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How To Develop Self-Control In The Very Young

Welcome, friends! You're going to be glad you stopped by today. I'm going to make this short and sweet because that's what I do for you, my cohorts in promoting empathy! If we have responsibility for very young children and their emotional development, we have the power to change the world.

Baby Steps

It's my job to boil it down to baby steps that infants toddlers and preschoolers can digest. It's also my job to bring parents, teachers, and early childhood administrators together on this. I know from my 43 years of experience, study, and application that this is what I need to do.

It's also very challenging because of the condition and placement of early childhood people in society including teachers, parents, grandparents administrators, and family childcare providers. We don't get paid much for bringing psychological principles to our children, sometimes we don't get paid at all. This is a difficult obstacle but not insurmountable.


People who study criminal behavior note that one of the most obvious things missing in those who commit violent acts is self-control.

If we could do something to promote self-control in the very young, could we reduce violence in the world? The answer is yes! After all, 80% of our brain connections are formed before the age of three. That includes those that govern the development of attitudes like empathy, trust, and self-regulation.

I believe that it's possible to reduce violence through early childhood experiences and I've spent my entire 43-year career proving it to myself by actually using these techniques with very young children.

The first idea I'm sharing today is one developed by child psychologist Stanley Greenspan and involves the circle of communication.

When a caregiver observes and reacts to a child, the child pauses to watch and then reacts back. The caregiver watches the child and then responds. This type of reciprocal interaction promotes the early experiences of waiting and taking turns interacting. This is one of the most important cornerstones of attention. It can be absent when a caregiver is experiencing mental or physical illness.

Both parents and teachers can capitalize on this technique by the simple act of playing peek-a-boo with an infant or toddler. It seems rudimentary but this kind of attention really does help with self-regulation which is also known as self-control.

It helps develop a pattern of behavior that includes waiting, motivation, and emotional reward.

Like I always say, "Early childhood education is science, but it's not rocket science. " Have fun with it and watch what happens with your child's behavior.

Playing hide and seek with very young children is great for them and excruciating for adults. If you've never tried it before you probably have no idea but if you have.... well you know.


Here's a version I developed for toddlers and it's really easy and fun to do as long as you have 2 adults. It can be done with one but it takes a little more planning.

One adult stays with the group and another takes one child to hide. After counting, the group tries to find the hiders but when it gets difficult, the hiders can give a quiet, "peep! peep!" as a clue. Continue the game until each child gets to be the hider. They're going to love it and learn a lot about emotional regulation, too.


Preschoolers can be empathetic and rational one minute and completely out of control the next. When they get out of hand, you can intentionally get calmer and bring them down to a state closer to yours through modeling.

Try saying this, (it's one of my mantras).

"I don't hit anyone and I don't let anyone hit me."

Since you're my special buddies and I'm in a really good mood today, I'm attaching a free copy of my What To Do When Your Toddler Hits that you can share with parents or friends. Have a great week and come back to visit next weekend! I"m working on an anti-bias and empathy-promoting program for teachers and parents that you don't want to miss!

If you haven't already joined our community, you can stay in the loop and become one of our VIPs (Very Important Parents and Providers) here. You'll immediately receive a free copy of my slideshow, "How To Get Your Kids To Listen Without Yelling Or Time-Outs!"

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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