Experts at West Ridge Academy really likes the idea of “Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)”. Sometimes care giver/parents get frustrated with their kids when the zone is very narrow. We all have room to improve…anyway great article on helping your kids learn discipline.
by Teresa Meehan Ph.D.
Many desperate parents and teachers often wonder how young children learn self-control. This question often comes in the wake of fried nerve endings following an interaction with a child who appeared out of control, or when dealing with a teenager with impulse control issues. Self-control is a skill we ideally start learning at birth. It is a behavior that is shaped by external systems of rewards and punishments, which means that it is up to the caregiver to shape behavior. Rewards, like praising, are what we use when we wish to acknowledge a desired behavior as being a good thing. By rewarding the child, our hope is that the desired behavior will continue. Punishment, such as negative comments, removal of a desired object or even spanking, shows the child that a behavior is not good or appropriate. By punishing a child, we hope to stop the behavior and discourage it from re-emerging at a different time.
Self-control occurs when the child can comply with the caregiver’s commands and directives even when they are not immediately present.
Model of Self-Control
The first stage in the development of self-control involves the back and forth interaction described above between the caregiver and the child. The child exhibits a particular behavior, the caregiver either rewards or punishes the child for the behavior, (hopefully) the desired behavior emerges. This interaction is called Adult-controlled behavior because learning is dependent on the adult’s intervention using rewards and punishment.
- Child approaches an electrical outlet and the caregiver says, “Don’t touch that!”
- Child withdraws
- Caregiver rewards child with praise, “That’s a good boy.”
The second stage in the development of self-control occurs when the child can comply with the caregiver’s directives even when they are not immediately present. This means that the appropriate behavior has been internalized and the child is now able to control the behavior without the caregiver’s intervention.
- The child is exploring his environment. He approaches an electrical outlet and says to himself, “Don’t touch that!”
- Child withdraws
The model for how children learn self-control is rather simple. For it to work, caregiver’s must be consistent in their rewards and punishment. Repeated patterns are what help the child internalize the desired behavior.
The development of self-control is critical for a child to learn how to behave appropriately. However, the development of self-control does not fully address the more complex problems many caregivers face when dealing with behavioral problems. This requires an understanding of the development of self-regulation.
How Children Learn to Self-Regulate Behavior
Self-regulation is related to an individual’s ability to plan, guide, and monitor his or her behavior internally. The process of self-regulation is much more complex than learning self-control because it involves higher mental functions that occur with the maturing brain. In many ways, human self-regulation works like a thermostat. A thermostat senses and measures temperature and compares the reading to a desired temperature that is preset by the operator. When the reading passes the threshold, the thermostat turns either a heating or cooling system on or off. Children have to learn where the threshold exists for them, both internally and externally.
How does self-regulation develop?
The development of self-regulation involves the growth of the prefrontal cortex (the area just behind the forehead) in the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for planning and abstract thought. Scientists now understand that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until about the age of 25, which helps to explain some of the impulsivity and lack of reasoning skills evident during adolescence and early adulthood. The developmental process of self-regulation is a slow, gradual process that generally occurs in the following five stages.
Stage 1- Development of the nervous system to modulate behavior
Infants attempt to modulate arousal states through organized patterns of behavior that include reflex actions such as the hand-to-mouth movement used for thumb sucking. This self-soothing behavior works to protect the infant’s immature nervous system from excessive stimulation from the outside world. Although this act may seem minimal, the degree to which a child learns how to self-regulate arousal states impacts later behavior in numerous ways. Think about the adolescents and adults you know who turn to drugs, alcohol, food, nicotine, caffeine, etc. as external sources to help regulate the internal states of anxiousness and depression.
The first 3 months of life is when a child acquires the ability to self-regulate arousal states. The caregiver routines assist the infant in achieving self-regulating behavior. Behavior such as the gentle rocking back and forth patterns that adults and older children do when holding a young baby seems to be an innate response to an infant in distress.
Stage 2- Development of the sensory-motor system to modulate behavior
Infants and young children develop a capacity to coordinate non-reflexive actions in response to different environmental stimuli. As we noted in Stage 1, behaviors like thumb sucking (or sucking on a pacifier) are reflexive actions that infants use to self-sooth. In this stage, however, they are developing the ability to self-sooth in ways that are not reflexive. Behaviors like making cooing noises or holding a special blanket are non-reflexive in nature.
Stage 3- Control
During this phase, children show the capacity to initiate, maintain, or cease actions in response to caregiver’s directions. This stage is where the adult-control piece in the development of self-control comes into the picture. As you’ll recall from our discussion above, this is the phase in which infants begin to learn to obey and comply with external signals produced by the adult caregiver. For instance, when an infant reaches out to grab his or her mother’s earring, she responds with a verbal cue, “No. Don’t pull mommy’s earring.” At the same time, she may reach up and gently remove the infant’s hand from the earring. After repeated cycles of the infant’s action and the mother’s response, the infant will eventually learn to respond to the verbal cue provided by the mother.
Stage 4- Self-control
The child has the capacity to comply with the caregiver’s commands and directives in the absence of the caregiver. Self-control signals a newly acquired independence. The child now has the ability to play freely while following the rules previously established by the caregiver.
Stage 5- Self-regulation
The child is able to understand the relationship between his or her thoughts and feelings and the changing environment. Their ability to respond appropriately comes from their internal ability to measure and evaluate what is going on around them and then act in a predictable way. In order to be able to fully self-regulate, an individual has to be able to integrate external cues from the environment to make a decision regarding their appropriateness of response. In order for the process of internalization to occur, a child learns to use tools to help organize his thoughts. The primary tool we all use is language. As a child’s language skills improve, so will his or her ability to plan, organize and modulate behavior.
Have you ever observed a child engaged in pretend play? They often re-create their environments and take on the roles of caregivers or other siblings. One of the primary features of pretend play is the child’s use of language during play session. A critical part of role-playing is using the language of the person they are imitating. This use of language helps the child to internalize behaviors as well as other aspects of their environment. Academics call this type of language “private speech” because even though it is being spoken out loud, it is not the same as conversational language. It is an external use of language to help organize internal thoughts. As adults we sometimes use private speech, especially if we’re trying to sort out a particularly difficult problem. For the most part, however, by later childhood, private speech becomes internalize and is no longer spoken out loud.
Model of Self-Regulation
- Behavior is guided according to self-formulated plan or goal.
- Behavior is changed and adjusted according to changing goals and situations.
- Child uses aspects of the environment (language, social context) to attain goals.
How to Facilitate the Development of Self-Regulation
Adult caregivers play a huge role in assisting young children in developing the ability to self-regulate. Ideally, caregivers who are actively involved in child development provide “scaffolding” to assist the child go from their current skill level to their potential skill level. A scholar named Jerome Bruner defined the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with support (potential development) as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
The term “scaffolding” is based on the physical object construction people use when building a new structure. The scaffold in flexible in that they can change the shape depending on the need of the worker. When caregivers provide a scaffold, they change and adjust their input to the child to help him or her bridge the gap and jump to the next level of learning.
The most common form of scaffolding we use when teaching someone with less experience than ourselves is language. We adjust our tone of voice and our vocabulary to meet the needs of the learner. Think about how you change your language patterns when talking with a 3 year old versus a 10 year old or another adult. We make these changes without automatically in order to facilitate the conversation.
Language provides the labels and meaning for the objects and ideas in a child’s world-thus, it is through language that a child builds his or her understanding of his or her own environment. Language and conversation provide the means for the child to examine and organize new ideas and concepts as he or she builds cognitive understanding. Language becomes a powerful tool for scaffolding.
Ways to Scaffold Learning
- Model the desired behavior- Young children watch and learn. This is realized in the context of their pretend play.
- Provide feedback- Feedback should be positive in nature. Praise a child for success when a goal is met. Don’t punish the child when if they fail. Adjust your interaction to meet the needs to the child. If the ZPD is not too broad, the child will not fail.
- Adjust your language quality to meet the needs of the child- Use vocabulary the child understands. Keep sentences simple. Complex sentences containing multiple commands require higher cognitive skills to be able to process.
- Keep it simple- Break the task or learning opportunity into small chunks to make it more manageable for the child. This will also help the child focus his or her attention on the pertinent aspects of the task.
The Bottom Line
Knowing how children learn self-control is a small piece of a larger picture. To help children learn self-control requires a caregiver to provide appropriate scaffolding during their interactions to assist the child learn to self-regulate behavior by internalizing appropriate responses according to changing environments. One of the major ways a caregiver can assist a child to acquire skills that involve higher levels of learning is to provide scaffolding in terms of modeling and language behaviors. It is critical that these self-regulation, and consequently self-control are internalized in childhood in order to produce better outcomes in adolescence and adulthood.