Thinking Skills: Self-Control

What is Self-Control?

Self-Control is the thinking skill that helps children learn to control their feelings and behaviors in order to make good decisions, while aiding in reducing impulsive actions and dealing effectively with frustration. For example, a child may use Self-Control when encountering a difficult problem on a test. Rather than impulsively writing down any answer, they are able to control their anxiety and figure out the answer.

Video games allow kids to practice their Self-Control skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games require that players stop themselves from engaging in a previously-successful action in order to learn a different approach on a new level. Similarly, the capacity to handle frustration is an inherent part of the learning process in well-designed video games.

Watch the video to learn more about how video games can help your child improve their Self-Control thinking skill.


How does Self-Control work?

Self-Control is a vital part of a child’s social well-being, as it allows them to make good decisions by regulating their feelings, frustrations, and reactions. This thinking skill also helps children to stop themselves from engaging in inappropriate and impulsive actions and to learn how to plan out, consider, and display appropriate behaviors.

Kids with good Self-Control skills:

  • Have positive, rather than negative self-images.
  • Are able to accept criticism without becoming angry or defensive.
  • Handle frustration well, without having outbursts or needing to stop what they’re doing.
  • Understand the need for taking turns in game play.
  • Show appropriate caution while crossing the street or using a knife.
  • Take enough time to understand social situations before joining in.

Kids with underdeveloped Self-Control skills:

  • Display anger or frustration when they need to share or wait their turn.
  • Act out in an inappropriate fashion in situations such as birthday parties or family functions.
  • Become very frustrated with academic tasks that they perceive to be difficult.
  • Have a tendency to blurt out answers to questions without raising their hands.
  • Are overly-aggressive in sports, causing their peers to not want to play with them.
  • Produce sloppy schoolwork.

Improve Self-Control Skills

These are some general strategies and ideas for helping kids to improve their Self-Control skills.

  • Model effective strategies for dealing with anger and frustration. Your child can learn how to appropriately express their feelings by observing you “stopping” or taking a “time-out” when you begin to get frustrated.
  • Increase your child’s frustration tolerance by incrementally introducing more challenging games and activities into their Play Diet. For example, while playing basketball, ask your child to count how many lay-ups out of 10 they can make, moving back 2 feet each time to increase the difficulty of the activity.
  • Provide your child with verbal praise and rewards for not being impulsive and for controlling an inappropriate response. Choose 1 or 2 specific impulsive behaviors to address, such as blurting out answers or not taking turns with others.
  • Arrange for your child to play games with other children that require them to wait for their turn. A good game for young children that involves patience is Chutes and Ladders, while for older children, games such as Risk or Chess can help to improve concentration and patience.

Self-Control and Academic Skills

Self-control plays a role in academics, particularly when demands increase and learning can become more frustrating. Self-Control helps students take their time while performing tasks, allowing for planning and metacognitive skills that facilitate deeper learning. Self-Control is an important skill for avoiding conflict and overwhelming frustration when children are doing unwanted homework.


  • Self-Control helps kids to slow down their reading so they can fully absorb material.
  • Self-Control helps struggling learners to handle the frustration that comes with learning to read.


  • Self-Control skills prevent kids from making unnecessary errors as a result of rushing through their math work.
  • Self-Control aids in handling the frustration that occurs with learning new and difficult concepts.


  • Self-Control is helpful when kids need to overcome the difficulty of getting started on writing tasks.
  • Self-Control skills help kids to take the necessary time to properly prepare for writing assignments.

Self-Control and Digital Play

Playing video games, searching the Internet, trying out the newest app, or Facebooking a friend demands a variety of thinking skills. Proficiency with any of these digital tools requires the ability to apply skills such as Planning, Organization, Working Memory, or Self-Control. For children, the attraction of  video games and technologies makes them an ideal teaching tool for practicing game-based skills and learning to apply them to school and daily activities.

Self-Control is a skill that helps players tolerate the frustration inherent in the trial-and-error nature of learning new skills within video games and other interactive digital media. Handling disappointment, maintaining emotional stability, and thinking before acting facilitate success in games. While success in some games is based upon rapid hand-eye coordination, many of the most popular and complex video games require self-control and thoughtfulness to succeed.

Digital play can help kids improve Self-Control skills by helping them to:

  • Identify parts of the game where they have to think before acting, rather than simply continuing as before.
  • Take the time to learn about the directions of a game, rather than simply playing and making mistakes.
  • Manage their feelings in order to complete a task within a game.
  • Use their success in a game to help build a sense of positive emotion and optimism.

Self-Control and Executive Functions

Self-control is a commonly-defined executive function that is often seen as a component of how individuals manage their feelings and behavior. The thinking skill of self-control is composed of two of Dawson and Guare’s executive skills, those of response inhibition and self-regulation of affect. Dawon and Guare define response inhibition as “the capacity to think before you act and the ability to resist the urge to say or do something.” Self-regulation of affect is defined as “the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior.”

As an executive function, self-control essentially reflects the ability to regulate behavior and emotions. It helps to reduce impulsivity and moderate emotional responses to situations. Self-control helps children to think before they act and may be observed in children’s capacity to raise their hands before speaking in class or stopping themselves from hitting another child when they are angry. Self-control skills are extremely important in social relationships and displaying appropriate behavior in settings such as classrooms, sporting events, and in one-on-one relationships.

Assessing the executive function of self-control in children involves determining how well they can regulate their actions and affect. The LearningWorks for Kids thinking-skills assessment is based on the Executive Skills Questionnaire (ESQ), which measures self-control primarily by children’s capacity to wait their turn in activities, consider the consequences of their actions and behavior, accept criticism, and handle stress.

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