“Lemme have a cotton candy?” begs your 5-year-old at the zoo.

“Sorry,” you say. “After you eat a healthy lunch, maybe…”

“Noooo!” shouts a suddenly raging beast. “I want cotton candy NOW!”

“Wait” is a painful word for young kids to hear. Postponing pleasure is torturous to little brains craving instant gratification. If the emotions shrieking in your kindergartner’s brain and body seem near-impossible to control, it’s because your 5-year-old still needs to develop what is arguably the most important life skill yet: self-regulation.

What is self-regulation?

“Self-regulation” is a skill kindergartners need to allow them to listen, to wait, and to react calmly to things they don’t want to hear. In fact, it’s a skill people of all ages need to function calmly and peacefully in day-to-day life, it’s just the younger they start, the better. For kindergartners, it means learning to calm down, listen, and be patient with themselves and others. Defined in a recent University of Michigan study, self-regulation is a person’s ability to control their thoughts, emotions, and actions to achieve a desired outcome — be that sharing a toy, following a teacher’s directions, or not melting down when things aren’t going their way. Longer term, it’s the skill set most used to, say, solve tough problems, save rather than spend, exercise and eat a healthy diet, and persist in college through graduation. In learning terms, this is the skill set older kids use when they study for a test instead of playing a video game, recognize that going back over their mistakes on a math quiz is a good way to figure out what they misunderstood, and ask the teacher for more help if they need it. It’s complex because self-regulation is exercised on cognitive, emotional, motivational, biological, and behavioral levels.

Why is self-regulation important?

Multiple studies have shown that children with self-regulation skills become adolescents and adults with higher SAT scores, more academic success, higher self-esteem, higher incomes, better physical health, and less obesity. What’s more, people with self-regulation skills have been shown to make better decisions, sleep better, handle stress better, and have better relationships (as shown by lower divorce rates and higher rates of marital satisfaction) and are less likely to suffer from drug and alcohol addiction.

That’s all nice to look forward to in the distant future. But how is it relevant now? Two reasons: First, people who learn self-regulation as children grow up to be adults with self-regulation. Second, children with self-regulation skills can calm themselves when they’re furious or frustrated, they can restrain themselves from blurting out everything that pops into their heads, they’re flexible enough to adjust to new situations, they can manage their behavior in the moment and over the longer term to accomplish goals. Self-regulation will help your 5-year-old navigate social and academic challenges in kindergarten, like waiting for their turn, learning to read, and learning math skills.

Since self-regulation is a key factor in a child’s success in life, parents can — and should — teach their kids self-regulation skills in multiple ways.

7 ways to teach your child self-regulation

  1. Be a role model

    Numerous studies indicate that both mothers and fathers are influential role models in teaching their kids self-regulation skills, including healthy eating habits, following exercise routines, showing emotional control, and having future-oriented thinking. Consider your own behavior. Do you demonstrate mastery of your brain, body, emotional reactions, and behavior? Are there circumstances in which you’re highly undisciplined?

    For example, three statements parents and guardians should avoid saying:

    • I know its self-destructive, but I can’t stop eating this whole pint of ice cream.
    • #!&!!#! That #!!#! dude took my #!#! parking space! I’m gonna #!&!!# him up!
    • I’m addicted to Grey’s Anatomy. Tonight I’m binge watching Season 12 until I pass out.

    Instead, say:

    • This flavor is delicious but I will just eat one scoop because too much sugar isn’t good for me.
    • I feel sorry for that driver who stole my parking spot. He is probably having a terrible day.
    • I’m going to bed early, so I can be happy, focused, and productive tomorrow.
  2. Teach your children to distract themselves

    A key strategy in self-regulation is the ability to focus one’s attention away from a stressful, negative situation by concentrating on something else that is relaxing and emotionally positive. Children who sing soothing songs like Raffi’s self-regulation song, “Take a Breath,” or imagine they are in outer space, or play with a Slinky have consistently performed better in self-regulation research experiments. Multiple studies affirm the success of “self-distraction” at easing feelings of anger or impatience. Parents can teach their children this skill by guiding young minds toward comforting thoughts in times of stress or trouble.

  3. Promote big goals

    Children will self-regulate and make smarter choices if they have clear aspirations. A 5-year-old can focus on goals like: “In kindergarten I want to make friends. I will learn to read and write my name. I will share nicely with others. I will listen to my teacher. I will learn to run really fast. I will play fun games at recess.” Parents can help by talking to their kindergartners about their goals. They can also help by having conversations focused on their child’s moral development, to build goodness, integrity, grit, and other virtues. A great book to help parents with this is Character Matters by Thomas Lickona.

  4. Teach breathing meditation

    “Hold on, buddy! Take 10 deep breaths. You can get through this.” Asking your 5-year-old to conquer a tantrum with slow inhalation actually works. Neurologically, deep breathing delivers tranquility to the locus coeruleus, a region of the brain where stress and panic are located. This meditation teacher shares her method for teaching young children deep-breathing meditation by having them pretend to be a tree, the wind, or the sun. Many educators are currently using breathing meditation as an alternative to punishment. It makes sense: asking a little one to sit quietly and breathe deeply increases their self-regulation. Punishment, in contrast, creates guilt, resentment, and low self-esteem.

  5. Read books with examples of self-regulation

    Books exert an enormous influence on kindergartners’ impressionable brains. Reading stories to your child about successful self-regulation will encourage your child to emulate her literary heroes. Excellent age-appropriate choices include:

  6. Play outdoor games, board games, and music

    Many outdoor games for kindergartners increase self-regulation because they require focus on precise physical movements and/or following directions. Examples include Freeze Tag, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, Mirror Mirror, Mother May I, and Follow the Leader. Numerous board games also teach self-regulation as they require kids to take turns, listen, and respond in the moment to prompts. Try My Feelings Game and Hoot Owl Hoot. In an Oregon State University self-regulation program, music is used during circle time games to help young kids practice and develop self-regulation. Many songs for young kids helps kids process feelings, build empathy, and think about the consequences of their actions — all of which are instrumental in building self-regulation.

  7. Avoid (or at least limit) temptations

    Recent research suggests that willpower is not as effective for self-regulation as simply avoiding temptations. You can help your 5-year-old self-regulate by keeping hard-to-resist stimuli and situations away from little ones. As they say: out of sight, out of mind. To wit, my wife and I hide the chocolate at our house (even from ourselves), and we don’t allow screen time in the kids’ bedrooms. You can also teach your child to walk away from temptations, or simply close their eyes. These can lead to powerful self-regulation skills throughout your child’s life.

A couple of things to keep in mind

  • Do not seek to “regulate” your child all day. Kindergartners need two-and-a-half to three hours each day of unstructured play time. During free play, kids can be independent while building their confidence, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills.
  • Whenever your child is vigorously playing, keep him hydrated. Drinking water reduces stress by keeping cortisol levels down.
  • Give your 5-year-old ample empathy and consistently praise their efforts and progress. Your child will learn these skills gradually and their incremental progress might pique your own frustration level.
  • Remember that children who have sensory processing issues, like ADHD, typically find self-regulation especially challenging, so give them extra empathy, patience, time, and praise.

At the zoo 8 months later

“May I have some cotton candy, please?” asks your almost-6-year-old.

“Sorry,” you say. “After you eat a healthy lunch, maybe…”

“Okay. Huh,” replies your little self-regulating negotiator, calculating how he can achieve his spun sugar goal. “Daddy, what if I eat a veggie burger first? That seems very healthy; enough to get the cotton candy, right?”