Early self-control development: Prevalence, persistence and change in a New Zealand cohort

Early Self-Control Development: Prevalence, Persis…
01 Jul 2020


This study uses data from the contemporary longitudinal Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study to increase our understanding of self-control development in the first five years of life. The GUiNZ study follows the development of around 6,800 children born in 2009 and 2010. Children were assessed using a variety of self-control related measures when they were 9 months, 2 and 4.5 years of age.

Our primary aims were to:

  1. Devise indices of self-control using relevant measures of children’s behaviour at 9 months, 2 years and 4.5 years of age.
  2. Validate the indices of self-control against the internationally recognised Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).
  3. Identify the early childhood familial and situational factors that promote or undermine the development of self-control.
  4. Describe the stability of pre-schoolers' self-control and explore if there is an age where children at greater risk can be identified.
  5. Identify factors that distinguish children with low self-control from those without low self-control across the preschool period.


Using data from the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) cohort of around 6,000 children, researchers looked at the development of self-control across the first five years of a child’s life. They also looked at whether self-control should be considered a fixed or fluctuating construct in children.

Key Results

At the individual level, we demonstrated considerable change in our classification of low self-control during the preschool period.

Using our early measures (9 months, and 2 years) of self-control, it is not possible to identify individual children with certainty who are likely to experience poor self-control at 4.5 years.

Our findings do not support targeting individual pre-schoolers for selfcontrol intervention, instead our results suggest that promoting universal population-based strategies to optimise the development of self-control in pre-schoolers may still be worthwhile and potentially valuable.

Our findings suggest that self-control can be promoted at the population level. We found that behaviours such as reading books or telling stories to children, implementing rules around children’s screen time, and encouraging shared parent-child interactions may help in developing children’s self-regulatory strategies.

Our findings also suggest that at the population level, those children with two or more periods of low self-control may benefit from strategies that increase support for families living in more deprived areas, mothers experiencing postnatal depression, and those living in neighbourhoods with fewer resources. Strategies that encourage parents to have more
shared and respectful parent-child interactions and to have rules around their child’s screen time may also be beneficial for helping children use their capacity for self-control more effectively.

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