by michael on March 29, 2013


 I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self.


I have been corresponding with Deborah McNelis for the better part of a year. Deborah is the creator and primary author of braininsights®. I have read material on her blogs and I have enjoyed a robust email communication with her.

I am pleased to share her article. One of the fundamental points in make in my book and which I emphasize in many of my presentations is self-control. Aristotle recognized the critical quality of self-control well before brain scans were developed. Self-control is the key to moral action and to success. I trust you will find value in Deborah’s article and visit her websites.

Brain Insights on Self-Regulation Abilities

By Deborah McNelis, founder, Brain Insights

 Do you like when the people in your life are calm, patient and can deal with their anger or frustration in appropriate ways?  Of course, we would all answer yes to this question wouldn’t we?

It doesn’t matter who it is we are dealing with, a student, an employee, a coworker, a neighbor or a family member, we want the people we deal with every day to be able to handle their emotions and regulate their own behavior.

The ability to self-regulate is critically important to success in school and in life. The complete development of brain areas responsible for these abilities takes many years. However, experiences in the first months and early years of life have a dramatic impact on wiring the brain in ways that will lead to the ability to develop healthy self-control. Through understanding and consistency from responsive parents and caregivers a child’s brain eventually gains an increased ability to pause, think, and plan, before reacting.

Research reported in Science Daily, shared the results of a long term study on the self-control of 1,000 children. The researchers looked at behaviors in childhood such as, “low frustration tolerance, lacks persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, over-active, acts before thinking, has difficulty waiting turn, restless, not conscientious.”   

The study followed these children into adulthood and found: “the kids scoring lowest on those measures scored highest for things like breathing problems, gum disease, sexually transmitted disease, inflammation, overweight, and high cholesterol and blood pressure. The impulsivity and relative inability to think about the long-term of the lower self-control individuals gave them more difficulty with finances, like savings, home ownership and credit card debt. They also were more likely to be single parents, have a criminal conviction record, and be dependent on alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and harder drugs.”

The wonderful news is, self-control can be learned! The article quoted the researchers to say, “Self-control is something that can be taught, and doing so could save taxpayers a pile of money on health care, criminal justice and substance abuse problems down the road.”

One area of primary focus in the work I do, is the incredible and long lasting impact early relationships have.  Numerous studies and extensive research demonstrate that secure attachment positively influences several social and cognitive outcomes.

Secure attachment is based primarily on the consistent and predictable responsiveness of a primary caregiver. When the expressed needs of a baby are repeatedly responded to and met with timely and loving care, brain connections that contribute to self-regulation are being formed. Research demonstrates that secure attachment can have an impact on the ability:

to form healthy relationships with others

  • to delay gratification
  • to problem solve
  • to have empathy for others
  • to put up with the frustration of failure
  • to have more patience
  • to calm down from excitement
  • to be more resilient

It also makes it possible to:

  • have a longer attention span
  • being able to better manage physical reactions to      emotions
  • have an increased capacity for empathy
  • feel less anxiety
  • have greater skills in communicating emotions in      healthy ways
  • exhibit fewer behavioral problems
  • have more confidence and a positive self-perception
  • be less fearful
  • have more willingness to explore and learn through      challenges

In addition to the importance of the early months of life, the preschool years are also a time that greatly impacts the development of these skills. The brain has the greatest amount of adaptability to experiences from birth – age 5. Due to this, it is critical that we use all that scientific research demonstrates to provide the most optimal opportunities to develop the skills for success in life during this time.

Self-regulation is a critical aspect of executive function. Poor executive function relates to high dropout rates, drug use and crime.  However, good executive function skills better predict success in school than IQ.

These abilities take place in the highest functioning areas of the brain. When this area is well developed it allows us to take control over emotional impulses.

A two year old in the middle of a tantrum is a good example to create this understanding. The two year old does not have a fully mature brain. So, when the two year old is feeling strong emotions and impulses, the brain areas responsible for dealing with these emotions is not yet in control. So, it is called, “out of control” behavior. The child needs the adults in their life to help to recognize, identify, and calm these overwhelming emotions.

The pre-frontal cortex, is the last area of the brain to complete development. This is where executive function takes place. When this area becomes fully mature (at about the age of 25) it has the ability to more fully control these impulses. This happens only if this important brain area has had the opportunity to develop through the positive experiences necessary.

Ensuring children have supportive relationships, a wealth of opportunities for making choices, self directed play, creativity, lots of movement (including rough and tumble play), imagination, exploration, trial and error, time in nature, daydreaming and pretending will all contribute greatly to wiring their brains for the ability to self regulate. This is what every child’s brain wants and deserves.

It turns out that with the best of intentions to give children advantages in life, our society is increasingly limiting the activities that help children most. Responsive early relationships and lots of time spent playing will greatly contribute to the future student, employee, co-worker, neighbor and family members we all want in our lives!

We ALL benefit when ALL children have well developed brains!


More later




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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren Zimet April 3, 2013 at 3:32 am

Thank you for sharing Deborah’s article – This is so important for parents and educators, really anyone working with children, to be aware of the direct impact early childcare and parenting has on developing brains. When children “act out” this is an opportunity to nurture the brain and provide tools that even young children can and will respond to.
Thank you Deborah McNelis ( for sharing such an important message.
Best regards,
Lauren Zimet, CCC/SLP
Early Insights, LLC & The Healthy Foundations Program


michael November 21, 2014 at 5:06 pm

thank you for your comment. Deborah’s article has wisdom and practical application. I regret my late reply. MGS


michael November 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Thank you for your affirming comment. Self control is the key to all ethical behavior. More is required, of course, but without self control, which I almost would call moral will, nothing virtuous can occur.


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