Self-Control Precedes Success

Self-Control - Walter Mischel“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

G2 is a dreamer with his head in the clouds. All. The. Time. He’s the one that leaves the milk on the counter. If he does remember to put it away, it might end up in the sink instead of the fridge.

He is also impulsive and it is sometimes often a problem. He makes mistakes not because he doesn’t know better but because he acts first and thinks later. We’ve always known that G2 would struggle with self-control because he is just that kind of kid.

The good news for us is that self-control can be taught. It’s not easy and it requires persistence. So we’ve been working on developing his executive functions, with particular attention to focus and self-control.

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

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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.

See also: Mindfulness for families


According to a study by Dickens & DeSteno, 2016, being 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. We’ve written quite a lot about it before and you can read about it here.

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

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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.

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.

Self-control - laughter is the best medicine


Review: Trinity San Yu (Mandarin Program)

I am generally a proponent of allowing the children to choose what they want to do for their extra-curricular activities, but there is one subject I cannot compromise on – Mandarin. Having grown up all my life being shamed for my lack of Chinese-speaking skills, this is one “sin of the mother” that I cannot pass on to my children. Like it or not, they must learn this dialect from their mother tongue.

Although the boys learn Mandarin as a subject at school, I was concerned that the progress of every alternate week was insufficient exposure for language mastery. While that might suit the dabbling learner, I wanted the boys to have more. So I sent them to Trinity San Yu.

Why Trinity San Yu?

Trinity San Yu is operated by the same group that runs Trinity Kids Malaysia – the preschool that G2 attended. Given our positive past experience with the school, I went straight to them with a great deal of confidence in their program. Anyone who is familiar with Trinity Kids Malaysia and its proprietor, Daisy Ng, will know that their reputation speaks for them.

For those unfamiliar with Trinity Kids Malaysia, the following overview provides some terrific insights into the teaching philosophies behind this exceptional program.

Trinity San Yu

Trinity San Yu

At Trinity San Yu, they believe that the mastery of Chinese goes beyond speaking Mandarin. Children attending their program will be equipped with a solid foundation for Chinese primary schools in Malaysia and inspired with a lifelong love for the Chinese culture. Through their unconventional approach to learning Chinese, children in this program will be exposed to Chinese history, Classic Literature, Traditions, Character building and dynamic opportunities to build spoken proficiency.

Trinity San Yu offers three levels:

  • Beginner level: from 3 to 4 years old
  • Intermediate level: 4 to 5 years old
  • Advanced level: 6 to 7 years old

Age listings are recommendations only. Children will be assigned based on the level of their capability and readiness. Trinity San Yu intends to offer higher levels as students progress through to upper primary and early secondary.

Classes run on Tuesday and Thursday:

  • Beginners: 3 pm to 5 pm
  • Intermediate/Advance: 3 pm to 5:30 pm
  • Available on Tuesday and Thursday

Trinity San Yu recommends that students attend 2 days a week (particularly for Intermediate/Advanced classes) to gain the necessary time exposure and social interaction for in-depth language learning. Parents need to be aware that learning objectives may be compromised with a reduction in time exposure.

Coming soon! Trinity San Yu will be offering more classes at their Publika venue! Stay tuned for more news…


Overview of the Program

Trinity San Yu is structured like a Taiwanese style school, adopting the Beijing Chinese syllabus. Apart from Chinese as a subject, they offer Speech & Drama, Mathematics, Arts & Craft, Music & Movement, Gym, Culture & Classics, and Practical Life Skills to complete the curriculum through a Chinese medium.

The Chinese language has a long and culturally rich history. Chinese and English have very different orthographic systems. Unlike English, Chinese is not alphabetic nor phonetic. Chinese is made up of complex group of compound characters, radicals and strokes, therefore learning Chinese imposes a different set of cognitive demands on the student versus learning English. The initial effort required to learn the building blocks of the Chinese language is comparatively higher, particularly so for children from non-Chinese speaking families. – Daisy Ng

Trinity San Yu

The Objectives of Trinity San Yu

  1. To offer a rigorous foundation to the Chinese language.
  2. To promote written and oral proficiency.
  3. To offer opportunities to learn beyond the written and spoken aspects of the language.
  4. To cultivate an interest in the cultural aspect of the language.

About Trinity San Yu Curriculum

Trinity San Yu offers a robust curriculum that goes beyond mastering the linguistic aspects of language learning. They also seek to inculcate an appreciation for the broader aspect of Mandarin. They seek to achieve this by:

  1. Increasing class duration which increases the level of exposure a child has to the language.
  2. Blending both classrooms and non-classroom experiences, offering a dynamic rhythm to the class schedule that helps the brain to stay switched on.
  3. Encouraging the brain to operate in Chinese during the program through an interactive teaching style with social opportunities for the child to actively think and converse in mandarin.

Trinity San Yu

Who is this Program for?

Trinity San Yu is appropriate for:

  • Children who will be attending Chinese primary schools
  • Children who are not from Chinese speaking families
  • Child seeking to master a written and oral proficiency in Chinese while cultivating a love for it

Trinity San Yu

Trinity Kids Malaysia Contact Details

Level 5, The Verve Shops
8, Jalan Kiara 5, Mont Kiara, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-62116658

Colouring for Mindfulness, Stress Therapy, Concentration and Memory

The adult colouring book is the new therapy for stress. They call them Mindfulness Colouring Books because they’re supposed to help you practice mindfulness – which we all know is good for the mind and body. When it comes to practising mindfulness, it gets a bit challenging because it’s difficult to sit still and be aware of the present. Colouring books give our eyes something to focus on and our hands something to fiddle with and that makes all the difference.

Do Adult Colouring Books Really Work?

Way back before G2 was born and G1 still thought colouring books were “cool” and not just for “little kids”, I used to sit beside him and colour in the pictures. The pictures I worked on were Sesame Street, Thomas the Tank Engine, and other kiddie characters that G1 fancied at the time. Although they were nothing so sophisticated as the mandala patterns that dominate the themes of many adult colouring books, I must say that the action of colouring did feel calming and therapeutic. Of course, it was just a feeling and hardly scientific since there were no brain probes to prove that there really was a positive effect on my brain, but I subscribe to the theory that if you feel good, then surely something good is happening inside too.

Evidently, I’m not the only one who thinks so because Adult Colouring Books are all the rage now:

“If you asked me why people love them so much I’d say the answer is one word: ‘screen’. We spend so much of our lives watching TV, squinting at the virtual world on our smartphones, and working on our computers, that it’s a real relief to get immersed in a hands-on, creative activity. The paradox of concentrating hard on something so intricate and visual is that you feel relaxed and energised at the end – and, of course, you’ve made something beautiful.” – Roly Allen, SMH

“We are constantly bombarded with technology, you can download apps to your phone in a few seconds and it’s too much for us to take in. Colouring allows us to go back to a slower pace and I think people appreciate that.” – Richard Merritt (author of the Anti-Stress Colouring Book series), Huffington Post

Doodling Improves Memory and Concentration

In a 2009 study by Andrade, they found that subjects who doodled had better attention and memories. The theory is that doodling helps the mind stay engaged – it’s a little like a car idling instead of having the engine turned off.

It wasn’t just their attention that was enhanced, though, doodling also benefited memory. Afterwards participants were given a surprise memory test, after being specifically told they didn’t have to remember anything. Once again doodlers performed better, in fact almost 30% better. – Psyblog

If doodling is good for the mind and an activity not all that different from colouring, then could colouring have the same effect on memory and concentration? It is entirely possible.

And if that’s the case, then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to whisk our children away from colouring books and doodling on paper. Perhaps we should also encourage our older children to return to that favourite childhood activity of colouring?

A Basic Form of Art Therapy

Art Therapy has been used to help children facing mental and emotional challenges. It can provide the following benefits:

  • Self-discovery. At its most successful, art therapy triggers an emotional catharsis (a sense of relief and well-being through the recognition and acknowledgement of subconscious feelings).
  • Personal fulfilment. The creation of a tangible reward can build confidence and nurture feelings of self-worth. Personal fulfilment comes from both the creative and the analytical components of the process.
  • Empowerment. Art therapy can help individuals visually express emotions and fears that they were never able to articulate through conventional means, and give them some sense of control over these feelings.
  • Relaxation and stress relief. Chronic stress can be harmful to both mind and body. It can weaken and damage the immune system, cause insomnia and depression, and trigger a host of circulatory problems (e.g., high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and cardiac arrhythmia). When used alone or in combination with other relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, art therapy can be a potent stress reliever.
  • Symptom relief and physical rehabilitation. Art therapy can also help individuals cope with pain and promote physiological healing by identifying and working through anger and resentment issues and other emotional stresses.

Although colouring isn’t exactly art therapy, it can be likened to art therapy in its most basic form because the choice of colours and their application is entirely up to the individual. The final creation is an expression of the individual. Since many of us struggle with our artistic endeavours, colouring can offer an easy medium for expression.