5 Science-Backed Strategies for Teaching Self-Control Inside a Preschool Classroom

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Self-control refers to the ability to manage one’s emotions and actions in any kind of situation. Preschoolers who have high self-control can focus, suppress impulsive behaviors, and persist even with difficult tasks better. Kids with poor self-control, on the other hand, are impulsive, tend to get angry easily, and are prone to throwing tantrums even in non-stressful situations.


Self-control or regulation is one of the important skills children need to have at a young age. This is because studies show that this trait plays an important role in academic performance.


Whether students are in nursery, primary school, or even college, having self-discipline will help them pay attention in the classroom, do their homework, and manage their time for studying better.


This high level of self-control will also enable students to have better behavior inside and outside the classroom which is also a good indicator of success now and in the future.


Fostering Self-Control in the Classroom


Inculcating self-discipline in preschoolers not only helps the students themselves; as a teacher, you will experience fewer difficulties and stress managing your classroom when your students can regulate themselves.


As a teacher, you can help preschoolers learn, develop, and practice self-control inside the classroom. Below are five science-backed strategies that will help you do so:

1. Consistently reward self-control.


The marshmallow test is the most famous and oft-replicated experiment about self-control. Children who participated in these tests that resisted the temptation to eat one treat now so that they can eat two later ended up with better outcomes in the following years.


These kids performed better in terms of academic achievement tests and were more likely to finish college. They were less likely to develop substance abuse problems as well.


Since this experiment has been conducted repeatedly with similar results, this is one of the best theories you can apply in the classroom. This means creating an environment that rewards self-control.


These rewards, though, don’t always have come in the form of edible treats. Promise additional playtime before the end of the class if they are all inside the classroom after recess. Another option would be to offer new toys as long as the students take care of and share the current ones with their classmates.


However, make sure your promised future prize is more desirable than the one you are offering now; otherwise, they will opt for instant gratification.


If you are successful in creating a classroom that consistently rewards self-control, you will help your students develop self-discipline and at the same time, create a trusting environment. This will help students build their self-regulation skills even more.


2. Keep temptation out of sight.


Strengthen your students’ resolve to be self-disciplined. You can do this easily by keeping their usual sources of temptations hidden or out of sight. 


This means hiding toys, books, and other items that compete with the attention of preschoolers during class time. It also means putting away any item that causes conflict among students.


Even in the marshmallow test, it was shown that some children voluntarily closed their eyes or turned their backs towards the treat so that they could wait longer.


Although you will be the one to hide the sources of temptation and make it easier for the kids to avoid them, you can explain to them why you are doing this. Eventually, they will understand why and start to avoid temptation consciously on their own.


3. Play games that teach self-control.


Many children’s games are highly effective in helping kids learn and practice self-regulation.


The popular game “red light, green light,” for instance, has been proven successful in improving self-regulation among preschoolers. The students have to practice self-control to stop when they hear “red light” and keep moving when you say “green light.”


If your students regularly play this game, tweak it a bit to allow them to understand the importance of self-discipline. Reverse the rules: tell the students that whenever you say “red light,” they have to move and “green light” means they need to stop.


By reversing the rules, you test the students’ ability and resolve to go against habit. When they are successful in inhibiting their impulses, they are practicing self-regulation.


Other fun games that you can let your preschoolers play to practice self-control are Simon says, freeze or statue game, and color matching freeze game.


4. Provide constant reminders.


To help students practice self-control on a daily basis, always remind them of the rules and your expectations.


Preschoolers are easily distracted. When they forget the instructions, they will more likely give in to the temptation.


In one study conducted by psychology experts, it was shown that children who had an adult reminding them of the rules were more likely to check their impulses. On the other hand, kids who were given only a few seconds to stop and think about the instructions and were not provided any reminders were less successful in staying disciplined.


To ensure your students constantly practice self-control in the classroom, provide verbal reminders in a timely manner. You can also post these instructions inside the classroom on a cork or bulletin board.


5. Give your students a break.


Regardless of age, people can’t maintain the same level of self-control over time. As such, if you give your students two demanding tasks to complete one after the other, it is highly likely they will show less self-control in performing the second task.


One possible reason behind this is that the human brain is designed to seek a balance between hard work and easy rewards.  This means that if you complete something difficult to get a reward and you are given something to do straight away, you will likely reach for instant gratification as soon as it is available.


Because of this, avoid giving your students one hard, unpleasant task to complete one after the other. If you do, their self-control will likely suffer. Give them breaks from time to time to help them recharge and internalize what they have learned.


Self-control is an important life skill that everyone needs. As a teacher, you can help your students learn and build this skill even at an early age by following the strategies above.

Lama Chivi is the CEO of Blossom by Babilou Education in the UAE. Having lived in Dubai for over 30 years, she combines the best of international practice and local expertise into this leading British Curriculum Nursery, delivering a top-tier and high-quality offering to the MENA region. The mission of Blossom by Babilou Education is to support children in building their own identity, self-discovery and awakening while respecting their own pace and their uniqueness.