• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 02nd July, 2012

Taking self-control of the future

From a very early age, children are encouraged to learn to regulate their behavior. Parents try to teach their children not to have a tantrum when they’re upset, to wait for things rather than expecting them straight away, to think before acting, and to respond to frustration without aggression. Although this learning process is difficult for both children and parents, recent research indicates that it may be one of the most important lessons for ensuring better outcomes for children in later life. Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, Duke University and the University of Illinois in the United States, the University of Otago in New Zealand, and McMaster University in Canada collaborated on a longitudinal study to look at the relationship between self-control in children and a wide range of adult outcomes.They found that children who had lower levels of self-control at the age of three had poorer health, more financial problems, were more likely to be single parents, and had more criminal convictions as adults than those with higher self-control. Self-control was just as important for predicting adult outcomes as things like intelligence and social class.Self-control encompasses many aspects of how we behave, such as how impulsive or patient we are, whether we are hyperactive or inattentive, can stick to a task, and how we tolerate frustration. It is easy to recognise how these skills, or the lack of them, might play a role in such things as success at school, gaining and retaining employment, making friends and building relationships, and following rules or laws. Some children are able to gain self-control more quickly and easily than others. This may be due to nature, nurture, or, most likely, some combination of the two. Many parenting programs include strategies for parents to help their children improve self-control by teaching and rewarding socially appropriate behavior and ensuring there are consequences for behavior that relates to a lack of self-control such as tantrums or aggression. However, when thinking about behavioral problems in children, we often focus on the specific behavior that we want to change, rather than thinking about self-control as a goal in itself.The findings in this new study showed that the relationship between early self-control and adult outcomes is clear, meaning that the more self-control the child had, the more successful he or she would be in adulthood.In addition, because this study followed children over the course of their lives, the researchers were able to see what happens when self-control improves over time. Those children who showed improvement in their self-control as they got older had better outcomes in adulthood. This indicates that problems can be remedied. Interventions that are effective for improving self-control in children may therefore help to improve outcomes for children in many areas of their lives.The findings still applied even when children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder were not included in the analyses. Thus although self-control is related to symptoms of ADHD, it appears to be a broader issue that needs to be addressed.The study reported on results from two parts of the world, a large cohort from New Zealand and a birth cohort of twins from England and Wales. The strong link between early self-control and outcomes in both countries indicates that this is a persistent association that is present in a variety of contexts and settings.The sample from England and Wales allowed the researchers to find out whether differences in self-control between brothers and sisters predicted differences in outcomes. This enabled them to see whether it was self-control, or something about the family itself, that led to these outcomes. Although these children have only been followed up to age 12 so far, the results still showed a strong pattern. They indicate that siblings with lower self-control were more likely to start smoking, have problems in school, and engage in anti-social behavior than their brothers or sisters with higher self-control. This was still true even when differences in siblings’ IQ were taken into account.The report has identified a new and important early indicator of future problems that should be targeted in efforts to improve outcomes for children. The researchers also developed a way to measure self-control using observers, teachers, parents, and children themselves. This measurement could be developed for use in children’s services to assist in the identification of children at-risk of poor outcomes and to help tailor interventions accordingly. In addition, existing interventions could incorporate those measures to see whether they are able to improve self-control and thus have a significant impact on a range of outcomes.The outcomes that are affected by lower self-control, namely health, finances, substance use, and crime, are not only important for the individual but also have a huge economic impact on society. Given the current scarcity of resources, this important piece of research is very timely. Improving children’s self-control could yield a significant return by reducing the costs of health care, financial support, and crime. The more difficult task, however, is to determine which interventions can do this.ReferenceMoffitt, T., Areseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton., Roberts, B., Ross, S., Sears, M., Thomson, W., Caspi, A., (2011) "A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (10)

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