Social & Emotional Development
Developing Self-Regulation
Core Finding: SE-REG-C01

Self-regulation refers to the volitional control of attention, behaviour, and executive functions for the purposes of goal-directed action. Many studies have shown that it is beneficial to help a child develop self-regulation abilities starting from infancy as its impacts last all the way into adulthood.


Self-regulation refers to the intentional control of attention, behaviour, and executive functions for the purposes of goal-directed action.

Many studies have shown that it is beneficial for children to develop self-regulation abilities from infancy as its impacts last all the way into adulthood.

Children with robust self-regulation skills participated more cooperatively in classroom activities,

sustained focus on tasks, and had reduced behavioural issues.

When children are able to control their own responses and emotions and wait for what they want (delayed gratification), they have better attention spans, control their emotions more effectively, plan and learn better, and function more effectively in any environment.

In a series of longitudinal studies on self-regulation, 500 children of faculty and graduate students at Stanford University completed a delay-of-gratification task at the age of 4 years old. The experiments were held at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School.

The studies found that the significance and predictive validity of delay ability in preschoolers for social, cognitive and mental health outcomes in later life have been demonstrated in a variety of domains. For example, the number of seconds preschoolers waited to obtain a preferred but delayed treat in this diagnostic laboratory situation predicted significantly higher SAT scores and better social cognitive and emotional coping when the children became adolescents.

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  1. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(4), 687–696.

  2. Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978–986. (Level IV)

In follow-up studies, preschool delay ability continued to predict later outcomes in adulthood including higher educational achievement, a higher sense of self-worth, better ability to cope with stress and less drug use, particularly in individuals vulnerable to psychosocial maladjustment.

Other studies have also found that the ability to self-regulate at a young age had effects on children’s functioning levels up to adulthood (age 40 and beyond).

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  1. Baron, A., Evangelou, M., Malmberg, L., & Melendez‐Torres, G. J. (2017). The Tools of the Mind curriculum for improving self‐regulation in early childhood: a systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 13(1), 1–77. (Level I)

  2. Poulton, R. , Moffitt, T. E., & Silva, P. A. (2015). The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study: Overview of the first 40 years, with an eye to the future. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 50(5),679-693. (Level I)

  3. Casey, B. J., Somerville, L. H., Gotlib, I. H., Ayduk, O., Franklin, N. T., Askren, M. K., Jonides, J., Berman, M. G., Wilson, N. L., Teslovich, T., Glover, G., Zayas, V., Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(36), 14998–15003. (Level III)

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Developmental Study in New Zealand following more than 1000 participants from birth to 32 years found that self-control in childhood is more important than socioeconomic status (SES) or IQ in predicting adults’ physical health, wealth, life satisfaction, addiction, crime, and parenting of the next generation.

Conversely, poor self-regulatory skills at age 3 predicted a wide array of adverse adult outcomes including higher rates of incarceration, poorer physical health, higher unemployment rates, and mental health difficulties.

In addition to problems during the schooling years, the studies showed that those with poor self-regulatory competencies are more likely to have worse health and financial outcomes in adulthood. In the same group of studies following another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. These studies suggested that interventions addressing self-control might reduce a range of societal costs, save taxpayers’ money, and promote prosperity.

Other studies have also demonstrated that lower levels of self-regulation skills have also been associated with

externalising behaviours

Externalising Behaviours - Comprises any of a wide variety of generally anti-social acts (i.e., acts that violate social norms and/or are harmful to others). These acts include those that are targeted at another individual (e.g., aggression), as well as acts that may be considered victimless (e.g., substance use). Common childhood externalizing behaviours are marked by emotion dysregulation and include defiance, tantrums, and aggression.2

2. Zeigler-Hill, V., & Shackelford, T. K. (Eds.). (2020). Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. USA: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3

, reduced attention
  1. Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Level III –book)
and lower academic achievement.