Do Environmental Factors Play a Relevant Role in a Toddler’s Self Control?

By Ilya Haykinson (Flickr: hopscotch) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By the age of 3, environmental influences like parenting, are relevant factors in the development of a child’s self-control, when they are asked not to do something they want. The University of Texas at Arlington researchers discovered that by age 3, a child’s self-control mechanism will be directly influenced by outside environmental influences.

The Study

A child at the age of 3, should know what is permissible and what is forbidden, as far as behavior. When they are asked to do something they should not too, such as run into the street or eat a forbidden snack, most children know right from wrong, but some have trouble acting on the proper behavior.

Dr. Jeffrey Gagne, an assistant professor of psychology in UTA’s College of Science and co-author of the study said, “Understanding the development of self-control mechanisms is vital as individuals with low levels of inhibitory control develop more cognitive and socio-emotional developmental issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.”

Gagne further stated “Currently, most developmental issues are diagnosed after the child enters school. If we could identify and intervene with problems earlier, we could improve their responses before they reach school and their outcomes once they get there and beyond, even through adolescence.”

Gagne and co-author Kimberly Saudino, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, published the findings of their study in the leading child development journal Developmental Psychology, as the Development of Inhibitory Control in Early Childhood: A Twin Study from 2-3 years.

The team studied 300 pairs of twins and measured their inhibitory control through interviewing their parents and also by testing and videoing their responses to temperamental assessments in a lab setting. The tests were performed first at age 2 and age 3, both times within a month of the child’s birthday.

While parent interviews suggest genetics remains a key element in these behaviors around the age of 3, detailed analysis of videotaped lab behavior assessments showed that genetic influences were significant at age 2, but not at 3.

Gagne said, “By age 3, we see that one twin’s exposure to either shared family influences or unique environmental influences such as more or less negativity from parents, or an accident or illness the co-twin did not experience, are both important influences over their capacity for self-regulation.”
He added, “With a sensitive laboratory-based protocol for measuring inhibitory control, we could map traits in early childhood that would suggest susceptibility for certain disorders and potentially help these children faster.”

Perry Fuchs, chair of psychology at University of Texas Arlington’s College of Science, praised the research team for their work, which is representative of the college’s commitment and dedication to advancing insight into health and human condition under the Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions /Global Impact.


Dr. Fuch’s said in closing,” This research could help clarify issues of child behavior and misbehavior experienced by many families. By providing clearer support for parents it may be possible to remediate some socio-emotional development issues before the children reach school age and have to interact in complex environments.”


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