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Expecting Preschoolers to Learn Self-Control... Is That Even Possible?

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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We know that during the first 5 years of life, there is significant brain development. However, some areas of the brain are slower to mature than others. One such area is the prefrontal cortex, which is the center for executive function. This is why young children often have difficulty with emotional and impulse control.

But, some of the features of executive function can be encouraged and groomed, even with preschoolers! These features would include the working or short-term memory, self-regulation of actions, and ability to focus attention. This can be done by means of direct teaching, practice, and support.

Just how important is the development of self-control in the early years? Well, according to research, it carries a load of significance. Preschoolers who are encouraged to exhibit self-regulation are more likely to avoid risky behaviors as adolescents and to experience more success in school.

So, when is a good time to start supporting self-regulation? Preschoolers begin to get a handle on their behavior and emotions between the ages of 3 and 7. Parents and teachers can take advantage of this active stage of brain development and help guide things in the right direction. We can gently push the message that they can focus their attention, interact with their peers in more positive ways, and be better listeners if they think about what they’re doing and purposefully take control of things.

Now, that sounds like a tall order for a little child, but if we break it down into a few do-able strategies, we can make some headway.


1. Establish routines that are predictable. Although young children can’t tell time, they become used to the rhythm of the day. Knowing what comes next often enables the child to feel more in control, which leads to calm and focus. This doesn’t mean we can’t have any spontaneity in our day, but too much can cause insecurity, nervousness, and a breakdown of the skills we are trying to encourage.

block play

2. Support sustained attention. We know that many times we catch preschoolers totally engaged in activities, such as block building, outdoor play, and creative art. Our goal, then, is to present other activities in ways that will evoke the same level of involvement. This could include creating activities that are hands-on and playful and providing one-on-one support by providing props and our attention to keep them interested for longer periods.

teacher talking

3. Talk it up! Make a point of talking about behavior expectations frequently. Keep the rules simple, but provide a good many reminders about following them. When children hear about what is expected repeatedly over time, they will be more likely to remember and follow through.

4. Provide some of this and some of that. We know young children have limited attention spans and the need to be active, so why not make the most of what’s available! We can alternate activities that involve free play and movement with those that call for quieter and more focused attention.


5. Nurture prosocial behaviors. Part of acquiring self-control is having the ability to pick up on others’ feelings and well-being. This can be supported by setting clear expectations for being helpful to each other, taking turns, and sharing, with adults modeling these behaviors themselves. And, when children happen to do something selfless and wonderful, there needs to be liberal, positive attention given so it will be repeated.

matching game

6. Make it playful. Card matching games and simple board games can help young children develop short-term memory. Active games like Simon Says and Red Light Green Light require children to exercise self-control. The teacher can play a variety of slow and fast music and lead the children in following a beat with their steps and rhythm sticks. These types of activities provide opportunities for children to regulate their minds and bodies, all while having a good deal of fun.

serious talk

Preschool children are, of course, unpredictable in their moods and just when you think some progress is being made, there will be a setback. But, positive attention can help them learn to take charge of their feelings. We can talk with them about what’s happening and help them think of ways to deal with their emotions without hurting anyone else.

Making the effort to support the important elements of executive function is definitely worthwhile. Strengthening short-term memory will enhance problem-solving and give young children a jumpstart to reading. Learning to follow rules and interact positively with others will create a foundation for both social and academic success as they enter school. Somebody is sure to thank you for the results!


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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

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Guest Monday, 17 June 2019