New study highlights the importance of self-control in childhood

ARTURO AREVALO-frog park copyConverse, P. D., Piccone, K. A., & Tocci, M. C. (2014). Childhood self-control, adolescent behavior, and career success. Personality and Individual Differences, 59, 65-70.

Summarized by Emily Manove, UMB clinical psychology doctoral student

Introduction: Research has found that childhood self-control, defined as “internally focused active control tendencies involving regulation of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors” (pg. 65), predicts multiple psychological outcomes later in life. Recent research has demonstrated that childhood self-control predicted negative behaviors in adolescence, such as smoking and dropping out of school (Moffitt et al., 2011). A study also showed that childhood self-control was tied to educational achievement, which was in turn associated with future income and job prestige (Converse et al., 2012). Converse et al. (2012) further found that childhood self-control was also linked to job achievement opportunities, which then predicted career satisfaction. The current study extends this research by examining the links between childhood self-control, positive and negative behaviors in adolescence, educational achievement, job complexity and satisfaction, and income.

Method: Participants were 4932 young adults who were originally part of a larger longitudinal study, known as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. Participants were on average 25.64 years old, and identified as 50% female, 56% Black or Hispanic, and 44% non-Black and non-Hispanic.

Self-control was measured using 21 items from the Behavior Problems Index (Zill, 1990), including items that assessed attention and impulsivity. Positive (e.g., doing homework, employment, school clubs) and negative (e.g., substance use and rule-breaking) behavior in adolescence was measured using self-constructed items.

Educational achievement was measured using an item inquiring as to highest grade completed. Job complexity was measured by using “job zones” from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). Income data was hourly rate of pay in 2010 and job satisfaction was assessed by one time asking how much participants liked their current or most recent job. A path analysis – a statistical technique for looking at multiple associations at the same time – was performed. 


  • Greater childhood self-control was tied to more positive adolescent behaviors, which were then linked to greater educational achievement.
  • Less childhood self-control was tied to more negative adolescent behaviors, which were associated with less educational achievement.
  • Educational achievement predicted greater job complexity and higher income, both of which in turn were tied to greater job satisfaction.

Conclusion and Implications: Results of the current study suggest that childhood self-control (including attention, concentration and impulse control) predicts more positive behaviors (e.g., studying) and fewer negative behaviors (e.g., drug use) during adolescence. More positive and fewer negative behaviors are in turn linked to greater educational achievement, higher income, and greater job satisfaction and complexity later in life. These findings fit with previous research showing that childhood self-control predicts a wide range of psychological outcomes later in life.

The findings from this study have implications for youth mentoring. More specifically, schools and mentoring programs that focus on younger children and adolescents might wish to be especially attentive to educating mentors as to the link between self-control and future behavioral outcomes. These school and programs might wish to focus on training mentors, teachers and staff in using strategies aimed at reinforcing students’ self-control through evidence-based therapies and exercises. These strategies, whether enacted through structured, skill-based approaches or more informal, “teachable moments”, have the potential to foster positive trajectories.