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Early self-control development: Prevalence, persistence and change in a NZ cohort

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Research has shown that higher levels of self-control in childhood are associated with improved health and financial outcomes, life satisfaction and decreased levels of substance abuse and criminal convictions in adulthood (Moffitt et al., 2011). Based on this retrospective analysis, the positive development of self-control is of interest to policy makers looking to promote success across the health, education, economic and social domains in adulthood. 

Few studies to date have assessed early self-control at a population level; thus, less is known about the emergence of self-control in the early years of life. One exception is The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study which assessed self-control using a single composite self-control measure created from assessments taken between the ages of 3-11 years. They found that lower self-control was related to later poor health and financial outcomes and increased criminal offending in adulthood (Moffitt et al., 2011, 2013). 

This study uses data from the contemporary longitudinal Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study to increase our understanding of self-control development in the first five years of life. The GUiNZ study follows the development of around 6,800 children born in 2009 and 2010. Children were assessed using a variety of self-control related measures when they were 9 months, 2 and 4.5 years of age. Our primary aims were to: 

1. Devise indices of self-control using relevant measures of children’s behaviour at 9 months, 2 years and 4.5 years of age. 

2. Validate the indices of self-control against the internationally recognised Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). 

3. Identify the early childhood familial and situational factors that promote or undermine the development of self-control. 

4. Describe the stability of pre-schoolers’ self-control and explore if there is an age where children at greater risk can be identified. 

5. Identify factors that distinguish children with low self-control from those without low self-control across the preschool period. 

Source: This report has been produced for the Ministry of Social Development with funding from the Children and Families Research Fund. Authors: Susan M. B. Morton Elizabeth R. Peterson Jude Buckley Siobhan Murray

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