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Self-regulation. Self-control. Executive function.

Self-regulation. Self-control. Executive function.

June 1 2016

These are all words to describe something that is becoming increasingly well known as one of the biggest predictors of a person’s success, health and wellbeing as an adult.

‘Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.’ (Center on the Developing Child @ Harvard University)

And when do the brain connections for self-regulation begin to form? Right from birth within the early relationships with the adults who care for us.

Turns out that researchers can predict which 4 year old will be more likely to own their own home, earn a decent income, be a good parent and have greater life satisfaction – as well as whether they will be more or less likely to become obese or suffer from high cholesterol and heart disease. Not only this but they can also predict which preschooler will grow up to be involved in a life of crime and abuse drugs, alcohol and/or tobacco.

How? By the emerging self-control skills they show in the year before they start school. (Dunedin Longitudinal Study)

The ability to self-regulate is now considered so crucial to our life outcomes that one American economist, James Heckman, is calling on his government to make preschool education promoting self-control mandatory. He argues that by investing in the early years, the US government will save billions of dollars through not having to address the social impacts of low self-control later on.

So how does regulation develop? This process starts at birth when adults respond sensitively and consistently to the infants they love and care for; this helps little babies know what it feels like to be soothed and lays the foundations for them to be able to begin to soothe and settle themselves when they are older.

Later in childhood, the brain pathways for regulation are shaped through fair, firm and consistent discipline – which means, for the grown ups, becoming something akin to an ‘emotion coach’ in order to teach children how to manage their emotions, delay gratification and learn other skills for managing tricky times and getting along with others. As a child grows, their peers begin to exert more pressure on them to conform to social mores, including being in control of their behaviour and emotions.

We must remember that this is not an all or nothing approach, particularly when it comes to emotions. ‘We want children to have their feelings, but not be overwhelmed by them – to feel discouraged but not give up; to feel anxious but not insist on staying home; and to be excited but not get so carried away in their enthusiasm that they use poor judgment in making decisions.’(Kenneth Barish)

This is complex stuff learnt in caring and secure adult:child relationships. So it seems the writing is on the wall for our government and policy makers too: if we want to raise a generation of loving, adaptable, successful, healthy individuals, we have to invest in the early years to help all children experience the benefits of sensitive and responsive relationships with caring adults who love them. 

Keen to read more? Check out this short piece from the Center on the Developing Child: or watch their 5 minute video clip on Executive Function:

We’ve shared this resource before and it’s a great one for age-based ideas on enhancing executive functioning throughout childhood: