Self-Regulation Toolkit For When Kids Have to Wait

Hello again Busy Moms! I am so happy to be back here sharing another parenting tip with you today. For more parenting tips follow me on Pinterest and join my Facebook community! Today I am sharing a way to help your kids distract themselves when they need to wait, something that will help you and them! And don’t miss the bonus free printable at the end!

Teaching self-control when Kids Have to Wait- by Nurture and Thrive

One of the things I noticed in my research (in addition to being a Mommy, I’m a Developmental Psychologist, for more about that read this) is that when I did self-control tasks with kids, the ones who did the best were really good at distracting themselves. For example, in one task, I would put two plates in front of a child, one had one cookie on it and the other had two cookies. Then I told the children they could either have one cookie now or wait until I came back in the room and then they could have two cookies.

The children who waited the longest and thus showing greater self-control, used all kinds of strategies to distract themselves. They would sing a song, say the ABCs, count something in the room, anything to distract themselves. Another study tested this idea and they found that if children were distracted with fun thoughts they were able to wait 10 minutes on average for the treat. So it isn’t about children having the sheer willpower to wait, but instead having several strategies to distract themselves while they wait.


This ability to refocus attention or distract oneself is a major building block of self-control. As I talk about in this post, children who wait longer are more sociable, have better grades, and even better SAT scores years later. There are also brain differences between the children who were better at delaying and those who were not as good at waiting.

Helping your children learn how to entertain themselves while waiting is a great opportunity to scaffold regulation skills.  Waiting is hard for children (well, it’s hard for everyone really). Waiting for cookies, birthday cake, holiday presents, that is even harder! But there is everyday waiting as well, while at the doctor’s office, at a restaurant, waiting for an oil change, during long car rides  and so on. These everyday situations are great times to teach your child how to wait and build some basic self-control skills.

When my son was about almost 2 I started a bringing a backpack with us every time we went some place where we would have to wait. I put things in the backpack I knew he would like and occasionally I rotate the items to keep them fresh.

Inside the backpack are both things for us to do all together and also things he can do on his own. I think having both are important. Like encouraging independent play at home, I want him to be able to distract himself without relying on us some of the time. I also try to have things that are cognitive based as well as things he can do with his hands. Sometimes when waiting is really hard, kids do better when they have something to manipulate.


Most of the things we have in the backpack have been gifts (including the backpack itself!). I couldn’t find several of the exact items, but I listed similar items below as best as I could. Most likely you already have things around the house you could easily use for just this purpose. You can adapt this idea for older kids as well by using different items. And if you want this to help with self-control, then I would  avoid electronics/screens– those do the entertaining for your child instead of them entertaining themselves.

This list contains amazon affiliates links. If you purchase an item through a link I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you!


Stephen Joseph Little Boys’ Quilted Backpack, Train, One Size
Stephen Joseph Girls’ Quilted Backpack, Girl Zoo, One Size

Cognitive Activities 

Hands-On Activities

And for a little bonus, you can print this out and have a list of games to do while you wait. Laminate and put it in your backpack! Click here waiting games for a 5X7 printable copy.

waiting games

Thanks so much for reading! For some of my favorite at home games for nurturing self-control in your kids, check out this post. Hope this helps your little ones to thrive!

http___signatures.mylivesignature.com_54492_146_767F261AB717EE90C307B4E8955770D4 copy

This content may contain affiliate links. We earn a commission at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase. We may earn money, free services or complementary products from the companies mentioned in this post. All opinions are ours alone…

The following two tabs change content below.
Hi I’m Ashley! I'm a mom and a child development psychologist. Once I became a parent, I had so many more questions! I realized we have so much yet to learn. I write about issues that affect us all as parents, drawing from research and experts in my field. Please email me topics or questions you'd like to see discussed as well!

Latest posts by Ashley Soderlund Ph.D. (see all)

4 Responses to “Self-Regulation Toolkit For When Kids Have to Wait”

  • Wow, what great suggestions for helping kids wait! I’ve always been fascinated by the Stanford marshmallow experiment you reference. I tried it with my first child when he was about 3 using m&m’s and was so happy that he was able to distract himself. I’m kind of afraid to try it with my second child who’s presently 3, because she’s more of an instant gratification kind of kid. As a child development psychologist, do you think it’s cheating to tell them that it’s better to wait (or to up the reward to increase their motivation)? I think the actual experiments used 4 year olds anyway, so she still has a little time. 🙂 (Saw this post in the Pincrazy Thursday Link-up, BTW.)

    • Hi Michelle,
      Thank you! That is awesome he was able to distract himself! And yes, your daughter still has plenty of time. It is an interesting question that you ask—if you were doing the research itself it would be off protocol to tell her it is better to wait. But, as her parent I think encouraging her to wait is a good idea. I never did the ‘experiment’ with my son because it’s already different when mom or dad are asking. They may be more likely to listen to another adult. Ever had the experience that your kids listen better to friend’s parents on a playdate or at preschool? With the researcher it’s that same idea, the kids are putting their best foot forward for an authority. On the other hand, I see how well my son does (or doesn’t do!) in lots of situations– like waiting to open presents. In those situations distraction is the best things to teach them. You could say “I know it’s hard to wait, but let’s think of things you can do while you wait. You could imagine a castle or you could sing songs, you could count things in the room or we could go play with this.” That way you are helping her learn those same skills that the children who did wait in those experiments used. Thank you for the comment!

  • This is awesome! Thanks for sharing!! I need to do something like this…instead right now I just get annoyed when my daughter throws a fit because she has to wait. Thank you for sharing on Toddler Fun Friday!!

Comments are closed.