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Self-Control Precedes Success

Self-Control - Walter Mischel“Self-control precedes success” was what one of my school teachers always used to say. The real meaning of the adage used to fly right over the top of my head. It wasn’t until I learned about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study that I finally understood what she meant.

“The ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life, predicting higher SAT scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth.” – The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success

G2 is a dreamer with his head in the clouds. All. The. Time. He’s the one that leaves the milk on the counter. If he does remember to put it away, it might end up in the sink instead of the fridge.

He is also impulsive and it is sometimes often a problem. He makes mistakes not because he doesn’t know better but because he acts first and thinks later. We’ve always known that G2 would struggle with self-control because he is just that kind of kid.

The good news for us is that self-control can be taught. It’s not easy and it requires persistence. So we’ve been working on developing his executive functions, with particular attention to focus and self-control.

How to Develop Self-Control

Self-control is a component of the executive functions. According to Diamond and Lee (2011):

  • Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s executive functions; these include – computerized training, non-computerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula.
  • To develop develop the executive functions, we need repeated practice and to constantly challenge them.
  • Children with worse executive functions initially, benefit most from these activities.
  • To improve executive functions, focusing narrowly on them may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development and physical development.

Using the muscle analogy, self-control can be strengthened with regular and consistent practice. To avoid the plateau, we need to keep the range of activities diverse and challenging. Here’s what we came up with…


Self-Control - Mindfulness
Image Source: Pinterest

A number of studies link mindfulness to enhanced self-regulation skills:

To help us practice mindfulness at home on a daily basis, we’ve been exploring a number of mindfulness apps. It is tricky with G2 because he fidgets a lot. It’s a process of trial and error as we search for the programs that work best for him.

See also: Mindfulness for families


According to a study by Dickens & DeSteno, 2016, being grateful helps to increase self-control and reduce impulsive behaviours:

What we found was that people who had higher levels of gratitude in their daily lives were more patient and less impulsive when it came to those financial decisions.

That suggests that the more you regularly experience gratitude, the more self-control you have in various areas of your life.

The gratitude project was something I did with G1 a couple of years back. Now that G2 is older, it’s time we get him to do it, too.

Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation is a cognitive behaviour approach for helping children self-regulate their behaviours, emotions, and sensory needs. The goal is to help them learn to recognise their feelings and level of arousal and adjust them appropriately. We’ve written quite a lot about it before and you can read about it here.

Musical Training

The research linking musical training and self-control isn’t quite as conclusive as I would like to it to be, nevertheless, it looks positive:

Logically, it makes sense that music would hone self-control because it is a subject that requires conflicting actions to occur at the same time. When playing a musical instrument, both hands are often doing different things simultaneously. It’s kind of like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, only more complicated. In a choir, singers need to follow their own tunes and rhythms that may differ to the other singers around them. Having been in a choir before, I can vouch for how challenging that can get.

Additionally, music can also help reduce stress which can impact our internal resources for maintaining our self-control. When children are stressed, their ability to maintain their self-control also goes down, therefore anything that reduces stress will certainly help with self-control.

Even if you’re still doubtful, we figure it’s worth a shot given the numerous benefits of learning a musical instrument. At the end of the day, there is still much to be gained even if it isn’t self-control.

Drama and Acting

Self-Control - Drama and acting
Image Source: Pinterest

When G1 was little, I read a lot about Tools of the Mind and how make-believe play can help children develop self-control. As G1 grew older, we started looking into drama and theater since it is essentially an extension to the concept of make-believe play. The rationale is that taking on a role requires the child to inhibit their impulse to behave as they normally do. In drama and theater, the child is now required to convince the audience of the authenticity of his character.

Learning a Second Language

Experience with multiple languages also can affect the development of self-control. Bilingual children do better than monolingual children on attention control tasks that require shifting attention from one feature to another, such as sorting cards according to color and then switching gears to sort the cards according to shape (Bialystok & Martin, 2004). Switching back and forth between languages may help bilingual children learn to think flexibly and shift their attention (Zelazo et al., 2008). – Zero to Three

Being bilingual strengthens self-control because of the frequent need to switch between languages.

Like music, the link is not fully understood and further research is required. Do we need to be fluent in the second language? Does it make a difference if the language was learned in childhood versus adulthood? We don’t know. What we do know is that a second language offers numerous cognitive benefits to make it worth while our time and effort.


Self-Control - Mindful Yoga
Image Source: Pinterest

Children who exercise have better self-control than those who do not:

  • Overweight sedentary children, ages seven to eleven, had improved self-control after being randomly assigned to three months of aerobic exercise for twenty or forty minutes per day.
  • Fit nine and ten year old kids in the top 30 percent on fitness had stronger cognitive control in a demanding attention task than those whose fitness level was in the lowest 30 percent.
  • Fit children have greater volume in the dorsal striatum, a brain region involved in cognitive control and the resolution of conflicts among competing potential responses.

Maintaining Self-Control

Coming back to our muscle analogy, just as muscles suffer from fatigue and require recovery time, self-control stores can also be depleted. There ways we can restore it but before we even get to that, the first step is to recognise that our levels are low. Having a conscious awareness of our psychological state can help us decide when we need to apply the following…


If children are required to perform two consecutive tasks that require lots of self-control, they will usually perform worse in the second task. Taking a break in between the tasks can help improve performance in the second task.

Low on Fuel

The brain needs glucose to maintain self-control. Activities that require self-control can cause glucose levels to fall below optimal levels. Replenishing glucose supply with something sweet can help restore self-control.


Self-affirmation – thinking about our positive traits – can replenish self-control (Schmeichel and Vohs, 2009). Teaching children to think about what they pride themselves on and the things they hold dear can be a good self-control booster.

Abstract Thinking and Practical Logical Reasoning

Another way to improve self-control is to think abstractly or to use practical logical reasoning. So what do we mean by abstract thinking?

  • Seeing the whole forest rather than the individual trees.
  • Thinking about the why rather than the how.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out what they meant by practical logical reasoning, but I did find a few definitions:

  • Practical reason: the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do.
  • Logical reasoning: the process of using a rational, systematic series of steps based on sound mathematical procedures and given statements to arrive at a conclusion.

The first sounds a lot like “the meaning of life” thinking and the second like “Sherlock Holmes” thinking. I’m not entirely sure how this works for children, but perhaps this is where philosophical discussions can be helpful.

The Scent of Self-Control

There is documented evidence that scents can affect well-being, so perhaps there is a smell for self-control? At the very least, some smells can help indirectly by targeting the areas that promote self-control:

  • Cinnamon – sharpens the mind
  • Pine – reduces stress
  • Vanilla – elevates mood
  • Peppermint – greater cognitive stamina, motivation and overall performance
  • Jasmine – relieves depression and uplifts mood

Manage Stress and Elevate Mood

Feeling stressed can sabotage self-control, therefore, anything we can do to manage stress levels will help.

We’ve all heard how laughter is the best medicine – well, it’s true. Doing things that elevate your mood has a two-fold effect. Not only does it reduce stress, it also increases self-control.

Self-control - laughter is the best medicine


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

3 thoughts on “Self-Control Precedes Success

  1. I have been teaching my kids about self-control and patience. I have been an impatient kid when I was young that I, myself, disliked my impatience. I had no self-control either. When I grew up, I taught myself how to control myself, and I was successful, but still continuously learning and applying it to my husband and kids.


    1. I believe all such skills require life long learning. Sometimes, having maturity on our side also helps us work on these skills more effectively. The recognition that we need to work on ourselves is always the first step – something many people often miss. It’s terrific that you’ve done that for yourself.


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