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8 Steps To Teach Self-Discipline And Impulse Control To Your Preschooler


child studying in school

It goes without saying that, as parents, we all want to instill self-discipline and impulse control in our children. Learning how to willingly delay gratification and maintain control of emotions encourages patience and long-term thinking. But a recent book by Amy Chua (author of The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother) and Jed Rubenfeld (a professor at Yale), argues that strong impulse control isn’t just one of many good character traits, it’s also one of the best indicators of future academic success, SAT scores, and overall upward mobility.

But how can parents teach self-discipline and impulse control to a young child?

Make Family Rules Clear
A child can better manage his impulses if he or she understands the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Setting the rules is the first step in delineating those boundaries. Make them simple and make them clear, such as:

  • Outdoor voices are for outside
  • Running is for outside
  • Muddy shoes belong in the mud room
  • Food stays on the plate or in your tummy
  • Hugs, not hitting
  • Cookies are for snack time

Be Consistent In Meting Out Consequences
Once you’ve set up the rules, you need to make the consequences clear. Every family applies discipline differently, but giving a child one warning about his rule-breaking behavior before applying the real consequences is a good way to remind him of the rules so he can choose to change his behavior and avoid punishment.

Whatever system of discipline you use, be consistent. If a child perceives he can get around the consequences, he’ll be less likely to squelch his impulses and modify his behavior.

Help Them Identify Their Feelings
Emotions can be overwhelming for young children. It’s often in anger that they’ll succumb to the worst impulses. By acknowledging their feelings (“I know you’re angry”) you put a space between their very real emotions and the inappropriate behavior. Learning how to identify those emotions is a first step in controlling them.

Give Your Child Tools To Manage Strong Emotions
Frustration and anger are powerful and can lead to behavior problems. Even if a child can identify these volcanic feelings, he or she may need tools to manage them. A time-out is an opportunity to teach some of these methods, such as taking deep breaths, exercising in place, or squeezing a stress ball.

Include Physical Activity Daily
Young children are balls of energy. It’s tough to inculcate any kind of lessons when they’re spinning on one foot or chasing their dog around the house. If your child is particularly energetic, make sure he or she is getting plenty of exercise either through sports, free play, or extracurricular activities like indoor rock climbing or martial arts. If they expend energy in a positive way, it’s less likely they’ll try to expend it in an inappropriate way.

Teach Your Child To Listen
In order to control their impulses, children need to know what they’re controlling them for. In the famous “marshmallow test,” researchers put a marshmallow on a table in front of preschoolers and told them they could eat it, but if they waited a certain period of time, they could have two marshmallows.

A child who listens well and understands is more likely to resist the impulse to eat the treat than one whose listening skills aren’t quite as good.

Play Games To Encourage Self-Discipline
Games like Red Light, Green Light, Freeze Tag, and Simon Says are tailor-made for teaching kids impulse control. Research from Stanford University scientists has also shown that playing some memory games, like Concentration, can have a positive effect on self-discipline.

Be The Change You Want To See In The World
Let’s face it, as parents we’re far from perfect. But children take their cue from us, so modeling appropriate self-control is vital. Rather than yell at a driver who cuts you off, shrug off the rudeness. Rather than sighing and rolling your eyes when you’re stuck in a long grocery store line, ask your child if he’d like to play an “I Spy” game while you both wait.

Teaching character traits like self-discipline and self-control is a lot harder than teaching your child the ABCs, but the benefits will last a lifetime.

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