275© The Author(s) 2018
N. Halfon et al. (eds.), Handbook of Life Course Health Development,
Megan McClelland, John Geldhof, Fred Morrison,
Steinunn Gestsdóttir, Claire Cameron, Ed Bowers,
Angela Duckworth, Todd Little,
and Jennie Grammer
M. McClelland (*)
Human Development and Family Sciences,
245 Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children
and Families, Oregon State University,
Corvallis, OR 97331, USA
Oregon State University, Human Development and
Family Sciences, Corvallis, OR, USA
University of Michigan, Department of Psychology,
Ann Arbor, MI, USA
University of Iceland, Department of Psychology,
University at Buffalo, SUNY, Learning and
Instruction, Buffalo, NY, USA
Self-regulation has received enormous attention
in recent years as a key predictor of a variety of
outcomes, including obesity (Evans et al. 2012),
school readiness (Blair and Razza 2007;
McClelland et al. 2007; Morrison et al. 2010),
academic achievement in adolescence
(Duckworth et al. 2010b), and long-term health
and educational outcomes (McClelland et al.
2013; Mofﬁtt et al. 2011). Although researchers
have focused on self-regulation from a diverse
set of perspectives (Geldhof et al. 2010;
McClelland et al. 2010), there is consensus that
self- regulation has important implications for
individual trajectories of health and well-being
across the life course. Indeed, over a decade ago,
it was suggested that “understanding self-regula-
tion is the single most crucial goal for advancing
the understanding of development” (Posner and
Rothbart, 2000, p. 427).
Self-regulation is fundamental to successful
accomplishment of adaptive developmental
tasks at all stages of life. In the ﬁeld of maternal
and child health, a recent emphasis utilizing a
life course health development (LCHD) per-
spective has shed new light on how these trajec-
tories are shaped by dynamic mechanisms such
as self- regulation. This perspective is captured
by the seven LCHD principles—as described
by Halfon and Forrest (2017)—which are also
consistent with the relational developmental
Clemson University, Youth Development Leadership,
Clemson, SC, USA
University of Pennsylvania, Department of
Psychology, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Texas Tech University, Department of Educational
Psychology and Leadership, Lubbock, TX, USA
University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate
School of Education and Information Studies,
Los Angeles, CA, USA
systems (RDS) perspective in the ﬁeld of human
The development of self-regulation is a prime
example of many of the LCHD principles in
action. For example, the notion that health devel-
ops continuously over the life span would imply
that individual pathways in self-regulation skills
are formed partly through life course transitions
and turning points or the points in a person’s life
which can inﬂuence developmental pathways in
either positive (protective) or negative (maladap-
tive) ways, and in fact this is the case. Similarly,
the notion that the timing and structure of envi-
ronmental exposures are important for health
development applies very well to self-regulation,
the development of which is signiﬁcantly and
adversely affected by persistent and chronic
stress, especially prenatally and in the ﬁrst few
years of life. (Conversely, protective factors such
as sensitive and engaged caregiving can be a buf-
fer for a child’s development of these skills dur-
ing this time.) Additionally, the LCHD notion
that the rhythm of human development is a result
of synchronized timing of molecular, physiologi-
cal, behavioral, and evolutionary processes and
that the synchronization of these processes con-
tributes to the enormous individual variability in
health development over time is also relevant to
Another illustration of the degree to which the
development of self-regulation serves as a pow-
erful example of the LCHD framework and its
underlying principles in action is the fact that, at
a time in history when the importance of chil-
dren’s self-regulation is perhaps greater than in
previous decades due to an increasing academic
focus in school settings, children and youth are
using media to a much greater extent than ever
before, a trend which could be detrimental to the
development of these essential skills. This mis-
match between the demands of the environment
and the capacities of the developing individual is
well described by the LCHD principles, which
emphasize how evolution enables and constrains
health development pathways and plasticity, how
different aspects of development are intertwined
over time (e.g., biobehavioral development is
connected to sociocultural development), and
how efforts to promote more optimal health
development can promote survival and enhance
thriving by countering the negative impact of
these kinds of mismatches.
Finally, the LCHD principles capture the
dynamic and complex nature of health develop-
ment and emphasize that development emerges
as a result of person interactions at multiple lev-
els. This speaks to the importance of integrating
interventions both vertically—meaning along
primary, secondary, and tertiary care continua—
and horizontally, that is, across domains of func-
tion (i.e., biological, behavioral, social), as well
as longitudinally (e.g., across life stages and/or
generations). This is especially relevant here
because the capacity for self-regulation has been
shown to be highly malleable and because inter-
ventions to promote such skills have been shown
to be more effective when they are integrated
across different levels and contexts (Diamond
and Lee 2011; Raver et al. 2011).
Together, the LCHD principles will guide our
discussion of self-regulation, which are also con-
sistent with an RDS perspective. After providing
a theoretical framework based on RDST, we will
view the seven principles of LCHD to better
understand the determinants and pathways of
self-regulation, methods for studying self-
regulation, and translational issues. We conclude
by providing recommendations for better inte-
grating the principles of LCHD with the study of
1.1 Relational Developmental
as a Framework
While many processes currently subsumed under
the “self-regulation” moniker have been studied
from the earliest days of psychology (e.g., James
1890), the modern study of self-regulation truly
emerged as psychologists moved away from the
mechanistic neopositivism that dominated their
ﬁeld during the middle part of the twentieth cen-
tury. Work by Bandura (1969) and Mischel
(1968), for instance, rejected the notion of the
M. McClelland et al.
“black box” and instead emphasized the self (and
vicariously behavioral regulation by the self) as
the object of valid scientiﬁc inquiry. This renewed
focus on the self has made way for many of the
core concepts that frame modern developmental
science (e.g., that individuals are proactive agents
capable of inﬂuencing their own development;
Lerner 1982). Much of the recent work on self-
regulation can be subsumed under the meta-
theoretical stance that Overton (e.g., 2010, 2013)
has termed relational developmental systems
Similar to the principles of LCHD, RDS rep-
resents an approach to human development that
rejects the dualistic separation of individual and
context (Overton 2013). Instead, like the princi-
ples of LCHD, RDST speciﬁes that the individ-
ual is completely embedded as a locally
self-organized component of his or her larger
context. Development of the individual therefore
necessarily inﬂuences and is inﬂuenced by his or
her surrounding environment. These mutual
inﬂuences can be thought of co-regulation (i.e.,
action and development of the individual par-
tially “regulate” and are partially “regulated” by
the surrounding context), resulting in what
Brandstädter (e.g., 2006) has called developmen-
tal regulations. Similarly, Lerner (e.g., 1985;
Lerner et al. 2011) has heuristically decomposed
this person-context system and has described
developmental regulations as mutually inﬂuen-
tial, bidirectional person-context interactions—
similar to LCHD Principle 3. Accordingly, across
the life span, individuals are active agents in the
mutually inﬂuential interactions among the vari-
ables from the integrated biological, social, cul-
tural, and historical (or temporal) levels of the
dynamic developmental system (as in LCHD
Principles 1, 2, 7).
The co-regulative nature of the person-context
system described in RDST directly informs the
contemporary study of self-regulation. While
person and context are truly inseparable from the
RDST perspective, Gestsdottir and Lerner (e.g.,
2008) note that we can heuristically separate
developmental regulations into those that primar-
ily arise from the individual (i.e., the self) and
those that primarily arise from the context. Using
this logic, they proceed to deﬁne self-regulation
as comprised of “the attributes involved in and
the means through which the individual contrib-
utes to developmental regulations…” (p. 203).
As a broadly deﬁned construct, self-regulation
therefore entails cognitions, emotions, and
actions that arise within the individual and do not
differentiate between conscious and subcon-
scious (or even automatic) action.
Differentiating between consciousness and
sub- or (non)conscious behavior has been a
recurring issue in the study of self-regulation,
and it is now widely acknowledged that all self-
regulated action falls along a continuum ranging
from fully intentional to fully automatic. For
instance, work done by Bargh and colleagues
(e.g., Bargh et al. 2001) clearly shows that sub-
conscious goals can inﬂuence (i.e., regulate)
behavior outside of the actor’s explicit aware-
ness. Similarly, Gestsdottir and Lerner (2008)
differentiate between organismic and intentional
self-regulation. Here, organismic self-regulation
occurs below the threshold of consciousness and
includes diverse actions ranging from the cardio-
vascular regulation of blood oxygen levels to the
regulation of outwardly directed behavior
through automatized goal structures. In contrast,
intentional self- regulation includes behavior that
the individual is consciously aware of, repre-
senting an agent’s intentional inﬂuence over the
person-context system. The remainder of this
chapter focuses speciﬁcally on intentional self-
regulation. In total, self-regulation may be
deﬁned as “the ability to ﬂexibly activate, moni-
tor, inhibit, persevere and/or adapt one's behav-
ior, attention, emotions and cognitive strategies
in response to directions from internal cues,
environmental stimuli and feedback from others,
in an attempt to attain personally- relevant goals”
(Moilanen 2007, p. 835).
The study of self-regulation lacks integration
across the life span. Theories that approach
self- regulation within a given period of the life
span are often not integrated with each other
nor are they usually integrated with theories
that focus on subsequent or preceding life peri-
ods. In this section, we brieﬂy review several of
the major conceptualizations of self-regulation
in an attempt to highlight the complexity of
self- regulated processes in children and youth.
Inherent in these conceptualizations and deﬁni-
tions are the seven principles of LCHD, which
have important implications for the concepts of
turning points and transitions, how mismatches
can occur in development, and the need to inte-
grate interventions across multiple levels of
2.1 Executive Functioning
As an instantiation of self-regulation, the study of
executive function (EF) emphasizes the ﬂuid,
cognitive processes that underlie self-regulated
action. While the precise deﬁnition of which
skills and processes constitute EF may vary
across studies, researchers studying self-
regulation have emphasized a few key skills. In
particular, researchers have studied the impor-
tance and development of agentic control over
one’s attention, inhibitory control, and working
memory (McClelland et al. 2010). Research
addressing the development of attentional control
describes the transition from simple arousal to
fully endogenous attention across the ﬁrst few
years of life (e.g., Colombo 2001) and the subse-
quent development of attentional capacities from
childhood to late life (e.g., Posner and Rothbart
1998). Attentional processes play a major role in
self-regulated action (e.g., Norman and Shallice’s
(1986) Supervisory Attentional System) and may
especially relate to emotion regulation in infants
and children (Sheese et al. 2008). Children begin
to display inhibitory control by approximately
3 years of age (Posner and Rothbart 1998), a time
that corresponds to the onset of endogenous
attention and also corresponds to the transition
out of Piaget’s preoperational stage (see Geldhof
et al. 2010 for a brief discussion). Inhibitory con-
trol continues to develop throughout childhood
(e.g., Backen Jones et al. 2003) and continues to
increase throughout adolescence and into early
adulthood (e.g., Hooper et al. 2004). Finally,
working memory is an aspect of executive func-
tioning that includes the ability to actively work
on and process information. In young children, it
is demonstrated by children’s ability to remem-
ber and follow instructions (Gathercole et al.
2004; Kail 2003).
The early years are a sensitive period of brain
development, which closely parallel the develop-
ment of EF. Understanding how EF develops dur-
ing this developmental window has important
implications for biological, cognitive, and social
The literature does not consistently distinguish
between the concepts of self-regulation and
self- control, with many authors using the terms
interchangeably. Other authors consider self-
regulation and self-control as distinct pro-
cesses, which follow a sensitive period of
development in infancy. For instance, Kopp
(1982) describes self-control as developing at
around 24 months of age and as including the
ability to behave according to a caregiver’s
requests and to adhere to social expectations in
the absence of external monitors. She distin-
guishes this from self-regulation, which instead
develops when a child is approximately
36 months old and represents an internalization
of self-control that allows for a degree of ﬂexi-
bility, allowing children to meet the changing
demands of a dynamic context. According to
Kopp, the distinction between self-control and
self-regulation is therefore “a difference in
degree, not in kind” (Kopp 1982, p. 207). In
other words, self-regulation is an outgrowth of
self- control that allows for ﬂexible adaptation
to real- world demands but which develops rap-
idly over the infant and toddler years. As such,
this progression reﬂects the principles of LCHD
especially for our understanding of how transi-
tions and sensitive periods inﬂuence self-regu-
M. McClelland et al.
2.3 Effortful Control
In addition to the terms executive functions, self-
regulation, and self-control, effortful control is a
related construct that stems from the tempera-
ment literature. Rothbart and colleagues have
deﬁned the effortful control dimension of child-
hood temperament as “the ability to inhibit a
dominant response to perform a subdominant
response” (Rothbart and Bates 1998, p.137).
Measures of effortful control for preschool chil-
dren encompass several facets, including atten-
tion focusing and inhibitory control over
inappropriate impulses (Rothbart et al. 2001).
Rothbart distinguishes effortful control from two
temperament factors that encompass more reac-
tive (i.e., less voluntary) tendencies: surgency/
extraversion and negative affect. Moreover,
effortful control seems highly related, both con-
ceptually and empirically, to self-control and
conscientiousness in adolescents and adults
(Eisenberg et al. (2012), under review). While
this deﬁnition closely reﬂects cognitive inhibi-
tion, effortful control is instead considered an
aspect of children’s temperament that develops in
tandem with the development of endogenous
attention. Research on infant temperament has
not found a complete analogue to effortful con-
trol, for instance, with factor analyses instead
uncovering a factor called orienting/regulation
(e.g., Garstein and Rothbart 2003). Orienting/
regulation contains many “regulatory” compo-
nents similar to effortful control (e.g., orienting,
soothability) but lacks a truly effortful
Effortful control incorporates the inﬂuence
of temperament that infants are born with, along
with the inﬂuence of the environment, including
quality of caregiving. This dynamic coaction
can be seen in the temperamental concept of
“goodness of ﬁt.” Goodness of ﬁt refers to the
match (or mismatch) between children’s tem-
peramental states and the quality of caregiving
and temperament of their parents/caregivers.
When there is a positive ﬁt or match between
children and caregivers, children’s development
of self-regulation is optimized. In contrast,
when a mismatch occurs, there is greater poten-
tial for difﬁculty with self- regulation and related
outcomes. Thus, effortful control is especially
relevant to understanding self-regulation through
an LCHD framework.
2.4 Delay of Gratiﬁcation
Delay of gratiﬁcation is another approach to self-
regulation with close ties to both inhibition and
attention. Mischel and colleagues (e.g., Mischel
and Ebbesen 1970) originally studied delay of
gratiﬁcation using the now-famous delay of grati-
ﬁcation task with children. In this task, a
researcher shows a child two rewards (e.g., a
single marshmallow versus several marshmal-
lows) and asks the child which reward he or she
would prefer. Subsequent research has adapted
this task for adults by varying the value of the
rewards—sometimes making them hypotheti-
cal—and by extending the delay time to a month
or longer (e.g., Fortsmeier et al. 2011; Duckworth
and Seligman 2005).
Regardless of the delivery, inherent in the con-
struct is the integration of emotion with cognition
in their understanding of self-regulation. Mischel’s
research especially links the ability to delay grati-
ﬁcation to endogenous attention through what he
and his colleagues have called the cognitive-affec-
tive processing system (e.g., Mischel and Ayduk
2004). This work has shown that when the rewards
are visible to children during the delay period,
children who distract their attention away from the
reward delay longer than children that do not
(Mischel et al. 1972). Similarly, children who
attend only to the cool, non-motivating, features of
the reward (e.g., by treating the actual reward as if
it is instead a picture of the reward) delay longer
than children who do not (Moore et al. 1976).
Delay of gratiﬁcation thus complements the prin-
ciples of LCHD by assuming that self-regulated
behavior includes the transactional processes of
emotion and cognition.
2.5 Emotion Regulation
Although the study of emotion regulation is a
complete area of the literature unto itself, there
is some important overlap with the study of
self- regulation more generally deﬁned. Infants’
early regulatory tasks involve regulating their
reactions to stimuli, including affective,
temperament- based reactions that fall under the
emotion regulation umbrella (Eisenberg et al.
2004). Emotion regulation means that children
can modulate their strong emotional reactions
with an appropriate strategy or combination of
strategies (Bridges et al. 2004). Stansbury and
Zimmerman (1999) describe four types of emo-
tion regulatory strategies: instrumental or trying
to change the situation (e.g., bidding for care-
giver attention), comforting or soothing oneself
without changing the situation (e.g., thumb-suck-
ing), distraction or redirecting attention else-
where (e.g., looking away), or cognitive, which is
thought to be the most sophisticated and includes
reframing the situation in a positive light, bar-
gaining, or compromising. Importantly, children
use different strategies depending on their indi-
vidual characteristics as well as the situational
context (Zimmermann and Stansbury 2003). This
line of work demonstrates that the regulation of
attention and emotion is closely interrelated and
also reﬂects the principles of LCHD.
Together, the different deﬁnitions of self-
regulation share many common conceptual
underpinnings and are relevant to how these
skills develop in individuals across the life span.
They also apply to the key principles of LCHD. In
the next section, we apply these principles to the
developmental processes of self-regulation.
3 Developmental Processes
As noted above, the principles of LCHD can
help to inform our understanding of the devel-
opment of self-regulation. We orient our dis-
cussion around these principles by employing
three lenses through which to view the devel-
opment of self-regulation: (1) the lens of tran-
sitions and turning points, (2) the lens of
mismatches, and (3) the lens of intervention
integration. We include important individual,
contextual, and sociocultural factors that inﬂu-
ence the development of these skills over time
since such information is critical for develop-
ing effective ways to help promote strong self-
regulation in individuals.
3.1 Transitions and Turning Points
in the Development
Because of the malleability in self-regulation evi-
dent throughout the life course, there are many
transitions and turning points for the develop-
ment of these skills. The early childhood years
represent one important time in the life course
because they constitute a sensitive period for the
development of self-regulation and underlying
executive function skills. This makes it especially
important for children’s early biological, cogni-
tive, and social-emotional development
(Diamond 2002; Carlson et al. 2013). As noted
above, children’s self-regulation undergoes rapid
change during early childhood, which parallels
brain development, especially of the prefrontal
cortex (e.g., Diamond 2002). The translation of
this development can be seen in turning points in
development, one of which is the transition to
formal schooling for young children.
3.1.1 The Transition to Schooling
as a Turning Point
Several lines of research point to relations
between schooling and self-regulation as a devel-
opmental turning point for children. Evidence
points to bidirectional relations between the bio-
logical and cognitive factors predicting develop-
ment of self-regulation as well as the inﬂuence of
context such as the schooling environment (e.g.,
Diamond 2002; Carlson et al. 2013; Morrison
et al. 2010). Although much research focuses on
how individual factors inﬂuence self-regulation
(e.g., temperament, neurodevelopment of the
prefrontal cortex), research has also examined
how contextual factors such as schooling may
inﬂuence self-regulation. For example, research-
ers have suggested that differences in self-
regulation across cultures may be due to early
instructional environments (Morrison et al. 2010)
M. McClelland et al.
as well as other factors such as temperamental
variables (Hsu et al. 1981) or the prevalence of
particular genes (Chang et al. 1996) that might
contribute to observed advantages in self-
regulation (Sabbagh et al. 2006).
Research looking at the transition to formal
schooling has also used a natural experiment
(designated “school cutoff”) design, which exam-
ines children whose birth dates cluster closely on
either side of the cutoff date for entering formal
schooling (e.g., kindergarten in the United
States). This method effectively equates the two
groups of children on age (Morrison et al. 2010).
Using this methodology, results from recent
quasi-experimental and experimental investiga-
tions have provided further evidence for the
importance of schooling in the development of
self-regulation. For example, Burrage et al.
(2008) examined the inﬂuence of experience in
preschool on growth of word decoding, working
memory, and inhibitory control. This quasi-
experimental work suggests that schooling, and
more speciﬁcally the years of prekindergarten
and kindergarten, improves working memory for
children who attend school compared with same-
age peers who, because of arbitrary school cutoff
dates, do not attend at the same time (Burrage
et al. 2008). Together this research suggests that
the early childhood years provide a sensitive
period for the development of self-regulation,
which is inﬂuenced by both individual and con-
3.1.2 Adolescence as a Turning Point
In adolescence, children experience another sen-
sitive period of development, especially for self-
regulation. Adolescence, the second decade of
life, is a period of ontogeny characterized by
extraordinary biological, social, and ecological
changes (Lerner and Steinberg 2009). Cognitive
and social development means that the capacities
necessary for advanced, adult-like self-regulation
may for the most part emerge in adolescence.
This is in large part due to the gradual maturation
of the prefrontal context. In particular, as the
frontal lobe develops, so does higher-order,
regulation- relevant cognition, such as metacogni-
tion and internalized control. In turn, these skills
enable adolescents to make better interpretations,
choices, and decisions about how to interact with
their environment, especially in accordance with
long-term goals (Brandstädter 2006; Larson
2011; Steinberg 2010). In addition, the formula-
tion of an adaptive identity, which is a major
developmental task of adolescence, allows for the
construction of a personal future that informs
long-term decision-making and goal pursuit
(Brandtstädter 2006; McClelland et al. 2010).
After all, it is impossible to formulate a plan to
reach a long-term goal that has not yet been
determined. Finally, during adolescence, young
people may, for the ﬁrst time, face decreased
probabilities of achieving major life goals (e.g.,
graduating from high school) that have long-term
consequences. This fact makes self-regulation
particularly pertinent during the adolescent
period (McClelland et al. 2010).
A growing body of research has conﬁrmed the
relation between adolescents’ self-regulation
skills and positive and problematic behaviors.
In the last decade, a body of research has
advanced our understanding of how adolescents
regulate their own learning (Zimmerman 2002;
Zimmerman and Schunk 2001). Self-regulated
learning involves many goal-related skills, such
as the ability to set proximal learning goals, use
appropriate strategies for attaining the goal, self-
evaluate the method one has chosen to achieve a
goal, and monitor one’s performance toward that
goal. The use of self-regulated learning skills has
repeatedly been related to school achievement
(Miller and Byrnes 2001; Zimmerman and
Schunk 2001). Similarly, the use of self-
regulatory behaviors of youth is positively related
to other positive outcomes, such as measures of
social competence and mental well-being, and
negatively related to indicators of problematic
development, such as sexual risk behaviors, sub-
stance abuse, depression, and anxiety (e.g.,
Gestsdottir et al. 2009; Massey et al. 2008; Quinn
and Fromme 2010). In addition, self-regulatory
skills may have particular signiﬁcance for youth
living in high-risk environments. For instance,
Buckner et al. (2009) found that youth from very
low-income families fared better on a wide range
of developmental outcomes, ranging from aca-
demic achievement to anxiety, if they had adap-
tive self-regulation skills. The authors emphasize
that such skills help youth to cope with stressful
life events, making them less likely to be over-
whelmed by the difﬁculties that they are faced
with, and as such, high levels of self-regulation
are considered a key factor in supporting youth’s
resiliency (Buckner et al. 2009; Quinn and
Fromme 2010). In spite of the growing evidence
that self-regulation has important implications
for healthy functioning in adolescence, as it does
in childhood, there has been limited developmen-
tal research on how such important, adult-like
processes develop in adolescence.
In sum, although the understanding about the
nature and development of self-regulatory pro-
cesses is not complete, recent research conﬁrms
the contribution of adaptive self-regulation to the
healthy development of children and youth.
Furthermore, some recent ﬁndings point to an
emerging theme and match both the principles of
LCHD and the RDS framework: complex, adult-
like, self-regulatory processes appear to develop
in middle adolescence and continue to grow
through adolescence and early adulthood. In
addition, the function of self-regulation in ado-
lescence may differ in function from that of
childhood and adulthood. As such, the structure
and function of self-regulation may be speciﬁc to
this age period and constitute a sensitive period in
3.2 Mismatches (and Matches)
in the Development
In addition to research pointing to the importance
of examining the transaction of how self-
regulation develops across multiple levels of
analysis, the match (or mismatch) between dif-
ferent aspects of development is also important.
This can be seen in the notion of goodness of ﬁt,
taken from the child temperament literature,
where an individual’s characteristics and skills
may not ﬁt with those of the environment, such as
the characteristics of caregivers. In the develop-
ment of self-regulation, a child’s individual char-
acteristics and skills may be adversely inﬂuenced
by the aspects of their environment, such as
adverse childhood experiences, stress, poor par-
enting, maternal depression, and the inﬂuence of
the media and technology use.
3.2.1 Adverse Childhood Experiences
and Cumulative Risk
Recent research on adverse childhood experi-
ences (ACEs) and toxic stress suggests that mul-
tiple and chronic environmental stressors can
have signiﬁcant and adverse effects on the devel-
opment of a host of outcomes throughout the life
span (Blair and Raver 2012; Shonkoff et al.
2012). For example, the early and chronic stress
experienced by children living in poverty can
have a profound inﬂuence on areas of the brain
most involved in the development of self-
regulation (the prefrontal cortex [PFC]; e.g.,
Blair 2010; Blair and Raver 2012). One study
found that low-income children exhibited lower
prefrontal functioning compared to higher-
income children. Speciﬁcally, the PFC function-
ing of low-income children in the study was
similar to the level of functioning of individuals
with damage to the PFC (Kishiyama et al. 2009).
In addition to effects on the developing
brain, ACEs are related to poorer executive
function and self-regulation, increased sub-
stance use, obesity, and risk-taking behaviors in
adolescents and adults (see Table 1). For exam-
ple, one study found that children with cumula-
tive risk exposure (e.g., poverty, family turmoil,
substandard housing) gain more weight during
the transition to adolescence than their more
advantaged peers, an effect mediated by lower
levels of self- regulation (Evans et al. 2012).
Such pernicious effects were predicted by
Walter Mischel and colleagues, whose hot/cool
model of self-control speciﬁed that stressful
life events would potentiate impulsive (“hot”)
system activity and attenuate slower, more
reﬂective and voluntary (“cool”) system activ-
ity (Metcalfe and Mischel 1999).
Research has also indicated that children from
low-income families are more likely to experience
family and housing instability, a lack of resources,
M. McClelland et al.
and lower-quality learning environments in the
home (e.g., Gershoff et al. 2007; Mistry et al.
2010; Obradovic 2010; Sektnan et al. 2010), all
of which have been linked to lower levels of self-
regulation. For example, children facing cumula-
tive risk factors may experience signiﬁcant
difﬁculty with self-regulation in early childhood
(Wanless et al. 2011).
Partly because of this, children with chronic
environmental stressors are more likely to expe-
rience school failure, unemployment, poverty,
violent crime, and incarceration as adults.
Moreover, and perhaps most important for the
long-term implications of ACEs, these children
are less likely as adults to provide supportive
environments for their own children, who in turn
are at signiﬁcant risk of demonstrating some of
these same issues. In addition to behavioral and
economic effects, chronic and toxic stresses
have been linked to biological changes including
premature aging and death, alterations in
immune functioning, and signiﬁcant increases in
inﬂammatory markers. Related to this, ACEs
have been associated with a host of physical
health outcomes, including cardiovascular dis-
ease, liver cancer, asthma, autoimmune diseases,
and depression (Committee on Psychosocial
Aspects of Child and Family Health et al. 2012;
Shonkoff et al. 2012).
Together, this research suggests that ACEs,
toxic stress, and cumulative risk can signiﬁcantly
impair the development of self-regulation in chil-
dren. This is also an example of a potential mis-
match between children’s own development and
the context in which they live. For example, it is
possible that children facing cumulative risk have
parents who provide fewer opportunities to prac-
tice self-regulation (Fuller et al. 2010; Wachs
et al. 2004). These children may also have higher
levels of stress, which interfere with the develop-
ment of prefrontal cortex, experience more fam-
ily and housing instability, and have fewer
learning and economic resources (Blair 2010;
Blair and Raver 2012). Thus, there may be few
opportunities for children to experience a posi-
tive match between their own developing skills
and those of the environment in which they live.
3.2.2 Parenting and Caregiving
As the research above indicates, poor parenting
can have signiﬁcant and detrimental effects on
their children’s own self-regulation. For example,
extensive research documents the negative effects
that maternal depression can have on a range of
child outcomes, including self-regulation (Center
on the Developing Child 2011).
In contrast to the conﬂicted and non- supportive
parent-child relationships that undermine chil-
dren’s ability to self-regulate, organized and pre-
dictable home environments and emotionally
positive parent-child relationships provide a con-
text that allows for the development of self-
regulatory competencies (e.g., Bowers et al.
2011; Brody and Ge 2001; Grolnick et al. 2000;
Lewin-Bizan et al. 2010; Moilanen et al. 2010).
For example, parenting that includes a focus on
supporting autonomy and setting limits has sig-
niﬁcantly predicted stronger self-regulation in
children compared to parenting that is more con-
trolling and focused on compliance (Bernier
et al. 2010; Lengua et al. 2007). A similar line of
work in early childhood classrooms has established
the importance of orienting and organizing
Table 1 Examples of direct and/or indirect relations
between self-regulation and health-related outcomes
Predictor Health-related outcomes
Self- regulation Obesity
Weight gain and loss
Addiction and substance use
Economic well-being (savings
behavior, ﬁnancial security,
Lack of criminal convictions
teacher behaviors for children’s self-regulation,
engagement, and academic outcomes (Cameron
and Morrison, 2011; Cameron Ponitz et al. 2009).
Taken together, this work indicates the impor-
tance of structured and predictable environments
for helping children’s emerging self- regulatory
capacities. It also demonstrates the importance of
matches between children’s characteristics and
parenting characteristics and behaviors, which
complement the principles of the LCHD
3.2.3 Media and Technology Use
Another example of a possible mismatch is the
increasing structure in school settings paired with
the high prevalence of media and television use
by children and adults. Children’s media and
technology use is rapidly increasing, but there
remains little evidence on the positive effects of
such media on children’s development, espe-
cially for very young children (Radesky et al.
2014). Many studies have found persistent nega-
tive effects of extended television and media
viewing on children’s short- and long-term devel-
opment (Robertson et al. 2013), including inat-
tention and attention deﬁcit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD)-related behaviors (Christakis et al.
2004; Nikkelen et al. 2014). These ﬁndings indi-
cate that media use is related to poorer self-
regulation and that households with heavy media
use may be a poor context for supporting chil-
dren’s self-regulatory development. Thus, chil-
dren’s increased media use may run counter to
the increased demands for self-regulated behav-
ior in schools and society.
In addition to the issue of child media use is
the high prevalence of media use by adults and
parents. For example, parents who are distracted
by texting and being on mobile devices may not
be able to adequately respond to and parent their
children. Although limited research exists, one
study found that caregivers who used mobile
devices at a restaurant while with their children
were most often highly absorbed in the content
and were less attentive to the children they were
with. Those caregivers who were highly
absorbed in their mobile devices were also more
likely to respond harshly to child misbehavior
(Radesky et al. 2014). Thus, an increased inat-
tention and distraction on the part of parents and
caregivers may provide children with fewer
opportunities to learn how to self-regulate them-
selves. Moreover, it is possible that although
children’s self- regulation is needed to success-
fully navigate increasing structured school set-
tings, children and parents are using media to a
much greater extent than ever before, which
could be detrimental to the development of these
skills. This potential mismatch may have signiﬁ-
cant long-term implications and is an area ripe
for additional research.
3.3 Integrating Levels of Inﬂuence
Another LCHD lens through which to view self-
regulation processes is the importance of integra-
tion across multiple levels of inﬂuence, especially
in the context of interventions. This integration
includes lateral integration or integration across
subject domains, vertical integration or integra-
tion across levels of analysis, and developmental
integration or integration across time. Because of
the evidence pointing to the malleability of self-
regulation, there has been an explosion in recent
years in interventions aiming to foster the devel-
opment of these skills.
Accumulating evidence suggests that inter-
ventions targeting children’s self-regulation at
various levels can be effective at improving
self- regulation and other outcomes. For exam-
ple, at the sociocultural level, preschool curri-
cula, such as Tools of the Mind, focus on social,
emotional, and executive function skills in addi-
tion to literacy and math. Research suggests that
program participation is related to signiﬁcant
improvement in children’s self-regulation (Blair
and Raver 2014; Diamond et al. 2007), social
behavior (Barnett et al. 2008), academic out-
comes (Blair and Raver 2014), and neuroendo-
crine function (e.g., levels of salivary cortisol
and alpha amylase; Blair and Raver 2014).
M. McClelland et al.
Some work, however, has not found signiﬁcant
intervention effects (Farran et al. 2013), sug-
gesting that more work is needed to fully under-
stand the key components of intervention
Other interventions that include multiple
levels of integration (e.g., at the parent, teacher,
and child level) are the Promoting Alternative
Thinking Strategies (PATHS) and the Head
Start REDI (Research-based, Developmentally
Informed) programs (Bierman et al. 2008a),
which focus on social-emotional skills and
self- regulation. Children receiving these inter-
ventions have demonstrated more socially
competent behavior (Domitrovich et al. 2007)
and signiﬁcant improvements in self-regula-
tion (Bierman et al. 2008b) compared to chil-
dren in a control group. Another recent study
examining a broad intervention targeting
social-emotional learning and literacy devel-
opment found that children in intervention
schools demonstrated improvements in a vari-
ety of social behaviors and self- regulation
skills (e.g., attention). Improvements were also
found in children’s early math and reading
achievement for those initially most at risk for
behavior problems (Jones et al. 2011).
Further evidence from a school-based inter-
vention that included multiple levels of integra-
tion with teachers, mental health consultants,
and children (Raver et al. 2011) reveals that pre-
school children participating in the Chicago
School Readiness Project exhibited signiﬁcantly
higher performance on self-regulation tasks than
did their peers in a control group. Moreover,
there was a mediating role of children’s EF on
pre- academic literacy and math skills. These
ﬁndings complement those of Connor and col-
leagues (2010) who also found that an instruc-
tional intervention—which emphasized teacher
planning, organization, classroom management,
and opportunities for students to work indepen-
dently—was most beneﬁcial for children who
started ﬁrst grade with weaker self-regulation.
Similarly, a recent intervention focusing on
aspects of self- regulation (attentional ﬂexibility,
working memory, and inhibitory control) inte-
grated into classroom games found that partici-
pation in the intervention was signiﬁcantly
related to gains in self-regulation skills and aca-
demic achievement compared to children in the
control group (Tominey and McClelland 2011;
Schmitt et al. 2015).
For children with ADHD, research has also
documented that interventions that focus on
strengthening aspects of self-regulation and
underlying executive function skills can be
beneﬁcial (Reid et al. 2005). Such interven-
tions have been found to help children improve
on task behavior, decrease inappropriate
behavior, and increase academic achievement,
although results have been somewhat weaker
for lasting improvement in academic skills
(DuPaul et al. 2011).
Overall, results from a growing number of
randomized control trials suggest that interven-
tions designed to strengthen self-regulation can
improve children’s self-regulation, social
behavior, and academic achievement. It is not
known, however, if these effects persist over
time. More research is needed on the long-term
effects of such interventions and how interven-
tions may work for different subgroups of chil-
dren (e.g., those most at risk). Moreover,
following the principles of LCHD, interventions
tend to be most effective when they include
multiple levels of inﬂuence and are integrated
across domains of functioning and over time
(Jones and Bouffard 2012).
4 Self-Regulation and Health-
Although self-regulation has been conceptual-
ized differently in a variety of ﬁelds and at dif-
ferent developmental periods, accumulating
evidence demonstrates the importance of self-
regulation for a variety of outcomes. Moreover,
our view of self-regulation reﬂects both the
principles of LCHD and the RDS perspective.
Below we review research on predictive rela-
tions between self-regulation and important out-
comes such as academic achievement and
educational attainment and health and well-
being (see also Table 1).
4.1 Academic Achievement,
and Economic Well-Being
Over a century ago, in a series of lectures for
schoolteachers near his home institution of
Harvard University, William James (1899)
declared that much of schoolwork was necessar-
ily “dull and unexciting” in comparison with
other things children might be doing (pp. 104–
105). Consequently, James reasoned that students
who could voluntary control their attention
enjoyed a distinct advantage over students who
regularly succumbed to the “temptation to serve
aside to other subjects” (p.112). Alfred Binet,
Charles Spearman, and David Wechsler all made
similar observations. That three of the most
important ﬁgures in the history of intelligence
testing would individually highlight the impor-
tance of “will” as a necessary complement to tal-
ent is somewhat ironic, given that intellectual
aptitude, rather than self-regulation, was until
very recently given disproportionate emphasis in
the educational psychology literature.
Prospective longitudinal studies have con-
ﬁrmed James’s earlier intuitions. For young chil-
dren, a large body of evidence now demonstrates
that self-regulation sets the stage for learning in
children even prior to formal schooling. For
example, self-regulation in preschool and during
the transition to kindergarten has uniquely pre-
dicted gains in academic achievement after con-
trolling for child IQ and initial achievement
levels (von Suchodoletz et al. 2013; Blair and
Razza 2007; McClelland et al. 2007). In elemen-
tary school, strong kindergarten learning-related
skills (including self-regulation and social com-
petence) signiﬁcantly predicted higher reading
and mathematics achievement between kinder-
garten and sixth grade and growth in literacy and
mathematics from kindergarten to second grade
after controlling for prior achievement levels,
child IQ, and a host of background variables
(McClelland et al. 2006; see also Duncan et al.
2007; McClelland et al. 2006; McClelland et al.
2007; McClelland et al. 2000). Studies have also
documented the long-term contributions of self-
regulation to practically signiﬁcant outcomes
such as high school graduation and college com-
pletion (McClelland et al. 2013; Mofﬁtt et al.
2011). In one recent study, a 4-year-old child
with one standard deviation higher ratings of
attention (one aspect of self-regulation) than
average had 49% greater odds of completing col-
lege by age 25 (McClelland et al. 2013).
In terms of economic well-being, the best evi-
dence for the importance of self-regulation comes
from a longitudinal study by Mofﬁtt et al. (2011).
Self-regulation was assessed using parent,
teacher, observer, and self-report ratings at mul-
tiple time points in the ﬁrst decade of life in a
nationally representative sample of New
Zealanders who were followed into adulthood.
Childhood self-regulation predicted income, sav-
ings behavior, ﬁnancial security, occupational
prestige, lack of substance use, and lack of crimi-
nal convictions. These beneﬁts were partially
mediated by better decisions in adolescence,
including staying in high school, not becoming a
teenage parent, and not smoking. For a review of
the relevance of self-regulation to academic
achievement, including school readiness and life-
time educational attainment, see Duckworth and
4.2 Health and Well-Being
Self-regulation has been shown to be related to a
variety of health behaviors, including recovery
from physical illness or disabilities (e.g., exercise
during and after cardiac rehabilitation (Blanchard
et al. 2002), functional activity of patients under-
going surgical replacement of the hip or knee
(Orbell and Sheeran 2000), physical activity for
individuals in orthopedic rehabilitation (e.g.,
Ziegelmann et al. 2006, 2007), disease preven-
tion (e.g., attendance for cervical cancer screen-
ings, Sheeran and Orbell 2000; performance of
breast self-examinations, Orbell et al. 1997), and
general health (e.g., regulation of body weight
via dieting and exercising/sport activities,
Bagozzi and Edwards 1998; and increased con-
sumption of nutritious foods and other dietary
behaviors [Anderson et al. 2001; Calfas et al.
2002; Jackson et al. 2005]). Many of these stud-
M. McClelland et al.
ies are framed by Gollwitzer’s model of action
phases (Gollwitzer 1990, 1996).
As an action theory, Gollwitzer’s model of
action phases focuses on the factors that deter-
mine how effective one is during the process of
setting a goal to actual goal attainment. A key
construct distinction within this model—and ulti-
mately in predicting one’s success in behavior
change or goal attainment—is between goal
intentions and implementation intentions. A goal
intention indicates a desired behavior or outcome
and is a declaration of one’s commitment to a
goal. Implementation intentions, on the other
hand, specify the “when, where, and how of
responses leading to goal attainment…and thus
link anticipated opportunities with goal-directed
responses” (Gollwitzer 1999, p. 494). As a goal
intention states an individual’s commitment to a
speciﬁc goal, the implementation intention states
the individual’s commitment to certain actions in
an effort to attain that particular goal. Gollwitzer’s
model also highlights the contention that self-
regulated actions fall along an intentional-
automatic continuum; forming implementation
intentions allows people to “strategically switch
from conscious and effortful control of their
goal-directed behaviors to being automatically
controlled by selected situational cues”
(Gollwitzer 1999, p. 495). In turn, implementa-
tion intentions promote goal attainment by help-
ing to initiate action, above and beyond the
effects of goal intentions alone.
Studies applying Gollwitzer’s model to health
behavior have indicated that it is not only impor-
tant for participants to have goal intentions, but it
is also imperative for them to form implementa-
tion intentions and make subsequent planning
strategies to work toward their goals. These strat-
egies allow individuals to pinpoint when, where,
and how they will enact speciﬁc goal-related
behaviors. For example, Luszczynska (2006)
examined how well patients who suffered a myo-
cardial infarction utilized physical activity plan-
ning strategy and performed moderate physical
activity after engaging in an implementation
intention intervention program. The results indi-
cated that as compared to controls, patients who
participated in the implementation intention
intervention more frequently used their planning
strategies and maintained the same levels of
physical activity at 8 months after their infarction
as they did at 2 weeks after rehabilitation.
Furthermore, implementation intentions (as com-
pared to goal intentions) may be more predictive
of health behaviors at later time points (Orbell
and Sheeran 2000; Ziegelmann et al. 2007).
When participants were asked to perform breast
self-examinations, those who made such plan-
ning strategies were more likely to perform the
behavior in the manner in which they originally
speciﬁed (i.e., time and place) and were less
likely to report forgetting to perform the behavior
(e.g., Orbell et al. 1997). Likewise, the formation
of such plans for breast self-examinations or to
attend cervical cancer screenings can lead to ear-
lier enactment of goal intentions even among a
sample of highly motivated individuals (Orbell
and Sheeran 2000; Sheeran and Orbell 2000) and
inﬂuence motivation and adherence (Levack
et al. 2006).
Another work examining the role of inten-
tional self-regulation in health-related behaviors
also focuses on speciﬁc self-regulatory cogni-
tions and behaviors. Many studies have high-
lighted the importance of developing action and
coping plans for successful adoption and mainte-
nance of healthy behaviors such as physical
activity and nutritious eating (e.g., Calfas et al.
2002; Sniehotta et al. 2005; Zeigelmann and
Lippke 2007). Behavioral interventions aimed at
initiating or increasing certain health behav-
iors—or aiding participants in reaching certain
health goals—were often more effective when
they included the creation of “action plans” (e.g.,
Calfas et al. 2002). The development of these
plans often included having the participant
explicitly identify the goals to pursue and sources
for social support or resources to be utilized for
achieving those goals. In some cases, the action
plans also included identifying possible obstacles
or barriers that might interfere with the imple-
mentation of their plans and solutions to over-
come them (e.g., Calfas et al. 2002), but separate
“coping plans” were also used for that purpose.
For example, in a sample of 352 cardiac patients
undergoing rehabilitation, Sniehotta et al. (2005)
provided evidence that action planning and cop-
ing planning can be identiﬁed as distinct strate-
gies; in addition, the combination of forming
both action plans and coping plans was more
effective in increasing health behaviors over time
than forming action plans alone. The additive
beneﬁt of action and coping plans was replicated
in experimental designs (Sniehotta et al. 2006;
Sniehotta et al. 2005; Scholz et al. 2007).
A large body of research also points to the
importance of self-regulation for weight gain
and loss (e.g., Evans et al. 2012; Francis and
Susman 2009; Hofmann et al. 2014), addiction
(Baumeister and Vonasch 2014), and other
health-related outcomes (Mofﬁtt et al. 2011).
Several recent studies have demonstrated that
poor self-regulation predicts unhealthy weight
gain, particularly in adolescence, a period
marked by pubertal changes that inﬂuence adi-
posity and greater latitude to make diet and exer-
cise choices independent of parental control
(Duckworth et al. 2010a; Tsukayama et al. 2010).
In one study, children exposed to a number of
risk factors were signiﬁcantly more likely to
gain weight during adolescence, which was
mediated by having signiﬁcantly lower levels of
self-regulation (Evans et al. 2012). Adiposity, in
turn, is a robust predictor of physical vitality
later in life, suggesting one causal pathway link-
ing childhood self- regulation to adult physical
health and, ultimately, mortality.
Issues with self-regulation have also been
implicated in ADHD, with ADHD often charac-
terized as a disorder of self-regulation and under-
lying executive function components (Barkley
1997, 2011). For example, many individuals with
ADHD exhibit signiﬁcant difﬁculties with the
core executive function components of self-
regulation, including attentional or cognitive
ﬂexibility, working memory, and inhibitory con-
trol. This can be seen in individuals who are inat-
tentive, who lack behavioral inhibition, and who
have difﬁculty with planning, organizing, and
being goal-oriented. These issues can also lead to
difﬁculty with emotion regulation. Thus, indi-
viduals with ADHD are more likely to have prob-
lems with impulse control, be more reactive, and
have diminished social perspective taking abili-
ties (Barkley 2011; Berwid et al. 2005). This
means that children with ADHD may have a
harder time stopping and thinking about a situa-
tion before reacting and illustrates why these
children are more at risk for peer rejection and
other behavior problems (Molina et al. 2009).
Children with ADHD also demonstrate signiﬁ-
cant problems with academic achievement,
which can also be linked back to difﬁculties with
behavioral and emotional aspects of self-
regulation (DuPaul and Kern 2011).
5 Methods for Studying
As demonstrated by how self-regulation relates
to the principles of LCHD and RDS, self-
regulation shows important transitions and sensi-
tive periods, multiple levels of inﬂuence, and
person-context ﬁt in the form of matches or mis-
matches that can affect health development. Our
understanding of these issues, however, hinges
on how self-regulation is measured and analyzed
in health-related research. In this section, we
examine recent research on ways to measure and
5.1 Measuring Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is generally treated as a slowly
developing phenomenon, meaning studies that
target the development of self-regulation can eas-
ily take advantage of the large sample, small time
point analyses that dominate research in health-
related ﬁelds. Self-regulation research can
accordingly draw on the strengths of modern sta-
tistical methods such as latent variable structural
equation modeling, multilevel modeling, and
mixture modeling. In this vein, researchers read-
ily acknowledge that one size rarely ﬁts all
people. Advances in mixture modeling have
allowed us to appropriately model theories that
stem from the person-centered movement and
systems theories. Large sample research can be
M. McClelland et al.
facilitated by utilizing advances in modern miss-
ing data procedures to incorporate planned miss-
ing data collection designs. Such designs allow
researchers to collect all the data needed to utilize
modern analytic methods without burdening par-
ents, teachers, or individuals with excessively
It is also important to note, however, that chal-
lenges exist with some of these methods because
self-regulation measures change over the devel-
opmental years and are often not strongly related
with each other. Thus, developing self-regulation
measures that are reliable and valid over a broad
age range and at important points of transition is
of particular importance. Some progress, how-
ever, has been made on this front. For example,
the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Toolbox
has developed brief assessments for a variety of
skills, including aspects of self-regulation, which
are appropriate to use with individuals through-
out the life span (Zelazo et al. 2013).
In addition to measures that span a large age
range, other measures capture a broad set of chil-
dren’s developmental skills, especially at school
entry. Some research has focused on population-
based measures that are based on teacher or care-
giver ratings. One example is the Early
Developmental Instrument (EDI; Janus and
Offord 2007), which measures ﬁve developmen-
tal domains: social, emotional, physical, cogni-
tive, and communicative. Although not
speciﬁcally focused on measuring self- regulation,
the measure includes items tapping aspects of
self-regulation mostly in the social and emotional
domains. The measure has been shown to be reli-
able and valid and signiﬁcantly related to broad
measures of school readiness, although less
strongly related to direct assessments of chil-
dren’s skills (Hymel et al. 2011). A strength of
this type of measure is the potential to capture a
range of children’s skills. A weakness, however,
is that there may be considerable construct over-
lap and variability in how teachers rate children.
An example of a more targeted measure is the
Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) task
(McClelland et al. 2014), which speciﬁcally mea-
sures behavioral aspects of self-regulation. The
HTKS taps children’s ability to pay attention, use
working memory, and demonstrate inhibitory
control by doing the opposite of what was asked.
The task is most appropriate for young children
during the transition to formal schooling, which
is important because this time is a crucial period
for the development of self-regulation. A number
of studies have shown that the HTKS is reliable
and valid and signiﬁcantly predicts academic
achievement in diverse groups of children in the
US, Asian, and European countries (McClelland
et al. 2007, 2014; von Suchodoletz et al. 2013;
Wanless et al. 2011).
In youth and adults, self-regulation is often
measured either using self-report, parent-report,
or teacher-report questionnaires, delay of gratiﬁ-
cation tasks, or, ideally, a multi-method battery of
measures. Such measures predict report card
grades and changes in report card grades over
time (Duckworth and Seligman 2005), but the
predictive validity of self-regulation for standard-
ized achievement test scores, in contrast, is less
dramatic (Duckworth et al. 2012). One reason
that report card grades are differentially sensitive
to self-regulation may be their relatively greater
emphasis on effort on the part of the student, to
complete homework assignments on time and
with care, to come to class prepared and pay
attention when present, and to study for quizzes
and tests from provided materials. Notably, report
card grades predict persistence through college
better than standardized test scores, a testament
to the continued importance of self-regulation as
students move through the formal education sys-
tem (Bowen et al. 2009).
5.1.1 Construct Diversity
The major limitation to measure self-regulation
stems from the fact that self-regulation is not a
single globally measurable construct. Instead,
self-regulation represents an individual’s agentic
attempts to reach distal outcomes by inﬂuencing
what Lerner (e.g., Gestsdottir and Lerner 2008)
has called person-context relations. The extant
diversity of theories and measures of self-
regulation suggest that the apparently unitary
domain of self-regulation actually consists of
many oblique fragments that differentially inﬂu-
ence behavior as a function of context. We there-
fore need reﬁnements in the measures of and
theories about context-speciﬁc self-regulation.
Here, better measurement of the parts will better
inform the whole.
5.1.2 Complementing Nomothetic
Analyses with Idiographic
In addition, if we truly see self-regulation as part
of an ongoing process that is unique to each indi-
vidual, we must begin to complement our exist-
ing analyses with more idiographic examinations
of self-regulation over a variety of time spans
(e.g., moments, days). Idiographic analyses such
as dynamic factor analysis and p-technique have
a place in research, and it is important that self-
regulation researchers begin to acknowledge this
role. We currently have a poor understanding of
self-regulation as an idiographic phenomenon. A
better understanding of intraindividual differ-
ences will allow greater insight into interindivid-
ual phenomena related to self-regulation as well
as its intraindividual development.
6 Issues for Future Research
The previous sections demonstrate that, across a
broad spectrum of disciplines, interest has
steadily mounted in self-regulation and related
constructs—executive function (EF), self-
control, and effortful control. A growing body of
research has shown the importance of self-
regulation for children’s success in school, as
well as for subsequent health, wealth, and crimi-
nality (e.g., Mofﬁtt et al. 2011). In addition, the
study of self-regulation can be informed by a
closer appreciation of the principles of LCHD
and RDS, including how turning points and tran-
sitions, mismatches, and intervention integration
inﬂuence self-regulation trajectories. Despite
advances in many areas, our understanding of
aspects of self-regulation, including the neuro-
logical underpinnings of these skills, and efforts
to intervene in the development of self-regulation
for children at risk remains limited. In this sec-
tion, we suggest key issues and next steps for
6.1 Integration in Conceptualizing
When studied from multiple perspectives and
ﬁelds, differences in how self-regulation is
deﬁned and conceptualized arise in part because
its study stems from diverse research traditions
that use distinct methods to examine phenomena
across the life course. For example, research has
burgeoned in basic investigations of self-
regulation, including understanding the underly-
ing neurological and behavioral mechanisms
driving these skills in children, adolescents, and
adults (Blair and Raver 2012). It is also the case
that the particular domain of inquiry informs
where and how phenomena and individuals are
studied. Scholars sometimes refer to different
levels of analysis (e.g., neurological activation,
physiological responses, observed behavior, or
self-report) to clarify some of these differences.
More could be done, however, to provide better
integration across different disciplines and con-
texts to study the development and measurement
of these skills. For example, although the knowl-
edge base of research on different aspects of self-
regulation is deep, it lacks breadth, and most of
the work in this area has been conducted in con-
venience samples of middle-SES North
Americans. More research is needed on how self-
regulation develops within different groups and
populations especially as it relates to the princi-
ples of LCHD.
Another critical issue is the need to move away
from deﬁcit models of self-regulation (e.g., attri-
bution of undesirable outcomes to having “poor”
self-regulation) and instead take a strength-based
perspective. Each individual carries a unique set
of self-regulatory strengths. By understanding
how to maximize these strengths and the ﬁt
between these strengths and an individual’s con-
textual resources, the continued study of self-reg-
ulation will help researchers promote thriving and
positive outcomes across the life course.
M. McClelland et al.
6.2 Examining Developmental
Changes in Self-Regulation
In addition to issues with conceptualization, it is
also not clear if constructs, as operationalized
across disciplines, are all measuring the same
underlying skills. In addition, longitudinal mea-
surement of the developmental course (both
behavioral and neurological) of the underlying
components of self-regulation over different tran-
sitions and turning points is lacking at present.
Although a number of recent investigations pro-
vide insight into the structure of self-regulation in
young children (i.e., unitary vs. componential),
very little of this work has involved repeated
assessments over time. As a result, we know a
great deal about the performance of children
before and early in preschool (e.g., Carlson 2005)
but much less about self-regulation as children
move through formal schooling. It is also impor-
tant to examine whether and how these changing
abilities relate to behavior in real-world contexts.
Indeed, it could be the case that children who
come into school with stronger self-regulation
skills—as assessed from using tasks derived from
cognitive neuroscience—also exhibit stronger
self-regulation on classroom-based measures
(Rimm-Kaufman et al. 2009). It is also possible
that the relations between these sets of skills are
more limited than anticipated and that these dif-
ferent types of tasks tap into different abilities
altogether. Finally, the malleability of self-
regulation—and its components, such as working
memory, inhibitory control, and attention con-
trol, and particularly the impact of different inter-
vention efforts on these abilities—has not been
extensively charted. We turn to this next.
6.3 Improving Intervention
As the research reviewed suggests, there has been
a sharp increase in the number of applied investi-
gations targeting self-regulation, including a
plethora of new programs for young children
(Bierman et al. 2008a; Diamond and Lee 2011;
Jones et al. 2011; Raver et al. 2011; Schmitt et al.
2015; Tominey and McClelland 2011). Along
with these changes, there has been an increase in
interdisciplinary collaborations. These collabora-
tions have led to new developments in measure-
ments, analyses, and interventions related to
understanding and promoting self-regulation
skills early in the life course as a way to optimize
development and prevent future difﬁculties.
Moreover, researchers have started to examine
the complex and dynamic relations among self-
regulation and important variables that together
inﬂuence individual health and well-being across
the life course (McClelland et al. 2010).
Although research has documented the stabil-
ity of self-regulation trajectories over time, the
malleability of these skills is also evident. Thus,
although more research is needed to examine the
key components of effective interventions to pro-
mote self-regulation and the long-term effects of
such interventions, a few recommendations can
be made. First, in accordance with the principles
of LCHD, self-regulation interventions are likely
most effective when administered to individuals
at turning points or sensitive periods of develop-
ment, such as the early childhood years (Blair
and Raver 2012). In addition, interventions are
most effective when they integrate multiple lev-
els of inﬂuence across different contexts (e.g.,
Jones and Bouffard 2012) and involve repeated
practice of skills that are relevant to behavior in
everyday settings and which increase in com-
plexity over time (e.g., Diamond and Lee 2011).
There is also support for interventions to be most
effective for groups of children who are at the
most risk, such as those living in poverty and/or
experiencing toxic stress and ACEs (Blair and
Raver 2014; Schmitt et al. 2015). Finally, recent
work has examined the impact of additional
intervention components, such as mindfulness
practices and yoga, on children’s self-regulation,
with some encouraging results (Diamond and
Lee 2011; Zelazo and Lyons 2012).
It is also clear that more needs to be done to
translate research and interventions into prac-
tice. From a public health perspective, clinicians
and pediatricians need better tools for assessing
children’s self-regulation especially in the early
childhood years. Based on the importance of
developing strong self-regulation, it seems plau-
sible that well-child visits include screening of
self-regulation starting when children are 3 years
of age. There are some measures available that
assess aspects of self-regulation such as the EDI
(Janus and Offord 2007), but more work is
needed in this area. In the research realm, some
progress has been made in developing ecologi-
cally valid and sensitive measures of self-
regulation and in recognizing the roles of context
in the development of these skills (e.g.,
McClelland and Cameron 2012). As noted
above, however, it is unclear if self-regulation
measured in one context relates to self-regula-
tion in another context and how these relations
change over time.
Finally, it is critical that the results of basic and
applied research get translated into policy. Some
efforts are ongoing to bridge the science of self-
regulation and child development with policy and
between a diverse number of ﬁelds (see, e.g.,
Halfon 2012; Halfon and Inkelas 2003; Shonkoff
2011; Shonkoff and Bales 2011; Shonkoff et al.
2012). Thus, there is great momentum in this
arena. Although more work remains, there is an
increasing energy around translating the impor-
tance of self-regulation for important health and
developmental outcomes into policy and practice.
Framing our understanding of self-regulation
within the principles of LCHD and the RDS per-
spective is a promising way to improve research
and translational efforts and promote healthy
development across the life span.
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