The Development of Self-Control of Emotion: Intrinsic and ...

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Motivation and Emotion [me]
April 29, 2003
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Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2003 ( C 2003)
The Development of Self-Control of Emotion:
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Influences
Nathan A. Fox2,4 and Susan D. Calkins3
In this paper, we review evidence that supports the notion that intrinsic and extrinsic
factors contribute to the development of self-control of emotions. Intrinsic factors
include the infant’s temperament, and cognitive processes such as attention and
inhibitory control. Extrinsic factors involve the caregiving environment, sibling
and peer relationships, and cultural expectations regarding emotional displays.
Integrative approaches to the study of the development of self-control of emotion
will be most fruitful if investigations examine the interplay, over time, among these
internal and external factors.

KEY WORDS: self control of emotions; temperament; cognitive processes; caregiver-child
Self-control is a capacity that develops over the first years of life and has profound
effects upon the child’s behavioral repertoire (Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, 2001;
Kopp, 1982). Notions of self-control are discussed in the psychological litera-
ture in relation to the development of motor skills, attention and cognition, and
with regard to emotion (Calkins, 1994; Gross, 1999; Posner & Rothbart, 2000).
The capacity to control expression of emotion, particularly negative emotions,
develops over the first years of life and has particular importance for the
unfolding of appropriate and adaptive social behavior (Eisenberg et al., 1996;
Eisenberg, Murphy, Maszk, Smith, & Karbon, 1995; Thompson, 1994).
Furthermore, the lack of adequate development of control over emotion (as
well as, in some instances, over-control of emotion) may be a precursor for the
1The writing and research of this paper were supported by National Institute of Health grants to Nathan
A. Fox (HD17899) and Susan D. Calkins (MH 55584 and MH 58144).
2Department of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland.
3Department of Psychology, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North
4Address all correspondence to Nathan A. Fox, Department of Human Development, University of
Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742.
0146-7239/03/0300-0007/0 C 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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development of psychopathology (Calkins & Dedmon, 2000; Calkins & Fox,
Like other areas of self-control, understanding the development of control of
emotions necessitates examination of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors (Calkins,
1994). By intrinsic factors we mean those individual differences that are usually
thought of as “innate.” We recognize, however, Gottlieb’s important qualifica-
tion (Gottlieb, 1991) that no differences in physical, physiological, or biological
characteristics are ever solely the result of genes without important environmen-
tal input. Nevertheless, for purposes of this presentation, we wish to contrast
temperament and the maturation of certain cognitive skills from processes in-
volving parent socialization. For this reason we use the term intrinsic (rather
than “internal”) and contrast it with “extrinsic” factors (specifically parent so-
cialization) involved in the development of emotion control. Intrinsic factors in-
clude the temperamental disposition of the child, certain cognitive skills, and
the underlying neural and physiological systems that support and are engaged in
the process of control (Calkins, 1994; Fox, 1994; Fox, Henderson, & Marshall,
2001). Extrinsic factors include the manner in which caregivers shape and so-
cialize emotional responses of the child. Caregivers may utilize specific strate-
gies to enhance development of self-control by providing supportive and respon-
sive environments to the child and by socializing culturally appropriate behavior
(Thompson, 1994, 1998). In addition, other socializing agents, including siblings
and peers, influence the extent to which children successfully utilize self-control
Over the past 10 years there has been an increased recognition of the im-
portance of self-control of emotion in the developmental literature (e.g., Fox,
1994). This work has appeared under the rubric of emotion regulation and has
generated a number of empirical studies designed to assess the influence of ei-
ther intrinsic or extrinsic factors in its development (Calkins & Johnson, 1998;
Stifter & Braungart, 1995; Stifter, Spinrad, & Braungart-Rieker, 1999). It has
also led to some confusion or ambiguity as to exactly what is meant by “regula-
tion” of emotion. Some have argued that emotion regulation is defined by both
the intrinsic and extrinsic processes involved in the monitoring, evaluating, and
moderating of emotional responses (Thompson, 1994). Others have noted that
emotions themselves regulate social interaction (Campos, Mumme, Kermoian, &
Campos, 1994). Redefining emotion regulation as the processes involved in self-
control of emotion may help eliminate some of the ambiguity in these definitional
Defining self-control of emotion first necessitates agreement on the nature
of emotion. Most contemporary definitions of emotion agree that it is a psycho-
logical state of specific duration that involves expressive behavior for commu-
nication. This state is the result of cognitive appraisal or evaluation of a change
in the environment. It may also involve peripheral physiological changes that

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Self-Control of Emotion
contribute to the intensive aspects of the state. This working definition of emotion
may be used to outline areas in which one may examine processes underlying
self-control of emotion or emotion regulation. These processes, including atten-
tion, response inhibition, and executive function, emerge and change in nature
over the first years of life and provide strategies for controlling the duration of
expression, the manner of expression, or intensive aspects of emotion. During
early childhood as some of these cognitive processes come on line, they inter-
act with extrinsic factors that support the development of self-control of emo-
tion. These extrinsic factors involve socialization processes by which children
learn strategies for self-control and the cultural display rules of emotion. The
goal of this paper is to provide a brief review of the intrinsic and extrinsic fac-
tors that contribute to the process of self-control of emotion in young children.
We take a developmental approach, attempting first to describe individual dif-
ferences in the tendency to express different emotions and second to understand
when particular processes come on line to support adaptive self-control of emotion
Although we acknowledge a distinction between emotional expression and
internal emotional experiences, our focus will largely be on the expression of
emotion. We take the view that early in development, these two processes are
likely to be tightly integrated, with control processes that affect one also influ-
encing the other. Indeed, the term emotional reactivity suggests a direct link be-
tween arousal, emotion experience, and expression, which is observed later in
infancy and in early childhood. As children mature, their emotional goals consist
largely of controlling internal feeling states with consequent changes in facial,
vocal, and physiological indices of emotion. Caregivers provide support and scaf-
fold or structure the environment to assist children in the control of emotional
reactivity. Around the age of 4 or 5, children become more familiar with their
own emotional responses, culturally specific display rules, and the use of control
As we examine the development of control processes in infants and young
children, we provide data from our own longitudinal studies of social withdrawal
(Fox et al., 1995; Fox, Henderson, Rubin, Calkins, & Schmidt, 2001) and ag-
gression (Calkins & Dedmon, 2000; Calkins, Gill & Williford, 1999) in young
children. This work demonstrates the importance of measurement of both intrin-
sic and extrinsic factors in the development of self-control of emotion and how,
in turn, individual differences in self-control of emotion affect personality devel-
opment and psychological adjustment. The work focuses on extreme groups of
infants selected for temperamental characteristics of negative reactivity to novelty
(in the case of our studies of social withdrawal) or negative reactivity to frustration
(in the case of studies of aggressive behavior). The studies are longitudinal in de-
sign and adopt a multimeasure approach for assessing both intrinsic and extrinsic

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Self-control of emotion emerges early in infancy and is influenced by the
infant’s reactivity to environmental stimulation. Initial responses of an infant are
characterized by their physiological and behavioral reactions to sensory stimuli
of different qualities and intensities. This reactivity is present at birth and reflects
a relatively stable characteristic of the infant (Rothbart, Derryberry, & Hershey,
2000). It is, in fact, how we (Calkins, Fox, & Marshall, 1996; Fox, Henderson, &
Marshall, 2001) have defined temperament in the infant. So, for example, infants
will differ initially in their threshold to respond to visual or auditory stimuli as
well as in their level of reactivity to stimuli designed to elicit negative affect (e.g.
Calkins et al., 1996).
These initial affective responses that are characterized by vocal and facial in-
dices of negativity are presumed to reflect generalized distress, a rudimentary form
of the more sophisticated and differentiated emotions that will later be labeled as
fear, anger, sadness. Emotions undergo further differentiation with cognitive devel-
opment and the emergence of self-awareness during early childhood. This initial
emotion reactivity has neither the complexity nor the range of later emotional
responses. Nevertheless, the infant’s subjective experience is “emotional” in the
sense that it reflects a viscerally aroused internal state and a defined motor com-
ponent. In addition, the infant’s signals of visceral arousal will usually elicit an
adaptive response from the environment.
Over the course of early development, the child’s increasing capacity to con-
trol or modulate emotional reactivity is a result of increasing cognitive control.
The cognitive processes that appear to facilitate control of emotional reactiv-
ity include regulation of attention, inhibitory control, and certain processes that
have been called executive function (Fox, Henderson, & Marshall, 2001; Ruff
& Rothbart, 1996). Opportunities for management of emotional reactivity are
themselves the product of the temperament of the child. That is, the manner
(type of emotion) and frequency with which a young child responds to stimu-
lus situations provide opportunities for external intervention (extrinsic factors).
For example, the experience of negative affect creates opportunities for external
intervention. Parents respond to their infant’s distress and the manner and suc-
cess of their intervention provides a history and basis for subsequent emotion
A central process in the emergence of self-control of emotion is the reg-
ulation of attention (Kopp, 2002). The development of attention and its use in
the control of emotional reactivity begins to emerge in the first year of life and
continues throughout the preschool and school years (Rothbart, 1989). Individual
differences in the ability to voluntarily sustain focus or shift attention are critical
aspects of self-control. These skills assist in the management of both negative

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and positive emotions. Clear individual differences exist in the ability to utilize
attention to successfully control emotion. For example, Rothbart (1981, 1986)
found increases in positive affect and decreases in distress from 3 to 6 months
during episodes of focused attention, suggesting that control of attention is tied to
affective experience. Moreover, negative affectivity is believed to interfere with
the child’s ability to explore and learn about the environment (Ruff & Rothbart,
During the second half of the first year of life there is good evidence for the
development of inhibitory motor control in the infant. This involves the ability
to inhibit a prepotent motor response (Diamond, 1991). Specific types of mo-
tor behavior such as self-comforting (e.g. thumb-sucking) and help seeking (e.g.
reaching for the caregiver) are present early (Stifter & Braungart, 1995) but mo-
tor inhibition develops in rudimentary form in the second half of the first year
of life and primarily during the second and third years of life. Self-control of
emotion via inhibitory skills appears to be useful in situations of positive affec-
tive arousal in that they allow the child to keep arousal within a manageable
and pleasurable range (Grolnick, Cosgrove & Bridges, 1996; Stifter & Moyer,
By the end of infancy, children begin to integrate control of attention and
motor inhibitory control in ways that allow for a variety of developmental tasks to
emerge. Thus, compliance to adult demands, the ability to delay gratification, and
management of impulses become possible (Kopp, 1982). Rothbart (1989) links
the emerging ability to control attention at the end of the first year of life with later
behavior that requires an active suppression of approach even when the rewards
may be pleasurable, or when the initiation or maintenance of behavior might be
unpleasant. As children begin to move into the toddler period, they become more
systematic in the deployment of their attention and they gain better inhibitory
control (Ruff & Rothbart, 1996).
The brief description of the normative developments of self-control in in-
fancy and early childhood points to the central role played by modulation of
arousal for the control of emotion. This modulation of arousal begins early in
infancy and is reflected in the child’s mastery of state regulation and control
of sleep–wake cycles. It is elaborated and integrated into the child’s repertoire
of emotional control behaviors during the preschool years (Calkins & Dedmon,
2000; Calkins & Fox, 2002). Individual differences in arousal and reactivity that
appear early in life underlie many developments that occur later at the level of
behavioral control of emotion experience and expression. That is, the control
processes mentioned earlier, such as attention and inhibitory control, are them-
selves influenced by the style of emotional reactivity of the infant and young
child. Thus, control processes are a function of child temperament and individ-
ual differences in these processes contribute to the normal development of social

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Following from the tradition of Thomas and Chess (Thomas, Birch, Chess,
Hertzig, & Korn, 1964; Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1970) examining the role of “be-
havioral style” or temperament in developmental outcome, several investigators
have concluded that infant and child temperament may play a role in the devel-
opment of self-control of emotions (Calkins & Johnson, 1998; Fox, Henderson,
Rubin, et al., 2001; Rothbart & Bates, 1998; Stifter & Braungart, 1995). Rothbart
(Rothbart & Derryberry, 1981) includes both individual differences in reactivity
and the development of self-regulation as centerpieces of her model of tempera-
ment. Reactivity is characterized by the infant’s latency to respond, threshold of
responsiveness, and intensity of response to sensory stimulation. The “second half”
of this temperament model involves individual differences in the development of
attention and inhibitory skills that regulate these reactive responses.
A good deal of empirical work has focused on the effects of temperamental
negative reactivity on the development of self-control. Negative reactivity has been
characterized by the degree of infant distress in response to novel unfamiliar events
or the infant’s distress in frustrating situations. For example, Fox, Henderson,
Rubin, et al. (2001) selected infants who displayed high levels of distress and mo-
tor activity in response to novel auditory and visual stimuli. A significant number
of these infants displayed patterns of behavioral inhibition later on in the first year
of life. Fox and colleagues speculated that those who did not go on to display inhib-
ited behavior might have utilized adaptive self-control strategies that modulated
the disposition to express negative affect. In support of this possibility, Henderson,
Fox, and Rubin (2001) found that among infants characterized as having negative
reactive temperaments at 9 months of age, those displaying left frontal EEG asym-
metry were less likely to exhibit behavioral inhibition later in childhood compared
to those exhibiting right frontal EEG asymmetry. Henderson et al. (2001) argue
that the temperamentally negative infant exhibiting left frontal EEG asymmetry
may have access to more adaptive attention and inhibitory strategies (e.g. language
skills) that are important in the control of negative affect.
Frontal EEG asymmetry has been described as reflecting the infant or child’s
disposition to express approach or avoidance related behaviors. Research with
adults examining this metric has found that a pattern of right frontal EEG asym-
metry is related to the tendency to express dysphoric affect in response to mild
stress. Davidson (1992) has written that this particular right frontal pattern may
be viewed as a stress diathesis, a marker for a heightened disposition to a stress
response. Individuals exhibiting right frontal EEG asymmetry may be more vul-
nerable to stress and may respond with avoidance and negative affect. Supportive
data from Davidson’s laboratory with adult subjects (Davidson & Henriques, 2000)

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and confirmatory data from our lab with young children (Calkins et al., 1996; Fox
et al., 1995; Fox, Henderson, Rubin, et al., 2001) argue that the pattern of right
frontal EEG asymmetry may be a marker for temperamental negative reactivity.
Studies of the development of emotional reactivity and temperament have
also utilized measures of cardiac function to examine individual differences. A
dimension of cardiac activity that has been linked specifically to temperament is
heart rate variability. Although there are multiple ways to measure this variability,
Porges (1985, 1991, 1996) and colleagues have developed a method that measures
the amplitude and period of the oscillations associated with inhalation and exha-
lation. This measure, called vagal tone, refers to the variability in heart rate that
occurs at the frequency of breathing (respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA) and is
thought to reflect the parasympathetic influence on heart rate variability via the va-
gus nerve (Porges 1996; Porges & Byrne, 1992). Suppression of vagal tone during
demanding tasks may reflect physiological processes that allow the child to shift
focus from internal homeostatic demands to the generation of coping strategies to
control affective or behavioral arousal (Porges, 1996). Thus, suppression of vagal
tone is thought to be a physiological strategy that permits sustained attention and
behaviors indicative of active coping that are mediated by the parasympathetic
nervous system (Porges, 1991, 1996; Wilson & Gottman, 1996).
In our research, we find support for the notion that individual differences
in vagal tone are associated with the development of self-control of emotion and
behavior. For example, Calkins (Calkins, 1997; Calkins, Smith, Gill, & Johnson,
1998) found that decreases in vagal tone characterized preschool children’s re-
sponse to tasks that required regulation of both negative and positive affect. In
addition, children whose behavior both in the laboratory and at home was char-
acterized by anger, defiance, and acting-out were less likely to display vagal tone
suppression during several tasks requiring emotional and behavioral regulation
(Calkins & Dedmon, 2000). And, among infants characterized by high levels of
anger and frustration, suppression in an attention-demanding task was lower than
for infants who were not as easily frustrated (Calkins, Dedmon, Gill, Lomax, &
Johnson, in press).
Research on the role of temperament in the development of emotional control
skills has examined the extent to which behavioral manifestations of temperament
influence the development of specific styles of control. For example, a number of
studies have found relations between temperamental negative reactivity to frustra-
tion and self-control of emotion. Braungart-Rieker and Stifter (1996) demonstrated
that distress as a result of frustration at 5 months of age was related to the use of
fewer emotion regulation behaviors, such as self-soothing, at 10 months of age.
Calkins and Johnson (1998) demonstrated relations between specific behaviors,
such as distraction and help seeking, and the tendency to be distressed in frustrat-
ing situations. Similarly, Buss and Goldsmith (1998) observed that a number of
different self-soothing behaviors that infants display when observed in frustrating
or constraining situations appear to reduce negative affect.

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A small number of studies conducted with children of various ages suggest
that it might be possible to identify profiles of infants at risk for problems in self-
control of emotion. For example, Aksan and colleagues (Aksan et al., 1999) report
that a preschool temperament type characterized by uncontrolled expressive be-
havior was predicted by the temperament factor of infant distress to limitations (the
degree to which an infant gets distressed when restrained). In our research focusing
on early frustration and aggression (Calkins et al., in press; Calkins & Dedmon,
2000; Calkins & Johnson, 1998) we have observed that infants and toddlers who
are easily frustrated are much less likely to utilize strategies such as distraction or
redirection of attention. These children are more likely to have difficulty exhibiting
self-control of emotion. In sum, there is evidence that early individual differences
in temperamental tendencies, particularly those reflecting differences in negative
affectivity, influence the development of self-control of emotion.
Although the evidence cited above describes the link between temperamental
reactivity and self-control, it does not address the issue of how individual differ-
ences in reactivity affect the processes that underlie self-control of emotion. As
noted earlier, three general cognitive processes have been suggested to affect self-
control of emotion. These are attention, effortful control, and what have been called
more generally executive functions. Data and theory suggest that these processes
affect individual differences in self-control of emotion. In the following sections
we discuss these processes, their role in self-control of emotion and the possible
manner in which temperament may affect or bias their performance.
The capacity for control of attention begins to emerge toward the end of
the first year of life. However, development of complex processes involved in
attention continues throughout the preschool and school years (Rothbart, 1989).
Individual differences in the ability to voluntarily sustain focus and to voluntarily
shift attention are believed to be early behavioral reflections of an emerging system
of effortful control of behavior (Ahadi & Rothbart, 1994).
Posner (1992) was the first to describe the behavioral and neuroanatomical
components associated with three attention systems: the orienting, vigilance, and
executive attention systems. Rothbart, Posner, and Hershey (1995) have written
about the development of each of these systems and their role in reactivity and
regulation. These three systems provide the young child with the underlying pro-
cesses necessary to regulate reactivity. There are clear developmental differences
across the period of early childhood in the relations between attention and emo-
tional control, specifically with respect to how successfully the child is able to use
attention as a means of achieving emotional control. For example, as noted ear-
lier, Rothbart (1981, 1986) observed increases in positive affect and decreases in
distress from 3 to 6 months during episodes of focused attention. However, not all

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children will be able to engage in these behaviors successfully in order to control
reactivity. There are also individual differences in the ability to utilize attention to
successfully control emotion and behavior. For example, in a study of the efficacy
of regulatory behaviors, Rothbart and colleagues (Rothbart, Posner, & Boylan,
1990) observed that attentional control was related to decreases in negative emo-
tionality in situations that evoked distress in infants. Moreover, negative affectivity
is believed to interfere with the child’s ability to explore and learn about the en-
vironment and to maintain on-task behavior (Calkins & Dedmon, 2000; Ruff &
Rothbart, 1996).
In our research, we found clear relations between the capacity for focused
attention and multiple indices of emotional self-control. For example, we studied
9-month-old infants’ abilities to focus on a visual stimulus presented directly in
front of them in the presence of a second visual stimulus (a distracter) presented off
to one side. Infants varied in the degree to which they were distracted by the second
stimulus and the degree to which they focused on the central stimulus. These indi-
vidual differences in infant attention were related to subsequent emotion control
and social behavior. Specifically, greater attentional focus and lower distractibility
was related to higher positive affect, less reticence and social withdrawal in peer
situations, lower morning cortisol levels, and greater relative left frontal EEG asym-
metry (P´erez-Edgar & Fox, 2000). Thus, children with a higher capacity for atten-
tional control display behaviors suggesting greater self-control of emotion. In our
studies of frustration and aggression, we found a similar pattern. In early infancy,
less frustrated infants displayed longer attentional focus and better physiological
regulation than more easily frustrated infants (Calkins et al., in press). Among a
sample of toddlers, those with a higher level of behavioral problems as indexed
by the Child Behavior Checklist also displayed poorer attention across a variety
of tasks than did children lower on such problems (Calkins & Dedmon, 2000).
Effortful Processes
A third factor that is intrinsic to the child and that likely influences self-control
of emotion is the ability to engage in effortful control of behavior. Effortful control,
or the ability to inhibit responses to environmental stimuli in order to pursue a
cognitively represented goal, has been related to the ability to maintain a state of
vigilance over time and response inhibition (Vaughn, Kopp, & Krakow, 1984).
During the toddler and preschool periods, effortful control develops such that by
age 4 children can successfully use a rule to inhibit a dominant response. These
same children are described by their parents as more skilled at focusing and shifting
attention, less impulsive, and less prone to frustration (Gerardi, Rothbart, Posner,
& Kepler, 1996). For example, Zelazo and colleagues developed a task in which
young children had to sort cards either by shape or color (Zelazo, Reznick, and
Pinon, 1995). Three- and four-year-old children understood and could articulate

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the rule for both dimensions. However, only 4-year-olds could utilize the rule to
successfully shift their performance from one dimension to the second. Three-year-
olds, on the other hand, persisted in sorting according to the rule they performed
first (Zelazo et al., 1995). In a similar type of task, Diamond asked children to
name a picture card of the sun as “night” and a picture card of the moon and stars
as “day.” Three-year-olds made more naming errors on this task than 4-year-olds
(Diamond, 1991). Diamond and Zelazo both attribute the changing ability of the
child to maturation of certain areas of prefrontal cortex involved in the skill of
response inhibition.
Effortful control processes, such as response inhibition, are capable of regulat-
ing approach and avoidance behavioral tendencies, including positive and negative
emotional reactivity. For example, effortful direction of response allows an individ-
ual to approach a stimulus that will induce distress or discomfort in order to obtain
a desired goal. Alternatively, similar processes may be invoked in order to inhibit
the desired approach toward a positive or attractive stimulus to avoid a perceived
negative consequence of that approach. Thus, effortful control allows individuals
to oppose their predisposition of reactivity in order to behave in accordance with
certain rules or expectations.
Gross and Levenson (1997) have recently explored the physiological “costs”
of cognitive effort involved in self-control of emotion. They had subjects view
sad, neutral or amusing film clips under one of two conditions: the subjects ei-
ther watched and naturally responded to the clip or they were asked to suppress
their emotional response to the clip. Gross and Levenson (1997) found that when
subjects were asked to suppress emotion to either the happy or sad film clip there
was increased sympathetic activation (enhanced skin conductance and increased
heart rate). Gross argues that voluntary control over emotion expression while fa-
cilitative of adaptive psychosocial functioning has a physiological “cost.” Another
way to view these results is that the act of regulating emotion response tendencies
requires active inhibition as reflected in the physiological change associated with
such inhibition.
Executive Function Processes
With development, a fourth factor, executive cognition, emerges as a com-
ponent of self-control. Two types of “executive function” skills are important for
self-control of emotion. First, infants and young children develop the knowledge
that it is useful to utilize certain behaviors in particular situations. The ability
to anticipate the eventual effects of particular strategies is likely a relatively late
developing skill (Thompson, 1998). As children move through the preschool pe-
riod into the early school years, the capacity for cognitive self-regulation increases.
Paris and Newman (1990) define this type of self-regulation as involving planful-
ness, control, reflection, competence, and independence. Cognitive self-regulation