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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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