Executive Functioning: Self-Control

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I think the first time I remember hearing the words "Self-Control" was when I was in 1st grade and a child in my class was having a tantrum on the floor.  Our teacher said to him that he needed to have better self-control. 

Self-control is the ability to regulate your thoughts, emotions, and actions.  

It is something we always expect kids to have, but never explicitly teach.  We may tell kids "use your inside voice" or "this is how you should sit on the carpet in the classroom" or "keep your hands to yourself,"  but what about in the instances where self-control is hard to practice?  

It is easy to keep your hands to yourself and use an inside voice when everything is going your way.  But what happens when a child gets upset?  We expect a 7-year-old to be able to understand the emotions that feel too big and practice good manners without ever being taught about their emotions.  

Physiological Triggers Related to Self Control

One of the best ways to teach a child how to control themselves is to help them identify the physiological responses tied to their emotions.  When they start to feel angry, can they feel their heart beating fast?  What about their palms getting sweaty or a headache coming on?  When they are sad do they get a stomach ache?  By helping them name and identify these feelings, you, as a parent can help them know when they are getting upset and give them the skills to recognize and articulate this.  By being able to understand when they are getting angry or frustrated, you can work with them to prevent a meltdown.

Strategies to Calm Down

Another way to help your child with his or her self-control is to provide them with strategies. One of the strategies we commonly teach is how to “smell the flowers and blow out the candles.”   This visualization helps them learn to control their breathing.  When they smell the flowers, they take a big whiff of air through their nose and then blow out the candles by blowing the whole breath out through their mouths.  If they can do this 3 times when they feel one of those emotional triggers start, they can calm themselves down enough to try and handle the situation in a more positive way than losing control and use the manners and self-control ability that we expect children to have. 

Communicating Effectively

After a child learns how to recognize their emotional triggers and how to calm themselves down, it is important for them to be able to communicate what they are feeling.  In order to do this, this means that they need to learn what language to use.  A way that you can help them learn this, is to listen to them and validate their feelings by giving them names. When a child starts listing things that are wrong, if you can repeat back “Okay, so you are saying that you feel x, y, and z.  It sounds to me like you are frustrated.  Is this true?”  It allows the child to identify what they are feeling and put a name to it.  Frustration might be a new concept to our younger kids and they might not realize that is what they are feeling.  The other benefit of handling the situation in this way is that the child will feel like you understand their emotions and are validating what they are feeling.  The child feels as though they are being listened too and can effectively learn how to communicate.

The other piece of effective communication is having them address what made them upset. One of the most common ways children are taught to do this is through “I-statements.”  This communication model helps prevent future conflict because the other person does not feel attacked.  For example, if a child on the playground gets upset because someone else cut her in line to use the swings, instead of saying “You cut! That’s not fair! You cheater!” the child can say “I feel really upset when people cut in front of me because I have been waiting my turn for a long time.  Could you please wait in line?” This still gets the message across that the other child did something to make her upset, and shouldn’t cut, but it takes the “attack” out of the accusation.  This tactic allows a child to stick up for his or her self in a positive way.  These should be explicitly taught and modeled, so that our students can learn how to use them appropriately. 

By explicitly teaching kids about self-control and their emotional regulation, it avoids the misunderstandings that come when we just expect them to learn by example. Self-control is one of the most necessary skills for kids to learn in order for them to be successful, and it is important we teach them this early on.  

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