Effortful control refers to the ability to regulate behavior, emotion, and cognition, particularly in challenging or tempting situations, which can help people to achieve goal-directed behaviors.
For example, when we feel a deep-down urge to lash out in anger, we need to use effortful control to restrain ourselves and respond in a more socially appropriate manner to avoid embarrassment.
The key proponent of this concept is Mary K. Rothbart. She defines it below:
“[Effortful control is] defined as the ability to withhold a dominant response in order to perform a nondominant response, to detect errors, and to engage in planning [and] involves the voluntary deployment of executive attention, allowing children to come to regulate their more reactive tendencies”
This skill is essential for self-management. We need to master it in order to engage in everyday tasks, from driving (maintaining focus) to engaging in socially acceptable behaviors.
Not surprisingly, high scores in effortful control is often a correlate with successful outcomes in life, including conflict resolution.
Aspects of Effortful Control
Three key aspects of effortful control identified by Rothbart are:
- Attentional regulation: This refers to the ability to voluntarily manage attention, including the skills of selective attention, focus, attention switching, and multitasking. Research shows that limited voluntary attention emerges in infants between 9 and 18 months.9
- Inhibitory control: This involves suppressing behaviors considered contextually inappropriate, socially unacceptable, or that will lead to subjectively poor results. This tends to emerge around 3-4 years of age.4
- Activational control: This involves activating behaviors that will garner rewards or are considered appropriate in the right situations.
Effortful Control Skills
Grazyna Kochanska, another key scholar in effortful control research, identified five key skills that require effortful control[2,3,4,5,6,7]. These skills were identified in children from 9 to 45 months old:
- Delay: The ability to delay gratification, such as by waiting for candy displayed under a transparent cup (as in the famous marshmallow experiment) demonstrates effortful control.
- Slowing down motor movement: Children’s ability to draw a line slowly, as opposed to rapidly scribbling, demonstrates emerging effortful control.
- Suppressing and initiating responses to changing signals: This can be demonstrated in games such as “Simon Says”, where a child only does the commanded task if “Simon said” it, and similar go/no-go games.
- Effortful attention: The example given by Kochanska is the ability to recognize small shapes hidden within a larger shape.
- Voice control: Having the ability and self-awareness to use your inside voice in the classroom.
Examples of Effortful Control
- Sharing Toys: In a play environment, a child might naturally want to keep their favorite toys to themselves. Effortful control is demonstrated when they consciously decide to share their toys with other children even if they’d prefer not to. This practice not only adheres to social norms but also helps in developing social skills and empathy towards others.
- Waiting for a Turn: Children often find it hard to wait for their turn, whether it’s during a game or while waiting to use a restroom. Effortful control is shown when they manage their impatience, adhere to the rule of waiting their turn, and handle the delay without throwing a tantrum. This is a foundational step towards understanding fairness and patience.
- Handling Disappointment: Whether it’s not winning a game or not getting the toy they wanted, children face disappointments. Effortful control is displayed when they manage their emotions, avoid meltdowns, and accept the situation gracefully. Over time, this helps in building resilience and a better understanding of handling life’s ups and downs.
- Listening Attentively in Class: It can be challenging for children to stay focused during class, especially when there are distractions around. Effortful control is exhibited when they consciously direct their attention to the teacher, avoid talking with friends or fidgeting, and engage with the learning material. This skill is crucial for academic success and learning how to manage distractions.
- Completing Homework: The allure of playing outside or watching TV can easily divert a child from completing their homework. Effortful control is employed when they prioritize their homework, set aside distractions, and work through it even when they would prefer to be doing something else. This discipline is not only important for academic achievement but also for developing a strong work ethic early on.
- Studying for an Exam: When an important exam is on the horizon, the temptation to procrastinate or indulge in distractions like social media or watching TV can be strong. Effortful control comes into play when you consciously decide to prioritize studying over these distractions. This might involve creating a study schedule, finding a quiet place to work, and utilizing techniques to maintain focus and manage time effectively.
- Dieting: Sticking to a diet, especially in a world filled with tempting food options, requires a good deal of effortful control. This may include resisting cravings for sugary or fatty foods, or stopping yourself from overeating even when food is readily available. Over time, exercising effortful control can help in developing healthier eating habits and reaching one’s weight loss or health goals.
- Exercise Regimen: Maintaining a regular exercise routine requires the ability to overcome the inertia or laziness that might deter you from staying active. Even on days when motivation is low or when there are other tempting ways to spend time, effortful control helps in prioritizing exercise. By managing impulses and staying committed to a workout schedule, individuals can work towards their fitness goals.
- Saving Money: The goal to save money often requires foregoing immediate pleasures or impulsive spending. This might involve resisting the urge to eat out frequently, buy new clothes on a whim, or spend on other non-essentials. Through effortful control, individuals can manage their spending, stick to a budget, and save money for future investments like buying a house or going on a vacation.
- Anger Management: In situations where someone might feel provoked or angered, effortful control is crucial to manage reactions. It’s about taking a moment to pause, reflect on the consequences of reacting impulsively, and choosing a more constructive response. This way, individuals can maintain better interpersonal relationships and avoid situations that could escalate negatively.
Is Effortful Control Genetic or Learned?
Effortful control is believed to have both genetic and environmental components. It can be learned, but at the same time, it appears some people naturally develop it more strongly than others.
The concept of effortful control emerged out of temperament research, and as such, a strong focus has been on the genetic components of it. In other words, researchers such as Rothbart tend to think that effortful control is a part of our genetic, inborn, temperament, with some people having this ability as a matter of their inborn temperament more than others.
Nevertheless, it’s believed that, as with most executive functions, we can develop our effortful control through environmental factors such as education, scaffolding, habit, and routine. In other words, parents and teachers can foster this cognitive skill.
Research has shown that children raised in certain environments have lower effortful control including:
- Children of controlling caregivers (i.e. the authoritarian parenting style)[8,9,10,11]
- Children with insecure attachment styles
Benefits of Effortful Control
Researchers have identified several benefits of high effortful control, including the following correlates:
- Less Problem Behaviors: Correlation with lower levels of problem behaviors in school children.[7,12,13]
- Less Negative Emotions: Correlation with low levels of negative emotions such as anger and frustration.[4,7,12,14,15]
- Prosocial Reactions: Dealing anger in non-hostile and verbal ways, rather than with physicality.
- Social Competence: Correlation with social awareness and competence in social situations, i.e. the ability to comply with social norms.[14,16,17]
- Moral Conscience: Correlation with moral conscience, guilt and shame, and low aggressiveness.[3,5,7]
- Empathy: Correlation with empathy, compassion, and theory of mind.
- Personal Responsibility: Correlation with a sense of personal responsibility for your own actions.[18,19]
 Rothbart, M. K. (2004). Temperament and the pursuit of an integrated developmental psychology. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-), 492-505. (Source)
 Kochanska, G., Philibert, R. A., & Barry, R. A. (2009). Interplay of genes and early mother–child relationship in the development of self‐regulation from toddler to preschool age. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 50(11), 1331-1338. (Source)
 Kochanska, G., & Aksan, N. (2006). Children’s conscience and self‐regulation. Journal of personality, 74(6), 1587-1618. (Source)
 Kochanska, G., Coy, K. C., Tjebkes, T. L., & Husarek, S. J. (1998). Individual differences in emotionality in infancy. Child development, 69(2), 375-390. (Source)
 Kochanska, G., Murray, K., & Coy, K. C. (1997). Inhibitory control as a contributor to conscience in childhood: From toddler to early school age. Child development, 263-277. (Source)
 Kochanska, G., Murray, K. T., & Harlan, E. T. (2000). Effortful control in early childhood: continuity and change, antecedents, and implications for social development. Developmental psychology, 36(2), 220. (Source)
 Kochanska, G., & Knaack, A. (2003). Effortful control as a personality characteristic of young children: Antecedents, correlates, and consequences. Journal of personality, 71(6), 1087-1112. (Source)
 Eisenberg, N. (2012). Temperamental effortful control (self-regulation). Encyclopedia on early childhood development, 1, 1-5.
 Eisenberg, N, Smith, C., Spinrad, TL. (2011). Effortful control: Relations with emotion regulation, adjustment, and socialization in childhood. In: Baumeister RF & Vohs KD, (Eds, pp. 263-283). Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications. New York: Guilford.
 Eisenberg, N, Zhou, Q, Spinrad, T L, Valiente, C, Fabes, RA., & Liew, J. (2005). Relations among positive parenting, children’s effortful control, and externalizing problems: A three-wave longitudinal study. Child Development, 76: 1055-1071. (Source)
 Belsky, J, Fearon, RMP, & Bell, B (2007). Parenting, attention and externalizing problems: Testing mediation longitudinally, repeatedly and reciprocally. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 48; 1233-1242. (Source)
 Eisenberg, N., Valiente, C., Spinrad, T. L., Cumberland, A., Liew, J., Reiser, M., … & Losoya, S. H. (2009). Longitudinal relations of children’s effortful control, impulsivity, and negative emotionality to their externalizing, internalizing, and co-occurring behavior problems. Developmental psychology, 45(4), 988. (Source)
 Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., & Eggum, N. D. (2010). Emotion-related self-regulation and its relation to children’s maladjustment. Annual review of clinical psychology, 6, 495-525. (Source)
 Eisenberg, N., Eggum, N. D., Sallquist, J., & Edwards, A. (2010). Relations of self‐regulatory/control capacities to maladjustment, social competence, and emotionality. Handbook of personality and self‐regulation, 19-46. (Source)
 Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Nyman, M., Bernzweig, J., & Pinulas, A. (1994). The relations of emotionality and regulation to children’s anger-related reactions. Child Development, 65, 109–128. (Source)
 Eisenberg, N., Valiente, C., & Eggum, N. D. (2010). Self-regulation and school readiness. Early education and development, 21(5), 681-698. (Source)
 Spinrad, T. L., Eisenberg, N., Gaertner, B., Popp, T., Smith, C. L., Kupfer, A., … & Hofer, C. (2007). Relations of maternal socialization and toddlers’ effortful control to children’s adjustment and social competence. Developmental psychology, 43(5), 1170. (Source)
 Derryberry, D., & Reed, M. A. (1994). Temperament and the self-organization of personality. Development and psychopathology, 6(4), 653-676. (Source)
 Derryberry, D., & Reed, M. A. (1996). Regulatory processes and the development of cognitive representations. Development and psychopathology, 8(1), 215-234. (Source)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]