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Learning Self Regulation: A Family Affair

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Economically disadvantaged children face a host of challenges, from receiving poor health care to residing in higher crime neighborhoods. Add to those a less obvious challenge: the potential for lower-than-average “effortful control.”

Effortful control is the ability to regulate one’s responses to external stimuli. More specifically, it is the ability to inhibit an automatic response—such as the desire to call out an answer in class the instant you know it—and to instead perform a non-automatic response, like raising one’s hand and waiting to be called on. Effortful control has been shown to be a key factor in children’s school readiness, academic performance, and social and emotional competence.


Liliana Lengua with a four year old.

Liliana Lengua, professor of psychology, has studied effortful control for more than 10 years, first in pre-adolescents and now in preschoolers as young as three years old. Her current research looks at the impacts of economic disadvantage and parenting in the development of effortful control.

“Studies have shown that early exposure to adversity can inhibit the development of effortful control over time,” says Lengua. “Adversity disrupts the development of key neurological systems, with potentially lasting and pervasive detrimental effects.”

The good news? Positive parenting can keep that from happening.

Through Project 1, 2, 3, Go!, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Lengua’s research team is studying children at varying income levels to identify factors that promote or inhibit effortful control. Although all the families participating have volunteered for the study, Lengua’s team “scoured the county” to include families that were harder to reach. “They’re not just families of convenience,” says Lengua. “We worked really hard to get families that represent diverse economic, cultural, social and family situations.”

The first stage of the study involved approximately 100 children and their mothers, with two visits six months apart. The children played games that require effortful control; the researchers also observed child-parent interactions. A more robust study involving 300 families is currently underway, with four visits at nine-month intervals. For this study, in addition to observation, the children’s heart rates and levels of stress hormone are monitored during activities with a built-in frustration factor.

Lengua explains that children at age three have fairly low effortful control, but even then economic disadvantage is a factor. As children age, effortful control increases at varying rates, “with huge increases for most children between the ages three and four and a half.” Yet some children remain at the lower end. 

“We’re trying to figure out what contributes to that variability in growth,” says Lengua. “We’re asking how low-income increases family stress, and in that context, how a parent’s strengths and weaknesses shape the development of effortful control.”

For this study, the team is observing parents interacting with their children in a variety of situations. In one activity, the parent and child are encouraged to play but are told that certain toys are off limits, requiring the parent to guide the child away from those toys. In another, the child is tasked with building a difficult LEGO structure, with the parent instructed to help but not touch the LEGO pieces or complete the task for the child. The pair also is asked to clean up the space after playing. How they respond to each of these activities provides insights into the child’s effortful control and the parent’s ability to set limits and guide without taking over.

Parent participants, aware that they are being observed, tend to be on their best behavior during the sessions. But even so, differences in parenting styles emerge. “It can be subtle,” says Lengua. “It can be their engagement—their reactions to their child’s emotions and their awareness of their children’s needs.”

Preliminary findings suggest that two parental actions—scaffolding and limit setting—can help counter the effects of economic disadvantage related to effortful control. Scaffolding is about being responsive to a child’s needs, knowing when to provide guidance and when to let the child have autonomy. Limit setting involves consistency and calm enforcement of rules.

“It’s exciting to know that parenting can mediate or counter the effects of economic disadvantage when it comes to effortful control,” says Lengua. “I look forward to working with parents at the preschool stage to facilitate that development. I look forward to a time when this observation study can turn into an intervention study.”

To learn more about Project 1, 2, 3, Go!, visit