Research has shown that higher levels of self-control in childhood are associated with improved health and financial outcomes, life satisfaction and decreased levels of substance abuse and criminal convictions in adulthood. Based on this retrospective analysis, the positive development of self-control is of interest to policy makers looking to promote success across the health, education, economic and social domains in adulthood.

Few studies to date have assessed early self-control at a population level; thus, less is known about the emergence of self-control in the early years of life. One exception is The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study which assessed self-control using a single composite self-control measure created from assessments taken between the ages of 3-11 years. They found that lower self-control was related to later poor health and financial outcomes and increased criminal offending in adulthood.

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.

Key findings:

  • The developmental pattern for the majority of the sample (63%) did not include a classification of low self-control.
  • Only 8% of the sample were classified as exhibiting two or more periods of low self-control and less than 1% of children were classified as persistently low across all time points.  
  • Children who demonstrated one or more period of low self-control were more likely to demonstrate fewer prosocial behaviours and greater hyperactivity at 4.5 years of age.
  • Children with two or more periods of low self-control were distinguished from children with no periods of low self-control by a number of demographic, child, family and environmental factors and maternal behaviours.
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