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Inside: Struggling to teach self control for kids and toddlers? Every parent has been there. Steal my quick strategy to help toddlers sit still and develop impulse control. Plus get equipped with more tried-and-true ideas to teach your child the valuable art of self-control!

Struggling to teach self control for kids and toddlers? Every parent has been there. Steal my quick strategy to help toddlers sit still and develop impulse control. Plus get equipped with more tried-and-true ideas to teach your child the valuable art of self-control!

What comes to mind when you think of the word “toddler?”

“Wiggle, chase, jump, go, ZOOM!”

Certainly not “sit” or “still.”

But as natural (and super cute) as these boisterous behaviors are the majority of the time, there comes a time when a toddler really must sit still and listen.

Maybe you want to teach your kiddo to sit in church with the family? What about those dreaded doctor’s office waiting rooms?

The challenge is in teaching toddlers to sit still screen-free. No electronics needed to distract here. We’re going all or nothing, straight to the heart of this issue.

We’re teaching and modeling good old-fashioned self-control.

Want to learn how we limit screen time in our home? Steal my action plan for tackling screen-time once and for all with my eBook, Unplug + Unlock! Learn more about the eBook here.

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So it all started in story time at our library last week. My son was a bit fidgety, but was contentedly listening to the librarian read, when all of a sudden he heard a train in the distance.

That’s the moment it all fell apart. “Choo Choo train?” he exclaimed at the top of his lungs. I picked him up and stepped away from the group, quietly explaining that yes, there was a train, but no, we aren’t going to see it right now since it’s story time.

We went to sit again but alas, the tide had already turned. As soon and I sat down he hopped up and started to roam the room again.

I gave him the look and whispered in my best “I mean business” voice “Sit. Down. Now.”

Up until this point I would have considered his behavior childish irresponsibility. It’s completely appropriate for a toddler to be interested in seeing the train! But that’s when my ordinarily sweet little son, not quite two years old, looked me in the eye.

He smiled, crouched down into a runners stance, gave me one last glance, and took off running.

This was pure defiance.

There he was in all his boyhood recklessness, while the other moms looked on in amusement.

Needless to say, we left story time early. How could I ever go back to story time? Were we doomed to forgo the joys of our favorite library forever?

Yikes. Not a shining moment in my parenting journey.

Enter my dad. He’s decidedly one of the wisest people I know. As my son and I struggled in the door back at home I got a sweet and perfectly timed text from my daddy. “Julie, you’re a great parent and you are equipped to do the job.”

Yes! That was the perfect word of encouragement for me. With my wits back about me and my parenting backbone firmly in place, I made a plan.

I knew that it was time to become proactive instead of reactive.

RELATED: Click here to enroll in a FREE webinar: How to get kids to listen without nagging, reminding, or yelling. Don’t miss a chance to join parenting expert Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions for a powerful, FUN, interactive, answer-filled hour of tools you can start using IMMEDIATELY in your home.

So, what’s my action plan to teach self control? 

My son is generally a sweet and goofy kid. I love him from top to bottom. Our problem was with a specific behavior. 


I needed to teach my toddler to sit still and listen: for story time, church, and beyond. It’s a skill worth having. And for a two year old boy, it’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught. Intentionally. 

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One Simple Strategy to Teach Self Control for Kids

Here’s what I’m doing to teach my toddler how to sit still and listen. The most important thing to remember is that we don’t have to wait for misbehavior to happen before we react.

Instead, take the time to be proactive! Use those downtimes, the times when your child has a happy, receptive heart, to teach expectations and new skills like self-control. It will make a world of difference in those turbulent moments later on!

Update: My little dude is now a preschooler and is totally rocking story time! We found our rhythm. His behavior, attention-span, and self-control are so much improved. I’m SO thankful that I put this plan into action when my son was a younger toddler. This skill of sitting still so valuable. We can sit and read long chapter books and actually enjoy that time together! I’ve also started using this same “pillow time” strategy with my daughter. I like to start teaching this skill around the 18 months- 2 year old stage. Having this strategy in your back pocket is a huge help for the “testing twos” stage.

What you’ll need:

  • 2-3 Books – choose their absolute favorites to encourage the maximum attention span! (Check out our favorites here and here.)
  • Small Pillow 
  • Small Fidget Toy (like this or this.)
  • One small to medium sized toddler, well fed and well rested. Ha! (Psst…a daily schedule helps us with this! Click that link to read about our daily toddler routine.)
  • You! (Also well fed and well rested.)

Step 1: Set the Stage

I start by announcing, “It’s story time! Time to sit and listen!” (Imagine you’re a kindergarten teacher. You’re peppy. You’re enthusiastic. You’ve got this!)

Then I pull out a favorite book to draw my child’s attention. I have them sit on the pillow in front of me.

I usually read with my kids in my lap, but for this specific purpose I want them to learn the self-control to sit still by themselves. This is “story time” reading, not “cuddles with mama” reading.

Remember, the goal is to create a culture that will help teach self-control!

Step 2: Reading Time

I start with the most favorite book first. If my child gets up, I stop reading and instruct them to sit and listen. In a happy voice I say, “Ears open, mouth closed, hands in your lap!”

If they don’t follow directions, (which will happen!) I state in a calm voice, “I can’t keep reading until you sit down.” Since it’s a book he really loves, this is usually a highly persuasive tactic.

Choose books that are easy to read and feature bold, bright illustrations to capture your child’s attention. A few of my childrens’ favorite books have been these train and tractor books, In the Tall Tall Grass, and anything by Sandra Boynton.

When they gets fidgety, I give my child a small toy to keep in their lap while they listen. This Tangle Jr. fidget toy is absolutely perfect for the job. It’s small and discreet. A toy like this will keep little hands busy so their minds can focus!

I am always surprised how quickly my kids catch on, since my son and daughter are both usually 100+ mph all day long.

When you’re just starting out with this self-control strategy, use this trick. Stop reading before your child loses interest or gets super antsy.

As soon as you see your child getting really restless, close up the book and say, “Storytime is over for today! I’m so proud of you! You listened so well, and I could tell you were really paying attention!”

Each time you practice “pillow time” just try to lengthen the time by a few minutes. By stopping before they “lose it” you’re giving them confidence that they are capable and gradually building that self-control muscle!

Struggling to get in a storytime groove? Be sure to get in on my FREE email course: 7 Days to Smarter Storytime. I’ll teach you how to rock read aloud time like a PRO. I promise storytime with your kids will quickly become one of your most favorite times of the day. Besides nap time, of course. Nothing beats nap time 😉

Step 3: Encourage and Repeat!

I praise my toddlers during the whole process, talking specifically about what they’re doing that I love. “I love how you’re keeping your toy in your lap so quietly. What a great job of listening you’re doing!”

I’ll repeat this every day until I feel like they grasp the concept. My goal is for 30 minutes of still listening time, to mimic our library story time setting as much as possible. Practice makes progress!

All that I needed was to shift my parenting focus! Proactive beats reactive every time. You are equipped to do the job.

If you enjoyed this post, I know you’ll love reading about how we do (super-relaxed) homeschool preschool. See how we get lots of learning done with little stress!

Whatever your child’s age, I encourage you to be proactive! Take the time to teach your child valuable skills like self-control and sitting still, and you’ll reap the rewards later. Promise!

More Ways to Teach Self Control to Kids

So, what if you need more than “pillow time” to teach your toddler how to be still and have self-control? There are plenty of positive ways to teach impulse control to your children!

  • Model self-control in your own life! Walk in step with Jesus and you’ll see the fruit evident in your parenting.
  • Read books about developing self-control.
  • Help your child pray and ask the Holy Spirit to give him self-control. It is ultimately a gift of the Spirit!
  • Use simple phrases to teach your child emotional regulation.
  • Memorize helpful verses that will pour water on those impulsive sparks. We love this one, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” (Proverbs 29:11, NIV)
  • Play games like Simon Says or do fun science experiments to teach impulse control and following directions.
  • Encourage delayed gratification! Praise your child when you see him being patient or working hard for something he will receive later.

Your Turn

Does your child need to learn the skill of sitting still? What are your favorite ways to teach self control for kids?

Remember these key points:

  • Be a proactive parent, not a reactive one!
  • Gradually build that self-control muscle. Stretch out the time by a few minutes each time you practice “pillow time”.
  • Cultivate a culture of self-control in your home. Use the strategies above to give your children a skill they’ll use their whole lives!

We want to know what you think! Let’s connect in the comments below.

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