I Want It NOW! How to Help Preschoolers Develop Self-Control

By Molly Breen

I Want It NOW! How to Help Preschoolers Develop Self-ControlFor preschoolers (and for lots of adults) it is hard to wait for a turn; it takes self-control. Waiting, or delaying gratification, can be a big developmental challenge. Preschoolers want what they want, and they want it right now. Some children have less difficulty delaying gratification, and some kids have a much harder time. In the preschool years, all children need guidance to help them navigate delaying gratification: It’s not a hardwired skill, but the potential is there for everyone.

You may have heard of the landmark study conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s (and often replicated due to our current academic focus on grit and achievement) in which kids were given the choice to eat one marshmallow now or wait and get more marshmallows later. Walter Mischel, who designed the Stanford study, discovered through this “marshmallow test” that self-control is actually more like a muscle that we can choose to flex or not flex.

This is great news for those of us—like me—who have a hard time waiting. It means that our discipline around taking turns and waiting for what we want can be developed over time and with practice. In follow-up studies, Mischel found that the children who were able to practice self-control in the marshmallow study were more likely to be successful in their adult lives. (Success was measured in a variety of ways, like healthy body mass, higher test scores, and other conventional measures.) In addition to the learned nature of delayed gratification, Mischel discovered that the decision-making involved in self-control is also rooted in trust in the relationship. In the example of the marshmallow study, the children had to believe and trust that the adult who promised to return with more marshmallows would actually come back and deliver.

This trust in relationship that grounds self-control is why caregivers are so pivotal for the development of children’s noncognitive skills. In the preschool setting, peer or friend relationships can be very motivating as well: Once trust in a relationship is established, kids are more willing to risk taking a turn or waiting for someone to turn over a desired plaything. Or at home, when kids trust that parents will follow through, they are more motivated to finish a cleanup job in order to watch a show or receive some other benefit. It is truly one of the most delightful observations for a parent or teacher to hear a child ask, “Can I have a turn with that when you are done?” and the other child respond, “Yes, I will share when I am done.” It feels like a milestone of development. This kind of self-control lays a foundation for future success, and it takes loads and loads of practice.

In our work with kids, we can be intentional about developing trust in our relationships with them and the ensuing soft skills that will develop over time with practice. You may already be doing a lot to support the development of self-control in kids! As caregivers, we may remind children not to interrupt while we are talking (wait for a turn to talk), and we reinforce that they can trust they will have our attention later by quickly finishing up what we are saying and turning our attention to them. Over time and with a consistent response, our kids will trust that we will always give them our attention, even if they have to wait. A simple reminder, or mediator, we can use to remind kids that they can wait is to lay a hand on their arm or shoulder to let them know we are aware that they are waiting while we finish a conversation. Positive reinforcement works wonders (again, this is true for adults, too!). For example: “I knew you could do it! Thanks for not interrupting me while I was talking. What do you want me to know?”

In our work with children in a group setting, like a school or classroom, there are also built-in opportunities to develop self-control in our daily routines and interactions. Transitions are an excellent time to work on delaying gratification, particularly because they can be disruptive to our group calm. Many of us use songs to help our students remember to keep their hands to themselves. For example: “I’m ready for the hall. I’m standing straight and tall. My arms are down right at my sides. I’m ready for the hall.” You might take this a step further once you have established this as a transition routine and hum the tune without words—hello, working memory and self-control! Your learners will be delighted to discover that they can remember exactly what to do with just the prompt of the familiar tune. And later you can try “magic lips” (lips move to mouth the song, but no sound comes out). Just watch how motivated your students will be to line up, keep their hands to themselves, and move calmly. Giving a silent high five or thumbs-up to the group will let them know that you see and appreciate what they are doing.

For preschoolers, the peer-to-peer practice is often the most abundantly available and the most motivating for developing self-control—but it can also be the most challenging! So, what to do when your usually calm and kind kiddo suddenly throws herself over a toy that a friend would like to check out and begins screaming “NOOOOOOOOOO”? These three steps seem to do the trick:

  1. Defuse and name—don’t escalate: “I can see that you don’t want to share your toy.”
  2. Relate and narrate: “It can be really hard to share things we love. Can you tell me more about how you’re feeling?”
  3. Strategize: “Can we make a plan to let your friend have a turn?”

Strategizing can be tricky, but when given the opportunity, kids can actually come up with some pretty ingenious solutions!

We can set up kids for lifelong success through coaching and modeling positive examples of delaying gratification. With consistent small steps and practice, we can help build a foundation of trust in our relationships with kids and a skill set that will last a lifetime!

Molly BreenMolly Breen M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed a broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, MN, with her husband and three kids.

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