gradually decrease their impulsivity and can better resist distractions. Parents act as the environmental mediator to introduce practical, everyday applications of self-control and problem-solving into their childrens’ lives.

What They Need to Learn and How to Teach It:
The following four skills are important foundational principles of self-control; and the most effective method of teaching these skills is by parental example. In order for children to be able to control themselves, they must first have a standard and clear vision of what is expected of them.

  1. Recognize triggers and emotions:
    It’s important for children to understand what “pushes their buttons,” so to speak. Role play, in a fun, family environment, can help children to recognize situations, people, actions, or events that often lead to impulsive behavior. Parents can coach their children on ways to express what they are feeling. “You look … (emotion here), What happened that you feel (emotion) about?” is a simple empathetic phrase that reminds a child to express his or her feelings before making rash choices. By doing this, kids will learn how to anticipate and respond appropriately to “heated” situations and emotions.
  2. Recognize and STOP initial impulses:
    Dr. Joseph and Dr. Strain, of the Center on Evidence Based Practices for Early Learning at University of Colorado at Denver, suggest using the “Turtle Technique” to teach kids to STOP when they are upset or feel impulsive, and “suck their heads in their turtle shell” before proceeding. This is an easy and fun technique to teach your young kids. You can use things like counting to 10, or taking 5 deep breathes, as options for your children, to put a buffer between themselves and their impulsive behavior. We can use things like blowing bubbles or balloons to teach deep breathing in a fun, engaging way.
  3. Think:
    The “Turtle Technique” allows the child time to think before acting. Parents should help their children learn to brainstorm the various options when responding to a situation. Again, parents can create or buy games for young kids that challenge them to find alternate responses and solutions to the same problem, and to evaluate how each response will affect themselves and others. Parents can also encourage thinking by giving children choices whenever possible. You can learn more about giving choices and other effective teaching methods in the TRU Parenting ebook.
  4. Act:
    Kids need to learn to be confident and act. Allow them to face the consequences, whether positive or negative, of their actions. Children often want Mom or Dad to make their decisions for them. The wise parent takes a step back and asks, “What do you think you should do? I know you’ll make the right decision!” Kids often learn great lessons by natural consequences that follow poor or impulsive actions. The parent’s job is to let it happen, within the realms of reasonably safe limits.

This process takes time and significant effort, by both the parent and the child. Children don’t become masters of themselves over night, just as we do not master our habits and impulses over night. But as these principles are taught and applied regularly, strength, character, and self mastery will begin to shine through and direct the life of the child, the parent, and the family.

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