Helping Toddlers Learn Self Control
Self-control is a complex skill for very young children to learn and an important skill for ECE providers to teach. To teach young children self-control, it is important to understand what we mean by self-control.
What is self-control?
Self-control is children’s ability to keep themselves from acting on impulses that hurt themselves or others. It involves thinking ahead and deliberately controlling/inhibiting their own behavior.
Self-control and the capacity to feel guilty after doing something wrong are both important developmental tasks that allow children to follow rules and develop a conscience. Children who lack feelings of guilt or self-control often go on to have trouble with their behavior.
Children start to have feelings of guilt during their second year. Behaviors typically displayed by a young child after they have done something wrong include squirming, covering their face with their hands, hugging themselves, hanging their head down, or hunching their shoulders. These behaviors are provoked by the strong negative feelings that children have when they think about violating, or have violated, adult caregivers’ standards of behavior. These feelings are remembered, and re-experienced, when the child encounters the same situation again.
Guilt is different from shame. Shame is a feeling that children have about themselves. Guilt is a child’s feeling about her behavior. Some children are temperamentally more likely to feel guilty than others. Adults, too, can cause children to have excessive guilt by their care giving practices. For these children, self-control is more spontaneous because they have such powerful negative emotions around violating behavior rules. For children who are less likely to experience guilt when they do something wrong, learning to control their impulses is especially important. For these children, learning self-control can help prevent them from travelling down a path of increasing antisocial behavior.
How can you help a child develop self-control?
See misbehaviors as a chance to teach self-control; they are an opportunity to help a child learn to identify and manage his feelings of anger, sadness, and disappointment, and to teach him behavior that is, and is not, acceptable. They are a chance to teach the child about your expectations and values. Try these strategies:
- Set and enforce clear, consistent limits.
- When a child misbehaves, acknowledge his feelings, but let him know that his behavior, what he did with his feelings, was unacceptable, i.e. “I know you are really angry, but you cannot throw the toy.”
- Use logical consequences: when a child throws the blocks, put them away until the child is feeling more in control.
- Model appropriate ways to express feelings, for example, tell a child that you are upset that you spilled the juice, and you are going to take a deep breath to calm down.
Think of helping a child to develop self-control as one step in that child’s path to developing a conscience, an essential characteristic for being a full member of her family and community.
California Childcare Health Program-Zero to Three, Self-Control: 12-24 Months