Back in the 1960s, a professor at Stanford University conducted an experiment on impulsivity at a local nursery school. Left in a room with a single marshmallow, the children were told they could eat the treat immediately, but if they waited twenty minutes, they’d receive two treats. When the professor followed up decades later, he discovered that the children who’d delayed gratification generally had higher SAT scores, less obesity, and were more likely to finish college.
Before you worry if your child would “fail” the test, keep in mind that many issues are involved in such a choice. But knowing that self-regulation does have a positive effect on future academic and social success, how can you encourage self-control?
Separate Feelings From Actions
Young children often struggle to understand their own emotions, which is why denial and frustration so often lead to tantrums. Learning that anger is an emotion that everyone experiences but biting is not an appropriate response is a good first step.
Channel The Energy
High-energy children need an outlet for their exuberance, which is why it’s important to adapt your strategies accordingly. Frustration is often the trigger for impulsive actions. After a full day at school, an hour of free play at the park may be wiser than making your preschooler tackle homework. Teach them how to renew themselves between tasks by taking a quick walk, pausing to listen to their favorite song, or race around the table three times fast.
Make Sure Opportunities Abound
It’s tempting to avoid hours, days, even weeks of whining by telling your children about a big event just before it happens, but this can rob a child of an opportunity to enforce self-control. Learning to subdue impulsivity takes time and practice. After all, nobody became good at the flute without first putting up with a lot of screeching.
Kind And Consistent Discipline
To children, the world is a chaotic place. Establishing family routines, schedules, expectations, and responsibilities is a way of taming the chaos. Breaking the rules should have consequences that are administered fairly and consistently. Life becomes just a little less chaotic, and impulsive behavior more restrained, when a child can predict what will happen if he misbehaves.
Motivation Is King
Some children who can’t focus on homework will subsequently spend hours creating masterpieces out of building blocks. Focus is not the issue, motivation is. Incentivize your child to do the boring tasks by promising a special family movie night, a bag of popcorn, or a child’s favorite meal as a reward for special effort. Playing games that require self-control also makes learning fun.
Praise For Effort Not Success
If children are praised only when they succeed at a task, they may come to believe that the end justifies the means. Cheating on a test is easier than studying for days. Praise the effort to learn, not the test score, and a child will be less likely to seek shortcuts.
Like many high-level emotional milestones, self-regulation and self-control develop slowly, but the rewards will last a lifetime.