Helping Children Become Successful in Future: Self-Control

Helping Children Become Successful in Future: Self-Control


by Dr Shen Li Lee

In the late 1960’s, Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology in Stanford, conducted a series of experiments on children that are now famously known as the “marshmallow tests” (you can read the full details of the study published in Developmental Psychology). The marshmallow test was a study on self-control in children age 4-6 years old. The children were placed in a room by themselves and given a marshmallow. The children were given the option that they could either eat the marshmallow now, or if they were willing to wait while the researcher stepped out for a few minutes, they could have a second marshmallow when he returned.

They tracked the children into adulthood and found that the children who couldn’t wait were more likely to have behavioural problems at home and in school. They had “lower SAT scores, struggled in stressful situations, had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships“. The children that could wait 15 minutes had SAT scores, on average, 210 points higher than the children who could only wait 30 seconds.

Children with Greater Self-Control Become Healthier and Wealthier Adults

Similar results were found in a New Zealand study on self-control in children where the researchers “assessed the self-control of more than 1000 people born in Dunedin between 1972-1973 during the first decade of their life and then examined their health outcomes, wealth outcomes and criminal conviction history at age 32.

Even after accounting for study members’ differences in social status and IQ, children as young as three who scored lower on measures of self-control were more likely than children with higher self-control to have the following outcomes as adults:

  • Physical health problems (including poorer lung function, sexually transmitted infections, obesity, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, dental disease)
  • Substance dependence (including tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and harder drugs)
  • Difficulty with financial planning (including savings habits, home ownership, investments, retirement plans)
  • Difficulty with credit and money management (including bankruptcy, missed payments, credit card problems, living from paycheque to paycheque)
  • Rearing a child in a single-parent household
  • A criminal conviction record

Read the full study.

The Kit Kat Test

After reading about self-control and future success, hubby decided to give Aristotle our version of the Marshmallow test. After dinner, we gave Aristotle 5 nuggets of Kit Kat and told him that he could eat them now but if he could wait until we finished washing the dishes, he could have another 5 nuggets of Kit Kat. It took us about 25 minutes to finish cleaning up (I waited until we were down wiping down the stove and the sink before I told him we were done :-p).

Our results? Aristotle, passed the test. Not that I would have expected anything else given what I know of his nature. Hercules, on the other hand, would probably have a tougher time delaying gratification. Since he is only 2.5 years, he is still a bit young to be put to the test. Nevertheless, he wanted in on the action. His results? Forget being able to tell him to wait – those little nuggets of Kit Kat were in his mouth before we could give him the instructions.

Don’t Worry, Self-Control Can Be Taught

If you did decide to try the marhmallow test and lamented at your child’s inability to wait, fret not! The good news is that self-control can be taught  and the children whose self-control improved with age, also had better outcomes as adults. “Even those who already have above average self-control — could reap later rewards from universal interventions designed to improve such skills, especially in childhood but also in adolescence”.

Indeed, Mischel discovered this fact when he “taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes”. According to Mischel, “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

The results are clear, if you want your children to be successful in future, help them develop their self-control. And if you want to know more about how to teach your child self-control, there is a chapter devoted to it in Welcome to Your Child’s Brain by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang.


Surviving the Challenges of Retrenchment in the Family

Surviving the Challenges of Retrenchment in the Family


by Focus on the Family

Whether you’ve been laid-off, fired, downsized, outsized or right-sized doesn’t really matter. If you’ve been forced out of a position without a new one in sight, the road you’re travelling is likely full of speed bumps, potholes and detours. You might be struggling with feelings of worry, insecurity and stress.

While the emotional stress of undergoing a situation like this may be very real, here are some practical suggestions to help you cope in this turbulent season:

  • Think ahead to where you’d like to be in one year, three years or five years. Can you imagine yourself in a better position than the one you were forced to leave?
  • Find a support system. Ask your former employer about employment counselling, check in your community for support groups or just meet with a good friend who’ll level with you even in the toughest times.
  • Put your most positive spin on the change. View this time as a chance to grow, an opportunity for new adventures in your current career. Maybe it’s even a good time for a complete career change.
  • Reach out beyond yourself. Volunteer a few hours a week at a local charity. You’ll feel better doing something good for others, and you’ll realise that your life could be worse.

Understandably, unemployment can devastate entire families too. Families suffer the financial and emotional consequences as the search for a job may go on for months or years. Be honest with yourself and your spouse about your emotions. Avoid pretending that you’re not angry or depressed, and resist putting on a good front. Honesty allows you to sort through your feelings. Some might be worth embracing while others won’t. Try keeping a journal of your rollercoaster-like emotions. Learn to show appreciation to your spouse who will be the one who supports you through this difficult time.

It is good to let your children know what you are going through but don’t allow your children to feel unnecessarily burdened by your unemployment. Family life can go on. Instead of putting life on hold, learn to live more simply. Your family can have just as much fun for less money. A little creativity can keep life normal for your children.

Take this as an opportunity to reflect and reassess your strengths, and even brush up on certain skills to prepare yourself for your next job. It may also be a good time to re-evaluate your family priorities and set new goals together. For many working parents, the daily grind might have stolen the joy out of family life. Having more time at home now will allow you to reconnect with your spouse and savour the fleeting moments of your children’s growing up years.

Ultimately, keep matters in perspective and maintain a positive attitude. As you look around, you’ll see far greater hardships than the loss of a job. Focus on the loved ones around you and you’ll realise how much you have to be grateful for. On many days, thoughts of thankfulness for what you have will keep you going.

Copyright © 2016. Focus on the Family Singapore Ltd.

Facing unemployment or know someone experiencing retrenchment? Our team of counsellors are committed to journeying with you through this difficult season. Find out more about our counselling services today. 


Quick English Aid #3: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Quick English Aid #3: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery


In 1824, Charles Caleb Colton made this famous quote “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery“.

What most people don’t know is that Oscar Wilde later made an extended quote which puts things in perspective for many people, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Let’s face it. Not all of us are born writers. While we hope and pray that our children can write fantastic sentences at the drop of the hat, it takes a lot of hard work to master the basics before they can master the more advance techniques. The only way to do so is to practise by aping sentences before remodelling consistently to make it theirs. In fact, many writers and copywriter use this technique to improve their writing as well.

While plagiarism is definitely out of the question, imitation of sentences is definitely the top of the list for students who are unable to create interesting sentences. This exercise aids students greatly, especially if they want to transit from simple sentences to complex ones. If used well, this exercise can even introduce figurative language such as personification and alliteration in the future.

Why Imitate?

When students imitate sentences, students become aware of structure, which supports their understanding of punctuation and promotes style awareness: word order, varied sentence lengths and parallel structure, for example. However, the main idea behind this is to really ensure the students are introduced to a wide variety of sentences.

Even Great Writers Imitate

It may be a shock to some but many of the greatest writers copy sentences from others in order to vary their styles of writing. They steal word, they copy styles and they borrow thoughts.  No masterpiece is completely original. Here are some examples of writers who copy from others until they make it:

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s style of writing  was heavily influenced by Ovid, the 1st century BC Roman poet. Many of his plays were similar to earlier histories and books ranging from history (the lives of Henry V, Richard III) to a novel titled  The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, which was written 30 years earlier.

Steven Pressfield

When Steven Pressfield first started out, he copied Ernest Hemingway‘s works repeatedly in order to get a sense of his pacing, his storytelling, and his voice. He wanted to see how Hemingway constructed sentences, and how each sentence related to the ones around it.


Sentence Imitation

So how can we go about it? We can start by taking a sentence or paragraph and change  nouns, verbs, adjectives of the following paragraphs to alter the meaning.  We leave basic sentence structure the same (articles, prepositions, commas, colons, etc.) alone.

We will use an example from Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness:


Original: The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.

Changed: The air was smoky, electric, powerful.


Original: The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.

Changed: The long sets of music played on, overwhelming, into the hearts of excited youth.  


The main aim is to change the words accordingly to the context while maintaining the basic structure of the sentences. You can take samples from famous works and tweak accordingly.


Activities to Help Children Improve their Focus and Self-Control

Activities to Help Children Improve their Focus and Self-Control


by Dr Shen Li Lee

According to Ellen Galinsky in Mind in the Making, children need focus and self-control to help them achieve their goals. Unfortunately, focus and self-control isn’t something they naturally develop as they grow up, it is something they need to practice in order to get good at it.  The following are some activities recommended by Galinsky in Mind in the Making that you can do with your children to help them improve their focus and self-control.

For babies and toddlers:

  • Observe your baby to see what helps him to calm down and follow his cues.
  • Use the method that works best for your baby. A commonly recommended technique is to hold your baby until he cools down – so when your baby or toddler loses it, the best thing to do is be present, not walk away.
  • Acknowledge your baby’s successes.

Pre-schoolers and older children:

  • Encourage your child’s interests – it might be a lemonade stand (these are easy to do in this day and age of technology) or a desire to learn martial arts. Helping your child cultivate an interest in something he cares strongly about will help him develop focus.
  • Play focus games like “I Spy”, guessing games, jigsaw puzzles, musical chairs, etc. These games require your child to pay attention.
  • Read stories to your child because listening requires focus. You can also play listening games, e.g. guess which song this is.
  • Play computer games that promote focus.
  • Watch TV programs that encourage children to pay attention. Select age-appropriate, meaningful and educational programs (children over two can learn a lot from such programs). Use the subjects covered as a launching platform for further discussion with your child.
  • Play sorting games with changing rules. E.g. Sort random objects by colour, shape, and/or size.
  • Play pretend and make up stories.
  • Play game with rules, e.g. “Simon says”.
  • Do Stroop-like exercises (see below)

Stroop Test:

When presented with a chart like the one shown below, we have a tendency to read the words. The aim of the task is to say the colour of the ink that the word is printed in rather than reading the word. In the example below, the first line would be: green, purple, yellow, red.

The stroop test is a good one for adults as well. It is one of the exercises included in Ryuta Kawashima’s “Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain“. There is a Stroop test app for iPhone/iPad. You can also do the stroop test online at cognitive tests.


Quick English Aid #2: Making Cool Sentences

Quick English Aid #2: Making Cool Sentences


The Issues with Grammar

How does one learn grammar? You know the drill. We spend the first six weeks of every school year drilling and re-drilling  parts of speech, phrases, clauses, types of sentences, punctuation, usage …. before realising that the students are only able to do well in sequential grammar exercises.

They can’t transfer it to their writing!

So what gives?

There have been multiple research studies over the last 75 years on the transference of students’ use and knowledge of grammar. What they found is that  students do not transfer grammar concepts learned in isolation to their writing.

When students see virtually NO relevance in their daily lives or in their future work lives, they are unable to use it. This is due to most grammar instruction focuses on the analysis of language rather than the use of it. Students in general do not remember what they learn about grammar from year to year because they only retain it in their short-term memory!

Use Grammar as a Tool to help Students write Better

Many times, you will hear teachers and tutors to use certain phrases or copy certain phrases or just read, read and read… All in the hopes of students being able to pick up words and use them easily just like that. However, there are really many skills that these students need to pick up in order to write better – especially if they do not have the habit or reading and thinking critically from a young age.

Before we can talk about our students using all sorts of description or embedding detail, imagery, and figurative language in their writing, we first need to have students practice sentence construction techniques that include specific grammatical structures.

Creating Cool Sentences with Grammar

One way to allow students not to practise grammar in isolation is to have them  practice sentence construction techniques that include specific grammatical structures.

Step 1

Start with an ordinary sentence that consists of an article, a subject, and a verb.

Step 2

Next, we add adjectives and adverbs.

Step 3

We then add prepositional phrases.

Step 4

Next, let’s try an appositive phrase.

Last Step

End with a subordinate clause for extra oomph.

Of course, it is not necessary to write such long sentences continuously. Yet, it does make a welcome variation from the constant stream of short active sentences.

Comments? Thoughts? Feel free to share them with me!



How To Get Real Face Time With Your Teen

How To Get Real Face Time With Your Teen


by Focus on the Family

Teenagers – don’t we sometimes wish we understood them a little better, or knew what they were thinking? Why are they always staring at their screens? Why do they keep talking about finding meaning in life? Today’s teenagers are growing up in a generation different from ours, facing more societal pressures and challenges than we ever did. We may not fully comprehend or agree with their thoughts or views, but knowing the differences between our generation’s thinking and theirs might help us understand them a little better.

Communication Today

Do you find that our young ones have shorter attention spans? Technology likely has a part to play in this. Being digital natives, they are adept at quickly and easily sourcing for new information at any place and point in time. Indeed, a webpage that took two minutes to load in the past now can load in two seconds! However, though they may find difficulty in focusing on something for extended periods of time, they are often better at multitasking and managing several activities at the same time.

Also, gone are the days when face-to-face interaction was the only way to communicate with someone at length. Our teens have communication at their fingertips, keeping in touch with their friends through various forms of instant messaging and social media. Due to this, they may be more comfortable communicating virtually as opposed to meeting face-to-face or making phone calls.

It is still good to make—and guard—face-to-face interaction with them as a family. For example, you can agree as a family to ensure that there’s no digital devices at the dinner table, so that everyone can focus on quality conversations. We should also model such behaviour for our teens by being intentional in not checking our phones or laptops constantly when spending time with them.

Engaging on Values

What was considered taboo in the past is now more widely accepted. Youth’s attitudes toward things like media consumption, dressing, and sex, among many other areas, have become more liberal. One of the reasons for this is that our culture has changed. For instance, today’s culture is markedly more accepting of sexually explicit content, where it can be found from product advertisements to music videos.

Someone once observed that the older generation seems to be the “What” generation: They know what is right and wrong, and they will do as they have been taught. But the younger generation seems to be the “Why” generation: They want to know why something is right or wrong, before they do it.

This mindset can be a productive one to engage with. The benefit is that youths want to know for themselves the compelling reasons behind something, rather than accept it blindly. And once they have thought or wrestled through it, they will likely have ownership over their own convictions.

Engaging with our youths in terms of values can also take the form of inviting them into a conversation about why they think the way they think. How did they come to such a view? Whom or what do they consider major influences in their lives? What do they cherish and what do they dislike? This also helps us to understand them as a person, and what their inner world is like.

The Bottom Line

Your teen may hold vastly different views from you – some may make you squirm or even recoil in horror. Before you start on a “You know in my time, this would never be allowed…” lecture, take some time to truly listen and evaluate your teen’s views. Opening up safe spaces for dialogue lets them feel valued because they are being heard, which allows them to express their views more openly. This then creates opportunities for you to learn from them, and also to help them to clarify—and when the need arises, to gently correct—their beliefs and attitudes. Ultimately, our aim in parenting is to teach them how to think, not what to think, and empowering them to make healthy decisions themselves.

In all honesty, youths today share many similarities with you when you were teenagers – they are still finding their way around the confusing world they are in, still desire to be accepted, heard and loved. You may not completely understand (or appreciate) their psyche, but you can be the present and loving parent to them, guiding them as they grow into adulthood. Dads and Mums, may you be your teen’s coach and cheerleader so that they can run the race of life well.
© 2016 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

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Self-Control Precedes Success

Self-Control Precedes Success


by Dr Shen Li Lee

“Self-control precedes success” was what one of my school teachers always used to say. The real meaning of the adage used to fly right over the top of my head. It wasn’t until I learned about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study that I finally understood what she meant.

“The ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life, predicting higher SAT scores, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and a greater sense of self-worth.” – The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success


How to Develop Self-Control

Self-control is a component of the executive functions. According to Diamond and Lee (2011):

  • Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s executive functions; these include – computerized training, non-computerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula.
  • To develop develop the executive functions, we need repeated practice and to constantly challenge them.
  • Children with worse executive functions initially, benefit most from these activities.
  • To improve executive functions, focusing narrowly on them may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development and physical development.

To use the muscle analogy, self-control can be strengthened with regular and consistent practice. To avoid the plateau, we need to keep the range of activities diverse and challenging. Here’s what we came up with…


Self-Control - Mindfulness

Image Source: Pinterest

A number of studies link mindfulness to enhanced self-regulation skills:

To help us practice mindfulness at home on a daily basis, we’ve been exploring a number of mindfulness apps. It is tricky with G2 because he fidgets a lot. It’s a process of trial and error as we search for the programs that work best for him.


According to a study by Dickens & DeSteno, 2016being grateful helps to increase self-control and reduce impulsive behaviours:

What we found was that people who had higher levels of gratitude in their daily lives were more patient and less impulsive when it came to those financial decisions.

That suggests that the more you regularly experience gratitude, the more self-control you have in various areas of your life.

The gratitude project was something I did with G1 a couple of years back. Now that G2 is older, it’s time we get him to do it, too.

Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation is a cognitive behaviour approach for helping children self-regulate their behaviours, emotions, and sensory needs. The goal is to help them learn to recognise their feelings and level of arousal and adjust them appropriately.

Musical Training

The research linking musical training and self-control isn’t quite as conclusive as I would like to it to be, nevertheless, it looks positive:

Logically, it makes sense that music would hone self-control because it is a subject that requires conflicting actions to occur at the same time. When playing a musical instrument, both hands are often doing different things simultaneously. It’s kind of like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, only more complicated. In a choir, singers need to follow their own tunes and rhythms that may differ to the other singers around them. Having been in a choir before, I can vouch for how challenging that can get.

Even if you’re still doubtful, we figure it’s worth a shot given the numerous benefits of learning a musical instrument. At the end of the day, there is still much to be gained even if it isn’t self-control.

Drama and Acting

Self-Control - Drama and acting

Image Source: Pinterest

When G1 was little, I read a lot about Tools of the Mind and how make-believe play can help children develop self-control. As G1 grew older, we started looking into drama and theater since it is essentially an extension to the concept of make-believe play. The rationale is that taking on a role requires the child to inhibit their impulse to behave as they normally do. In drama and theater, the child is now required to convince the audience of the authenticity of his character.

Learning a Second Language

Experience with multiple languages also can affect the development of self-control. Bilingual children do better than monolingual children on attention control tasks that require shifting attention from one feature to another, such as sorting cards according to color and then switching gears to sort the cards according to shape (Bialystok & Martin, 2004). Switching back and forth between languages may help bilingual children learn to think flexibly and shift their attention (Zelazo et al., 2008). – Zero to Three

Being bilingual strengthens self-control because of the frequent need to switch between languages.

Like music, the link is not fully understood and further research is required. Do we need to be fluent in the second language? Does it make a difference if the language was learned in childhood versus adulthood? We don’t know. What we do know is that a second language offers numerous cognitive benefits to make it worth while our time and effort.


Self-Control - Mindful Yoga

Image Source: Pinterest

Children who exercise have better self-control than those who do not:

  • Overweight sedentary children, ages seven to eleven, had improved self-control after being randomly assigned to three months of aerobic exercise for twenty or forty minutes per day.
  • Fit nine and ten year old kids in the top 30 percent on fitness had stronger cognitive control in a demanding attention task than those whose fitness level was in the lowest 30 percent.
  • Fit children have greater volume in the dorsal striatum, a brain region involved in cognitive control and the resolution of conflicts among competing potential responses.

Maintaining Self-Control

Coming back to our muscle analogy, just as muscles suffer from fatigue and require recovery time, self-control stores can also be depleted. There ways we can restore it but before we even get to that, the first step is to recognise that our levels are low. Having a conscious awareness of our psychological state can help us decide when we need to apply the following…


If children are required to perform two consecutive tasks that require lots of self-control, they will usually perform worse in the second task. Taking a break in between the tasks can help improve performance in the second task.

Low on Fuel

The brain needs glucose to maintain self-control. Activities that require self-control can cause glucose levels to fall below optimal levels. Replenishing glucose supply with something sweet can help restore self-control.


Self-affirmation – thinking about our positive traits – can replenish self-control (Schmeichel and Vohs, 2009). Teaching children to think about what they pride themselves on and the things they hold dear can be a good self-control booster.

Abstract Thinking and Practical Logical Reasoning

Another way to improve self-control is to think abstractly or to use practical logical reasoning. So what do we mean by abstract thinking?

  • Seeing the whole forest rather than the individual trees.
  • Thinking about the why rather than the how.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out what they meant by practical logical reasoning, but I did find a few definitions:

  • Practical reason: the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do.
  • Logical reasoning: the process of using a rational, systematic series of steps based on sound mathematical procedures and given statements to arrive at a conclusion.

The first sounds a lot like “the meaning of life” thinking and the second like “Sherlock Holmes” thinking. I’m not entirely sure how this works for children, but perhaps this is where philosophical discussions can be helpful.

The Scent of Self-Control

There is documented evidence that scents can affect well-being, so perhaps there is a smell for self-control? At the very least, some smells can help indirectly by targeting the areas that promote self-control:

  • Cinnamon – sharpens the mind
  • Pine – reduces stress
  • Vanilla – elevates mood
  • Peppermint – greater cognitive stamina, motivation and overall performance
  • Jasmine – relieves depression and uplifts mood

Manage Stress and Elevate Mood

Feeling stressed can sabotage self-control, therefore, anything we can do to manage stress levels will help.

  • Meditation helps kids deal with stress
  • Exercise
  • Nature Immersion
  • Listen to music
  • Being Grateful

We’ve all heard how laughter is the best medicine – well, it’s true. Doing things that elevate your mood has a two-fold effect. Not only does it reduce stress, it also increases self-control.



Number Patterns on Social Media

Number Patterns on Social Media


by KC Yan

If you had been on Facebook for some time, it’s very likely that you would have come across a certain type of numbers puzzles streaming your feed. Clearly, they’re not quite the typical numerical puzzles that often appear in school math books; rather, they’re closer to the types of questions posed in aptitude or IQ tests. One such number puzzle is the following.


Unlike in textbooks that often present these logic puzzles in an uninteresting way, by seeing these colorful number puzzles on Facebook or Pinterest, and being hinted that only a small percent of the problem solvers apparently managed to get the correct answer, this entices readers to give it a try to see how well they’ll fare vis-à-vis their oft-mathematically challenged Facebook friends. Here’s another such number puzzle.


Arguably, these numbers-and-words puzzles have a certain charm to it, because they often require just simple logic to solving them, unlike similar brainteasers that may require some knowledge of elementary or middle-school math. What about the following Facebook numerical puzzle?



What is 1 + 1?

What do you make of this one?


If these on-line numbers puzzles indirectly help promote logic and number sense among math-anxious social-media addicts; and along the way, provide them with some fun and entertainment, let’s have more of them in cyberspace!

Let me leave you with half a dozen of these numerical puzzles, stolen from my Facebook feed. Note that these types of brain-unfriendly math or logic questions may have more than one mathematically or logically valid answer, depending on the rule or formula you use—they serve as numerical catalysts for promoting creative thinking in mathematics.







Happy Creative Problem Solving!