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Early Self-Control Development: Prevalence, Persistence and Change in a New Zealand Cohort

Higher levels of self-control in childhood have been associated with improved health, education, and financial outcomes, and a decreased likelihood of substance abuse and criminal convictions in adulthood.

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.


  • Most children in the study demonstrated consistent levels of average to high self-control across their pre-school years.
  • Behaviours such as reading books, telling stories to children, implementing rules around screen time, and encouraging shared and respectful parent-child interactions may help to develop a child’s self-control.
  • Lower self-control was associated with less pro-social behaviour and greater hyperactivity in pre-school children.
  • Children more likely to demonstrate persistently low self-control are more likely to be boys, have a mother who experienced post-natal depression, have greater interaction with family social services, and live in a neighbourhoods with fewer resources.
  • Interventions or strategies that encourage parents to have more shared parent-child interactions and to have rules around screen time may be beneficial in helping to develop self-control in children.
  • Families living in neighbourhoods that have fewer resources, those who are in contact with social and family services, and those who have a mother who has experienced post-natal depression may need additional support for their children to reduce possible inequities in self-control development.
  • Because self-control development fluctuates across early childhood we can’t predict which individual children will end up experiencing consistently low self-control, or go on to experience poorer wellbeing in adult life.

For enquiries about this research please email research@msd.govt.nz.

The views and interpretations in this report are those of the researchers and are not the official position of the Ministry of Social Development.

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