Okay, 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.
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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!