Fostering Early Language and Self-Control In Your Young Child

Language and literacy and self-control are two foundational areas of early brain development that contribute directly to a child's readiness for kindergarten. Both language and literacy and self-control begin to develop during the first months and years of a child's life. Parents and other caregivers have many ways to contribute to children's healthy development in these two important arenas.

The research in early language and literacy skills tells us that the later a child's difficulties with reading and writing are discovered, the more challenging it is to help them catch up. If we wait to get children help until they are already showing signs of failing, it will be a much greater challenge to get them reading at grade level.1 Implementing consistent reading habits in the home and surrounding your child with positive language (and lots of it), will increase the likelihood that they will develop better reading skills.2

How can you help your infant and toddler begin to develop their language and pre-reading skills? As little as 10 minutes a day reading to your young child can make a world of difference. Use this together time to point out letters and words and the associated pictures as you say them so they can begin to put together the sights and sounds. Ask your child to point to pictures on the page, and point with them as they learn. Trace the large letters in an alphabet book or on a piece of paper with your child's finger. Name the letter, sound it out, and name things in the room or pictures on the page that start with that letter. Respond to your child's sounds with language, have a conversation. Watch this dad talk with his 9-month-old while he eats, or this mom sing with her 2-year-old.

We've all seen the child in the grocery store throwing a tantrum. Some of us have been the parent in that scenario, while some of us might even have been that child at some point. Luckily most children grow out of the kicking and screaming phase. They learn how to control their strong emotions and behave in more accepted ways. Caregivers can help their children develop these skills through setting up a structured and predictable environment with consistent rules. Routine and constancy helps empower children and helps them begin to anticipate what will happen in the world around them. Watch this mom help her 30-month-old learn how to handle her feelings. Research suggests we help our children develop self-control when we offer them acceptable choices. Learning to make choices and learning that we trust them to make choices helps their sense of independence and sense of control develop.

Even the youngest toddlers can be entrusted with choices like: "Do you want string cheese or fruit for snack?" or "would you like to play with the Legos or the doll house first?" Providing two or three options won't overwhelm the child. Choices can also be a way to reinforce the family rules. Allowing young children to make choices like these places them on a pathway to successfully assume greater responsibility as they grow older.3

Find more information and helpful videos on ZERO TO THREE's school readiness web site to help develop these skill areas in your child in their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years of life.

Key Points for Caregivers

  • Read to your child, every day if possible, point to words and letters in familiar books and connect them to the pictures.
  • Talk to your children often; surround them with positive language, even if they cannot talk back yet.
  • Trace the letters of the alphabet with your child's finger
  • Have conversations with your child, even if all they do is make sounds.
  • Encourage your child to find their own ways to solve problems and then give them the support they need.
  • Give your child age appropriate choices to help them learn self-control.
  • Help your child to choose between good behavior and unwanted behavior.
  1. Williams, J.D. (2009, August). Turning Around Education Policy and Performance. Keynote presentation at the 61st Annual Conference for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. Fredericton, NB.
  2. National Institute for Literacy (2006). A Child Becomes a Reader: Proven Ideas From Research for Parents. Jessup: National Institute for Literacy. Available here.
  3. Center for Play Therapy (Producer), & Landreth, G. (Writer/Director). (1994). Choices, cookies & kids: A creative approach to discipline [DVD]. Approximate length: 35 minutes. (Available in VHS and DVD from Center for Play Therapy,, University of North Texas, P.O. Box 310829, Denton, TX 76203-1337, 940-565-3864).