Why is it that the discipline for self-control seems so hard to acquire?
Throughout our lives many of us continue to act first, think later. Only after we've landed in a heap, do we remind ourselves that we won't do it again.
We accept that impulsiveness in children is part of development and yet self-control as adults can continue to elude us, particularly when we need it most.
But skills in self-control can begin in early childhood, and it would seem from a recent international study, that the sooner the lessons begin, the better.
What research tells us
According to the latest findings to come out of the University of Otago's world-renowned Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study http://dunedinstudy.otago.ac.nz, young children's self-control skills - such as conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance - can predict their health, wealth and criminal history in later life. This is regardless of IQ or social background.
Self-control in more than 1000 New Zealand children who participated in the study was assessed by teachers, parents, observers and the children themselves. It included measures like '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.'
Study participants (born in Dunedin between 1972-1973) were assessed during the first decade of their life, and then examined on their health and wealth outcomes and any criminal conviction history at age 32. The findings suggest that even small improvements in self-control for children and adolescents could yield important reductions in costs of healthcare, welfare dependency, and crime to a nation.
Importantly, the research also indicates that low self-control makes children vulnerable to experiences that could have lifelong impacts on their health, wealth and well-being.
Self-control and achievement
Children who acquire skills in self-control are better placed to make appropriate decisions and respond more positively to stressful situations. This in turn, more often results in a positive outcome.
Helping children acquire skills in self-control and perseverance are high on the list of many of today's primary and secondary schools, and programs such as Program Achieve and Investing in Parents are two of a number of programs that comprise the You Can Do It! Education initiative, supported by the Australian Scholarships Group (ASG).
You Can Do It Education (YCDI!) is Australia's leading school-home collaborative program for promoting student achievement and social-emotional well-being. Currently YCDI! programs, based on the principles of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), are being implemented in more than 4000 schools across Australia and New Zealand.
The YCDI! programs teach children (and parents) how to replace their unhelpful thinking with helpful thinking that supports them to have a happier, healthier and successful outlook.
According to the founder of You Can Do It! Education, Professor Michael Bernard, one of the greatest predictors of success in children and adults is the ability to delay gratification.
"In You Can Do It! Education, we teach children of all ages the Habit of the Mind I call Working Tough. Working Tough means 'I prefer but don't need things to be fun and exciting. To be successful, I sometimes have to do things that are not fun to do.'
Working Tough is where we encourage young people to put perseverance into practice in situations where they are faced with work frustration, including time consuming school projects."
Says Professor Bernard, "We also have parents (hopefully) modelling and communicating this idea to their children when suitable occasions arise, and reinforcing their children when they observe them putting up with frustration and delaying fun things until after they have done their work. Working Tough is a great antidote to children's innate tendencies to shirk responsibilities (chores, homework) and to procrastinate."
Lessons in self-control
The Dunedin study shows that the level of self-control in children as young as three years old can predict their future success, and that those individuals who work to improve their self-control at any point during their childhood and young-adulthood, fare better than those who do not.
Given these findings, teaching children how to monitor and control emotions and impulses, gives them skills in lowering their frustration tolerance and ways to maximise their potential.
For babies and toddlers - frustration is a fact of life. Not able to physically do what they want because developmentally they can't, distraction in the form of music, activities, toys or books, helps prevent meltdown.
For preschoolers - try reinforcing the consequence of a minute or two of time out in a designated place, for example a chair. Once the behaviour settles, the child can leave the chair or the time-out area. Children learn from watching adult behaviour, so it's important that as the adult, you model self control and stay calm.
Primary aged children - are beginning to understand what acceptable behaviour looks like and its consequences. Children of this age can also be encouraged to stop and think before acting, and decide for themselves which choices are better than others when it comes to cause and effect. Children in this age group enjoy role playing, and this can provide opportunities to talk about consequences, manners, walking away from a situation, and the rights of others.
Tweens and teens - are old enough to be able to control most of their actions. Kids of this age are better able to talk through problems rather than losing control. Short-term and long-term consequences make sense to this age group, so help them to understand their feelings and what's causing them to lose the plot. Analyse the feeling, talk it over and evaluate it.
Young children in particular, need consistent, positive feedback to learn appropriate behaviour. Praise goes a long way to assuring them what is desirable and acceptable, as does praise for handling a situation appropriately.
In teaching your children impulse control, it helps to set clear boundaries and reasonable consequences that are age appropriate.
Self-control and emotional intelligence
Every child is different and every child has a will of their own. Depending on temperament, some children will have more difficulty with impulse control than others, and not all children will have developed skills in self-control by the time they start school.
In teaching self-control: