Ava walks into a room. She sees Sebastian playing with a toy that she decides she wants. Does she walk over and snatch the toy, creating conflict, or does she demonstrate self-control and wait her turn to use the toy? Ahmed walks into the classroom and chooses somewhere to sit. He notices that Jacob sitting beside him is misusing his device in class. Does he manage his distractions and choose to immerse himself in his learning tasks, or does he join in with the off-task behaviour?
As parents, we all desire for our children to grow to demonstrate the fruits of the spirit in all situations: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Self-control is not something that we are born with. We all learn self-control naturally as we attempt to master our world. Self-control develops over the years, from children as small toddlers to young adults and beyond. It is something that I am sure each one of those reading this article could communicate about an area in their own lives where they could develop further self-control.
Self-control helps us to regulate our thoughts and feelings, control our impulses, and solve problems. It has been defined in many ways as willpower, self-discipline, or conscientiousness. Self-control is about being able to regulate yourself. In Primary this term, we have described it as being in charge of our emotions, thoughts, words and actions.
Can a child manage distractions? Inhibit impulses? Bounce back from difficult emotions? Delay gratification and plan? Yes, they can. Children who have self-control can display persistence in activities, can think ahead of the consequences of their actions, are attentive and able to concentrate, will often think before speaking or acting, and can respond to reason. All of these are positive traits to develop in our children, but also in ourselves. Not only will children develop stronger interpersonal skills when they build self-control, but they will also deepen their academic ability in being able to manage their distractions and apply themselves to situations which become a little more complicated.
If we know in theory that it is beneficial for our students to develop self-control, how do we foster this in children?
- Keep temptations out of sight: Change the environment. For young children: this might mean putting away a toy that is likely to cause conflict. For older children: this might mean keeping electronic devices from areas where they complete home learning tasks. For even older children: teach them how to identify their temptations and take actions to eliminate them.
- Create an environment where self-control is regarded and acknowledged. See and acknowledge their efforts to manage their distractions and in demonstrating self-control.
- Support young children with reminders and prompts to remain on task. Young children are easily distracted. It’s helpful while they are learning to give them prompts or support to stay on task. Children are more likely to experience success if they are reminded of the ways to display self-control before they begin a job.
- Play games or provide situations that help our children or young adults to develop their self-control. The more that they can practice these skills, the more natural it will become.
- Instil the right mindset for tackling challenges and learning from failure. We know that effort shapes intelligence, and the more we practice something, the easier it becomes. We can help instil resilience and determination to apply themselves to tasks by being careful with our feedback. Praise your child for their effort, their ability to immerse themselves in their learning, to manage their distractions, or to display self-control in their interactions with others during times of conflict.
Self-control acts in the same way as a muscle. The more one practices with that muscle, the more the actions of self-control will become more natural, and less forced. Self-control allows us to focus our energies on the task at hand and tune out distractions, which make sure that we perform to the best of our abilities. It is one of the most essential skills that we can learn to harness. May we always be looking for ways where we can enable our children to develop their ability to build their self-control and manage their distractions.
Head of Primary Years