Self-Control and Make-Believe

foodforthoughtOkay, so let’s talk about self-control in children. That’s a pretty vague term. The kind of self-control I want to talk about goes by the fancy term “executive function.” Executive function is the way your brain controls itself. It’s kind of like what Freud called the “super-ego,” except without all the moral freight. When you have to concentrate on something but you don’t want to? Executive function lets you concentrate anyway. When someone says something offensive and you want take a swing at them but you stop yourself? That’s executive function. When your plan doesn’t work and you’re frustrated but instead of yelling or giving up you sit down and make a new plan? Executive function, all the way.

Important stuff, right? Beyond the fact that these are obviously important life skills, they’re also important to school. Executive function (from here on out, EF) predicts academic performance better than IQ, better than knowledge of literacy or math skills, and better than socio-economic status. Low EF scores (yes, there are metrics for it) are associated long-term with academic problems, social problems, even things like increased likelihood of jail time and drug use. When you’ve got poor EF, all you do is respond to your environment; with good EF, you’re in control. Basically, it’d be really good if we could help young children build their executive function.

The good news is, EF is both developed and learned. You’re not born with it, you build it up during your childhood. Mostly during your early childhood, actually. EF is tied to your brain’s limbic system, which gets mostly set in your first few years. Your neocortex, which is responsible for all your academic learning, stays flexible well into young adulthood. Therefore, it makes way more sense for preschools to focus on building EF an other socio-emotional skills than to worry about math and literacy—you’ve got plenty of time for that stuff later. Just sayin’.

EF has a few components, which tend to develop together. The first is inhibitory control—the ability to stop your instinctive response and do something different, to think before you act. It’s involved in controlling your temper and your anxiety when something goes wrong, with staying on task in the face of distraction, with resisting temptation and delaying gratification. The second component is working memory, also known as short-term memory—the ability to hold information in your mind while thinking about it. It’s what allows you to self-evaluate, and to consider multiple strategies to solve a problem. Finally, there’s cognitive flexibility—the ability to adjust your thinking in response to changing demands of a problem. This allows you not only to change plans when something goes wrong, but to plan ahead in general and allocate your brain’s resources appropriately. All together, they are the skills that allow you to regulate your own brain.

These are all elastic capabilities: like a muscle, they get stronger with use. You don’t just wake up good at self-regulation—you have to practice self-regulation. Young children, you may have noticed, are not very good at self-regulation, mostly because it takes a few years of practice til it starts working well. You need practice with a few different kinds of regulation to really get it into your system. To wit:

(A) You need practice being regulated by other people. This is how you internalize rules and boundaries and systems of behavior, because the other person (usually an older person) makes you do the right thing. Traditionally, we give children plenty of practice with this in schools.

(B) You need practice regulating yourself—choosing for yourself when and how to initiate desirable behaviors and stop undesirable ones. But remember: supervised self-regulation isn’t self-regulation at all. Kids need opportunities for making self-regulation mistakes. Traditionally we give children some opportunities for this in school, though we don’t necessarily tolerate their mistakes as they’re learning.

(C) You need practice regulating other people. This is where you get to apply rules to the people around you. When you try to regulate yourself it’s all emotional and fraught and difficult, but when regulate other people you can be a little more objective about it, use your cognitive skills, and really observe the consequences of when regulation works and when it doesn’t. Traditionally we actively discourage this in schools, calling kids “tattle-tale” when they try to enforce rules on others.

You could implement all sorts of systems for giving children contexts for practicing these important skills and experiences. But fortunately, Mother Nature has provided us with one amazing, magical context in which children get all these experiences rolled into one: make-believe play! Also known as socio-dramatic play to those in the field, or pretend play, or dress-up play (though the dressing up is entirely optional).

When you’re using your imagination with other people, you’ve got agreed-upon rules and roles and meanings that you’re playing with—”I’m the mommy, you’re the big sister, we’re going to the store. The climbing structure will be the store.” As you continue making-believe, you’re practicing regulating yourself, controlling your own thoughts and actions. As you say, “Now pretend the baby is crying,” you’re practicing regulating other people. When they say, “Give the baby an ice cream so he calms down,” you’re letting yourself be regulated by others. You’re exercising your inhibitory control when you react not as yourself but as your character in the game. You’re exercising your working memory as you hold all the rules and roles in your mind. You’re exercising your cognitive flexibility when the game changes and you go with it. All the good stuff in one neat little package. Like I said: magic.

Not just any kind of pretend play works to enhance EF. It’s got to be somehow rule-bound (even if the rules are unspoken), and involve acting in roles that aren’t just being yourself. It’s got to use imagination, pretending things that aren’t true. It’s got to have to time to evolve and change and develop, and to overcome obstacles. The ability to play like that doesn’t grow overnight—play itself needs to be practiced. But the great thing is, it’s fun! It’s got what’s known in the business as “intrinsic motivation”—it’s worth doing for its own sake. You don’t have to make kids play because it’s good for them; they’ll do it anyway! Again: magic.

You can help foster high-quality make-believe play in a couple of ways:

  • It’s easiest to learn to play well when you’re around people who play well, so try to give kids opportunities to play with kids that are older than they are.
  • High quality play takes time to develop; if recess is only fifteen minutes long, who’s going to bother setting up a really cool, complicated scenario? So give long periods for uninterrupted play.
  • Literalism takes away the need for good imagination, so try phasing out the literal toys (a toy phone that looks just like a real phone) and teaching kids how to make pretend toys (show them how to use a block like a phone).
  • Give kids experiences in real life they can bring into their games: when you’re out in the world, point out what people are doing (“Hey, look, now the ice cream man is taking the daddy’s money”) so that they can imagine it later.
  • When a game is having trouble, see if you can solve it from inside so that play continues. For instance, instead of saying, “Stop arguing, what’s the problem?” try saying, “Mr. Ice Cream man, this lady wants her ice cream!” (My master’s research was partially about this approach.)
  • Finally, participate in play yourself—you’re probably better at pretending than the kids are, so you can show them how it’s done!

There are lots of ways to build executive function in children. The plumber who was fixing our kitchen sink last night asked what I was writing about, and he said, “So real-world stuff doesn’t affect self-control?” No, no, I quickly replied, of course it does. Many real-world experiences are crucial to building EF. But make-believe play is especially effective, and especially fun.

* * *

Here’s a little video where neuroscientist Adele Diamond makes many similar points. Some great related radio pieces with similar themes on This American Life and Planet Money and Morning Edition. Here’s a related piece I wrote on the famous Marshmallow Executive Function Test. And two of my favorite articles ever on EF—one by Paul Tough in the NYTimes, and one by Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker.

Have a child who could use a little support with his executive function skills? I consult with parents and do workshops on just that!

4 thoughts on “Self-Control and Make-Believe

  1. Aaron January 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm Reply

    Are there any exercises or play techniques available for children below the age of 2? Are they not developed enough to start working on these abilities, or are there things we can do? I can’t seem to find any specific ideas for children that young, just some research indicating that inhibition systems tend to crop up around 7-8 months.

    • jarrodgreen January 9, 2013 at 8:21 pm Reply

      Aaron – That’s a terrific question. Full fledged dramatic play doesn’t really start coming out, usually, until at least 3 years old, and takes a year or too to become really robust.

      For younger children, there are a lot of everyday experiences that help. It’s important for children to get to make real choices in their lives, taking on gradually more responsibility. With an 18 month old, you can start with “Do you want the cheerios or toast for breakfast?” They choose one, and you go with it – and if they change their mind, consider having them stick with their first choice. “Nope, you said toast, so you’ll have toast. Tomorrow you can choose cheerios if you want them.” This isn’t trying to be sneaky or arbitrary or tricky; rather it’s a chance to show them that their choices have real-world consequences. Through that experience, they learn to think before acting.

      As they get better at making choices, give them more and more control. Move from “Which shirt do you want to wear?” to “Should we go to the playground or the museum?” to stuff that actually starts to affect other people. “We’ve got to go grocery shopping today, but we also have time to go to the playground. Which should we do first?” Or, “Help me decide what to make for dinner. I was thinking roast chicken, but maybe you have another idea…”

      On another tack, there are a lot of games you can play to encourage inhibitory control. Do a freeze-dance: when the music stops, you have to stop dancing! Start with very very short pauses, and gradually build up as they get better at it. Or make your teddy bears do a freeze dance: when the music stops, they have to drop the bear on the floor, and not pick it up until the music starts. There are lots of games where waiting is rewarded – even waiting in line for a chance at the swings. But you always want to start from a place of success and build up. Don’t start with a five-minute wait and try again and again until they get it; start with a five-second wait, and gradually get longer.

      Working memory is best built through play and imagination. As they start getting older, board games are terrific. (“The Snail’s Pace Race” is still the best starter board game I know, and has been for like 40 years.) But also just reading books, where you’ve got to hold the plot in your mind as you go. Call and response songs and games are great, or memory games like What’s Missing.

      Always remember, it’s a long, gradual process, and young children are born really bad at executive function. So don’t worry too much about building it up when they’re toddlers. You’ll be best set up to build those skills in the preschool years if you focus on building positive relationships, self-confidence, and language skills now.

  2. Pegeen August 16, 2013 at 1:33 am Reply

    I know you’re an early childhood expert, but I am wondering what you might say about developing EF in older kids.Though I am currently a SAHM with a 4 year old and an infant, I hope to return to the classroom and work with kids in 3rd or 4th grade. My experience teaching so far has been that there are going to be some kids who need support in getting their EF to, well, function (or function better), and until they do, they are likely to cause disruptions in the classroom. Do you think some of these techniques you have listed ca be adapted for 8 and 9 year olds?

    • jarrodgreen August 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm Reply

      Yeah, it’s a tough one. My experience is mostly with younger kids than that – though most of the research says that learning and brains work more or less the same way from 0-8 years old. A lot of the same principles should still apply, but with a couple of complicating factors. First off, EF skills are easiest to build if you practice from a young age; by the time you’re older, you have a lot of other things you’ve learned that can get in the way: less socially-appropriate behaviors, less positive self-image, etc. So the skills can still be learned, certainly, but you’ve got to work through a lot more layers of other stuff to get there. Also, the behavioral expectations and environments are very different in preschool and 3rd grade. In preschool you can run and play and cry and wiggle and all sorts of stuff, and if your EF skills aren’t very good you can build them up gradually without anyone being too bothered. In 3rd grade (usually) you’ve got to sit and listen and be quiet a lot of the time, so if your EF skills aren’t good everyone notices, and even if you make a little progress in building those skills you’re still seen as disruptive, so you don’t get much positive reinforcement for it.

      So while the same strategies should still apply, a couple other things come to mind that might help:
      — Introduce as much flexibility and play into the environment as possible, so that kids can choose the behaviors that most closely suit their own needs.
      — Keep your eyes open for ANY progress, so you can positively reinforce it.
      — Find opportunities for small, achievable success, and work up from there. For instance, you could institute, say, a 5-minute “quiet time” right after lunch (when everyone’s a little sleepy and calm anyway), and praise for success – then slowly expand the expectations to other parts of the day.
      — Adapt the physical environment to encourage as much calm and self control as possible: natural light, noise-dampening features, limited “temptations,” etc.

      But again, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve worked with anyone older than about 6, and longer since I’ve worked in an elementary school setting. Any grade school teachers reading? Want to chime in?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: