Developing Self Control in Children

Andy Hab
3 min readSep 4, 2023

Do children have self control?

Good question. Indeed self control develops with age as the brain develops. It’s known as executive function amongst researchers and is mostly guided by the front of the brain.

But that’s the point.

What’s the point?

Well, an academic paper I stumbled across reviewed the concept of self control as being as much external to the brain, or mind, as it being internal.

What, you mean the brain isn’t guiding executive function?!

Precisely. They go against the standard theory of brain function guiding self control. The authors draw on what is known as dynamic systems theory to give a different case for self control.

And what is dynamic systems theory?

A complex theory that basically states that some things occur in dynamic, that means constantly changing, environments with multiple influences. However some key triggers and rules can apply — for example in flocks of birds which can be highly complex but somehow seem to work.

And how does this work with regard to self control and with children?

Well, rather than just think of it as a brain problem i.e. prefrontal control, the brain controlling behaviour, think of it as much as an environmental problem. The environment provides lots of cues and input to trigger behaviours.

So how do you improve self control?

Well, pay more attention to the environment and cues — manage the environment better. That could be by how desks are placed in classrooms or even the art on the walls.

But what about simply training self control?

Well, that’s the point. That sounds obvious but has generally proven to be ineffective. Some people may think that this isn’t really self control but the fact is self control is guided by many assumptions and underlying principles.

Do you remember the marshmallow test?

Where kids have to resist the temptation of eating a marshmallow?

Right (funny video here). Children are asked by an adult to sit in a quiet room by themselves with a marshmallow placed right in front of them…

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Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!