Arjun, five, is in the bathtub with his little sister having a ‘tubby’. Saanvi, two, starts blobbing soap on to the back of Arjun’s head. Arjun does nothing. Saanvi tries a few more dollops, then stops and starts playing with her toys. “Arjun, what just happened?”, his mom asked. He stated, “I was ignoring her.”

What happened! Arjun used self-regulation. That is, he managed his own behaviour, thinking and emotions. Previously, Arjun would screech at his sister and complain to an adult that she was bugging him. The day before the ‘tubby’ incident, he and his mom had a discussion about how you can ignore some things and not let them bother you and often they just go away. It worked for both Arjun and his sister. He learned that he didn’t need to react to her actions and the younger child learned there are better ways to get her brother’s attention.

Self-regulation is a powerful skill that has an important impact on children throughout their lives. Children with stronger self-regulation skills:

  • Are  more successful in school
  • Persist with things longer
  • Cope better with greater and greater challenges
  • Keep track of how they are doing and change their approach when needed
  • Make friends more readily
  • Become more intrinsically motivated; that is, they enjoy doing things just for the challenge, interest or pleasure and not for rewards.

Some writers go so far as to say, “(it’s) at the root of much that is good in people and society. It fosters the ability to stay on task when our minds would rather wander. It allows people to restrain momentary desires to reach cherished long-term goals. It allows people to overcome selfish impulses and for groups of people to work together. It is thus no surprise that it relates to such desirable things as health, happiness, academic achievement, financial stability, and low levels of drug dependence and criminality.” (Inzlicht & Berkman, 2015)

Babies learn that sucking their fingers, thumb or ‘blankie’ can help them soothe themselves – this is beginning self-regulation. Self-regulation doesn’t occur over night or just in a few children. It starts early in life and continues into the adult years.

EF development curve Through the preschool years, children learn to tolerate longer delays in getting what they want. They also learn more about how to control their hands – you find fewer unexpected things in the grocery cart when you go shopping with your child and his busy fingers. Children learn how and when to use a quieter voice even though they often forget.

They not only learn to control their bodies but also to manage their thinking. This includes being able to pay attention to certain things while ignoring others. It also involves keeping ideas in their minds while checking their own progress. Children learn to become more flexible in their thinking – they can deal more easily with not being able to wear favourite rain boots on a hot day. This also marks improvements in dealing with frustration and disappointment.

Developing self-regulation takes time – more than 20 years for most people – as well as the support of parents and other adults. We can start early and plant the seeds of self-regulation so the children can go on to refine and build on them over time.

Find out why spark* was developed. Here’s an excerpt from Canadian Child Magazine (the book cover shown was the original one I used which was replaced by the child doing handsprings) –