21 In Emotions and Regulation/ Happy Kids

The Most Important Skill to Teach Children

Teaching children how to self-regulate- 5 great tips!

Today I’m talking about the skill I believe to be the (Dare I say it?) MOST important skill to teach children.  To call it one skill, however, is a little misleading. It’s really a set of skills– a whole host of skills. At the center of those skills is the ability to control something– a behavior, a thought, movement, or a feeling.

Teach your child how to self-regulate- 5 great tips!

Generally, this is called self-regulation. But I am also talking about executive function (control in the brain), emotion-regulation (control of feelings) as well as behavioral regulation (control of actions & movement).

Most of you have probably heard about the marshmallow test in which a researcher will ask a young child (usually between ages 3 and 5) if they would like one or two marshmallows which are placed on a plate in front of them. Then the researcher devises a reason to leave the room and the child is presented with a choice before the researcher leaves: they can eat one marshmallow now or wait until the researcher returns and then they can have two. This is technically called ‘delay of gratification’ or the ability to suppress an impulse (eat that lovely marshmallow) in order to meet another goal– listen to the authority figure of the researcher and wait.

Delay of gratification is only one self-regulation skill, albeit the most well-known one, and it has been linked to many outcomes– children who wait longer are more sociable, have better grades, and even better SAT scores years later. There are also brain differences between the children who were better at delaying and those who were not as good at waiting. Self-regulation is partially genetic– some children will naturally be better regulated than others, however, self-regulation is very teachable as well.

Here are FIVE key ways to nurture self-regulation in your children.

1. Use naturally occurring situations to teach strategies for self-regulation.

Waiting to open holiday presents, birthday presents, not sticking her fingers in her friend’s birthday cake before it is served, or waiting for a special anticipated activity are all teachable moments for self-regulation.

  • First, realize that these situations are truly challenging for younger children. Before the event or situation, explain they will have to wait and why waiting is important.
  • During the waiting process, offer ways for your child to distract themselves and help them to wait. What studies about self-regulation have shown is that it isn’t about the child having the sheer willpower to wait, but instead having lots of strategies to distract themselves while they wait. Do something else, sing a song, tell a story etc.
  • Recognize it if they struggle, “Sometimes it feels hard to wait. When you are waiting you can do something else.” When I tell my son he has to wait for a special treat, he will say- “But can I just look at it, can I just touch it?” I say, “Let’s take a quick look and then let’s do something else, it is harder to wait when you are looking at it.” In doing that, I acknowledge his desire and offer a strategy to help him regulate.

2. Realize it is just as important to let go of control. 

One of my favorite quotes from researchers who study self-regulation is this:

“The human goal is to be as undercontrolled as possible and overcontrolled as necessary”Block & Kremen (1996).

As parents, we spend ALOT of time trying to teach our children to control impulses. It is easy to forget that it is just as important to let them be “undercontrolled” for lack of a better term.

I loved it when I would return to the room as a researcher in those delay of gratification studies and the kids would stuff both marshmallows in their mouth as happy as could be, no restraint at all. They waited until I came back and then they reveled in the fact of being able to enjoy those marshmallows.

In other cases, kids would seemingly do a good job waiting, but when I came back in the room they were overcontrolled and anxious. Those kids could hardly enjoy the marshmallow. So, it isn’t just about waiting or controlling, it’s about being flexible in that control — able to control impulses when needed and letting loose when we can. If you notice your kids being pretty controlled and tending towards anxiety make it your mission to help them learn that sometimes it is okay to let loose.

Teaching your children when to let go of control is equally important as teaching them when to be in control. One of my favorite family traditions is that on your birthday you wake up to everyone in the family singing, presents and a sweet treat. Why on your birthday should you have to wait all day for presents and cake?

Teach your child how to self-regulate- 5 great tips!


3. Remember self-regulation skills develop over years. 

Generally speaking, the organization of the brain system that underlies self-regulation occurs around the age of three. This system goes through a period of rapid development until about the age of five. After the age of five, the development brain areas associated with self-regulation slows down until puberty when a second brain growth spurt means a whole new level of regulation skills will need to be organized and learned in adolescence.

So, all those teachable moments will add up over the years. There may be times when you feel like you don’t see any progress — it develops slowly and gradually. It is one of those things where you’ll see effects much later.

Right now, I see my role as simply noticing when my son struggles and helping him through it.

For example, I love that my son has such determination– but he also gets incredibly frustrated. He will be trying to connect trucks together with Lego pieces and when it doesn’t work he screams and gets upset, but he WILL NOT give up. I want him to retain that feeling of determination, but he also has to learn to manage his frustration (don’t we all?).

I try different strategies (Three quick Tips to Help Kids Calm Down)  to get him to take a little break, sometimes I’ll even offer a snack, and then we will go back to his project. Often, he can either accomplish what he wanted to do or he will come up with an alternative. That way, I hopefully preserved that wonderful tendency for determination and helped him manage frustration. When he is older, he will be able to manage that frustration on his own, well, until he is a teenager, but let me get through threenager first! And that’s one reason behind the threenager/teenager comparison. Both, on different levels, are struggling with self-regulation.

4. Have your child make a choice and a plan.

Cognitively a well-regulated older child would be able to look through a set of options and make a reasoned decision. Or, faced with a wide array of possibilities, that child could make a plan. When it comes to well-regulated thought our goal for our children is that they can organize their thoughts and work through problems in a logical way. Cognitively they would be able to sort through the chaos, so to speak, and inhibit distractions in the meantime.

How do we foster this when they are young? I had a professor once who said, “No child is ever too young to make a choice, carrots or peas? Which one do they spit out the least?” Providing your child with plenty of opportunities for making choices — do you want to walk to the playground or play in the backyard? Will you have milk or water? Which pair of tennis shoes will you wear today? Gives them the practice they need to develop decision-making skills.

At younger ages remember to give a choice between two options and as they grow, increase the options. Also, give your child the opportunity to make a plan. This morning we are staying home we can do any of these things- what would you like to do first, second and third? My Aunt took her preteen and teenage sons to New York City once for vacation and she told me each son got a day to plan. They planned what they would do and she gave them a subway map so they could plan the route as well. I think this is a great activity for older kids. It is the same idea with younger kids as well– to plan and map out an activity is a great exercise in cognitive regulation.

5. Play control games.

Any game that asks kids to control something is fostering self-regulation. Anytime they have to suppress something. Like a whisper game, slow down speed up, the freeze game/dance, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and similar. See my post on more of our favorite games for self-regulation here for 3 to 5-year-olds and for 5 to 7 year-olds here.  Also, make believe play has been shown to be linked to self-regulation. And just plain old free play. Yep, they are naturally equipped to learn self-regulation just through unstructured free play, we are along for nudges and helping through the struggles, but giving time and space for play may be the best thing we can do.

What are other moments you have noticed yourself teaching self-regulation? Do you find yourself needing to teach your child more regulation or needing to teach them to let loose more? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Teach your child how to self-regulate- 5 great tips!

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  • Rosie
    February 16, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    Yes, I agree that this one skill will do wonders for anyone in their life. It is also important for kids to have if they are able to learn any new skill. As the mom to a kid (or more) who can get dysregulated multiple times a day, I see a vast difference between the times of control and those times where they can’t seem to be in control. Only when they are in control (of themselves) can anything be taught or progress made.

    Thanks for the ideas of how to work to increase this important skill.
    Rosie recently posted…Our Weekly Meal Plan – February 15, 2015My Profile

    • nurtureandthriveblog
      February 16, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Thank you for the comment Rosie! I know what you mean– the dysregulation is part of it at this age– it is a skill that they are constantly working on. And it is a hard one, for them and for us! That is a whole other post isn’t it? Parental regulation! A skill that we have as adults, but gets redefined as a parent. (:
      nurtureandthriveblog recently posted…My favorite games for fostering self-regulationMy Profile

  • Kate
    February 26, 2015 at 6:49 am

    I recently received an email from Growing Child that talked about the marshmallow test and a book that came out about it. The author of the book apparently believes that the kids who do not wait are able to think about the future and that they have a sense of trust in their world around them. Here is a quote from the Grandma Says email:
    “When children trust in their parents, when parents are present in their lives behaving in trustworthy ways, kids are less likely to choose the immediate reward. In other words, the ability to postpone rewards is closely related to holding positive expectations. These traits are connected to the explanation for why waiting for a marshmallow at the age of five has such a strong correlation to outcomes in later life. So, back to the “no’s” again. Parents who believe in the rightness of their authority convey a sense of confidence to their youngsters. Though they may not agree with your decisions, they will absorb your sense of sureness. This then leads them to their feelings of predictable trust in you. If children are going to learn the important lesson that they can’t have every heart’s desire immediately, they are going to develop the kind of self-control that permits them not to be tempted by instantaneous marshmallows.”
    Thoughts???

    • nurtureandthriveblog
      February 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

      Hi Kate!
      In your comment were you talking about children who do wait? I think you were. I’m reading this quote out of context, so I’m not sure what is meant by the “no’s” but overall it sounds a little authoritarian doesn’t it? I think that many things factor into whether children can wait or not– age, temperament, and of course parents. I do agree that trust comes into it— that they believe they will be able to have two marshmallows when all is said and done. That sense of trust in the world comes from relationships with parents. But, I think it has less to do with the parent’s authority and more to do with overall trust and warmth. I think that helping children with impulse control in general is key– like the findings that show that parents who help their children distract themselves do better on delay tasks. And there are several studies showing thats sensitivity or warmth predict better regulation. So I would say it is more about warmth and responsiveness than it is about authority, per se. What do you think?

  • Elizabeth
    February 26, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Ashley, great post. I agree fully that teaching children to self-regulate is really important. One thing that I am running into recently is teenagers that have been raised in such a way that they have an “entitled” attitude, and this seems to be connected to difficulty with self-regulation as well. What do you think? Do you know of any research related? I would be interested in reading. Glad I found you today! Can’t wait to read more.
    Elizabeth recently posted…10 Reasons to Choose Optimism TodayMy Profile

    • nurtureandthriveblog
      February 26, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks Elizabeth, I’m glad you found me! I taught college — I know what you mean. Certainly not true of all students, but that sense of entitlement is an issue. Generation “me” brought up when there was a big cultural focus on self-esteem, everyone got a trophy, children were overpraised, and the rise of social media. All of this has created a new generation and like clashes between generations before — one generation doesn’t get the other. This has created a real challenge in the education world and employment world. I thought this article was interesting: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03310.x/full and this book written by researchers looks good: http://www.amazon.com/The-Narcissism-Epidemic-Living-Entitlement/dp/1416575995. I do think it is related to self-regulation– but more so self-efficacy. It is important for kids to understand that they can effect change– if they work at it. Generation me (and I am generalizing) feels like they shouldn’t have to work for it unless it is entertaining, engaging, and boosts their self-worth. I will write a post on self-efficacy soon, I’ve been thinking about it!

  • Adoring Family
    March 26, 2015 at 10:32 am

    This is such great advice! I love the practical examples you give for each suggestion. I need the concrete examples you provided such as when you said, “it is harder to wait when you are looking at it.” My kids need to hear that but I just don’t think to articulate it! Have a wonderful day 🙂
    Adoring Family recently posted…What Makes a Good Momma?My Profile

    • nurtureandthriveblog
      March 26, 2015 at 10:46 am

      Thank you for the feedback! Honestly, writing these posts helps me too. Something about writing it down reinforces it for me and even gives me new ideas of concrete examples!

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  • Tiffany | A Touch of Grace
    March 29, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    This is fantastic advice thank you! I hadn’t heard of the marshmallow test. I’ll have to try it with my daughter. She definitely struggles with self regulation right now.

    Thanks for sharing on the Shine Blog Hop!
    Tiffany | A Touch of Grace recently posted…Shine Blog Hop #40My Profile

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  • zmax mama
    February 19, 2016 at 11:33 am

    An excellent post! Executive function and other aspects of self-regulation are practically the key to both academic and personal achievements. However, I have to stress that in order to promote these skills in your child, you need to make sure they get plenty of physical exercise first, to properly develop their brains and prepare them for such complicated tasks as the ones you have listed. If you let your child go days without a decent, at least a few hours long, physical activity, then all these crucial skills you want him to learn will be incredibly difficult to master. Therefore, if you want to teach your kid the most important skill out there, start by providing a lot of opportunity for physical exercise.

    • Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      February 19, 2016 at 2:13 pm

      Thank you! I agree with you that being outside and getting natural exercise is important for children’s development. In fact, it is one of the main things I discuss in my post on brain development: http://nurtureandthriveblog.com/nuture-your-childs-brain/. As far as playing outside being good for developing regulation in particular, I would say I agree in general that healthy play outdoors helps children to expend energy and balance their emotions. But, simply playing outside is not enough to learn self-regulation. There are several everyday situations in which parents can help children learn self-regulation. I don’t see one as ‘first’ in this scenario. Yes, it is good to play outside. Yes, it is good to help children manage impulses and emotions. But I also don’t see playing outside as a ‘skill’ Rather I see it as a natural environment for a child.

      • zmax mama
        February 20, 2016 at 9:10 am

        My point exactly. Exercise, be it at home or outdoors, is certainly not enough for learning how to regulate behaviour, feelings or movement, but it is a conditio sine qua non before any other intervention might take place. Can you teach a kid with a weak vestibular system not to fidget? You can try, but I’d bet learning any skill, soft or otherwise, will prove much easier for a child who had ample opportunity to exercise and develop properly.
        zmax mama recently posted…Exercises to build brain and improve behaviourMy Profile

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  • Renee
    January 8, 2017 at 10:25 am

    I found one of your other posts on pinterest and am reading post after post. I have a 3.5 yr old and a 1 yr old. The 3 yr old has me at a complete loss. I hope that practicing some of your strategies gets us to better days soon. Really I’m just commenting to ask, can you come live with us until both boys are school age? That would be great!
    Thanks!
    Stressed out, tired mom, who wants to be more than a referee.

    • Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      January 8, 2017 at 10:52 am

      Oh my goodness I hear you!!! 3 is a hard age — the psychologist in me loves this age — the budding independence, the immature emotions, and the lack of being able to take another’s perspective are fascinating developmentally. The mother in me has a slightly different reaction, one that involves pulling my hair out! Literally, you are dealing with a little human who has a lot of self-will, but very little in terms of social skills! One thing that helps me with my son is being playful, I get way more cooperation that way. Instead of saying put on your shoes, I say “hmmm where are the bunny shoes? You know the ones that make you hop like a bunny all the way to the car? Do you have bunny shoes?” Hope some of my tips help smooth some of your days!!!

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