Developmental Task of Early Childhood: Initiative vs. Guilt

The trust and autonomy of previous stages develop into a desire to take initiative or to think of ideas and initiate action (Erikson, 1982). Once children reach the preschool stage (ages 3–6 years), they are capable of initiating activities and asserting control over their world through social interactions and play. According to Erikson, preschool children must resolve the task of initiative vs. guilt. By learning to plan and achieve goals while interacting with others, preschool children can master this task. Children may want to build a fort with the cushions from the living room couch or open a lemonade stand in the driveway or make a zoo with their stuffed animals and issue tickets to those who want to come. Or they may just want to get themselves ready for bed without any assistance. Initiative, a sense of ambition and responsibility, occurs when parents allow a child to explore within limits and then support the child’s choice. To reinforce taking initiative, caregivers should offer praise for the child’s efforts and avoid being critical of messes or mistakes. Placing pictures of drawings on the refrigerator, purchasing mud pies for dinner, and admiring towers of legos will facilitate the child’s sense of initiative. These children will develop self-confidence and feel a sense of purpose. Those who are unsuccessful at this stage—with their initiative misfiring or stifled by over-controlling parents—may develop feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

Behavioral and Emotional Self-Regulation

One of the places that the developmental task of initiative vs. guilt is negotiated involves preschoolers’ struggles to learn to control their behaviors and emotions. Behavioral self-regulation refers broadly to the self-control individuals use to modify their actions. Sometimes, behaviors need to be modified to so that they are socially appropriate to the context (e.g., minding parents or following preschool rules), and sometimes so that they better meet an individual’s own goals (e.g., getting a fort built or joining a pretend game). Adaptive behavioral regulation involves staying in touch with your genuine goals while at the same time making intentional decisions about the actions you are going to show in service of those goals.

Self‐regulation of behavior refers to both:

  1. “Do” regulation: The performance of actions desired by others that we don’t really want to do  (“Put away your toys”), and
  2. “Don’t” regulation: Stopping ourselves from doing something we really want to do (“Don’t eat that cookie!”).

During toddlerhood, we see the start of behavioral self-regulation, and it is one of the central tasks of early childhood, but these processes take many years to fully develop. Executive function refers to self-regulatory processes, such as the ability to inhibit a behavior or cognitive flexibility, that enable adaptive responses to new situations or to reach a specific goal. Executive function skills gradually emerge during early childhood and continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Like many cognitive changes, brain maturation, especially the prefrontal cortex, along with experience influence the development of executive function skills. As executive function improves, children become less impulsive (Traverso, Viterbori, & Usai, 2015). Children show higher executive function skills when parents are warm and responsive, use scaffolding when the child is trying to solve a problem, and provide cognitively stimulating environments (Fay-Stammbach, Hawes & Meredith, 2014).

When do children start self-regulating and what affects how it develops? Children start regulating their behaviors in infancy, beginning with physiological regulation and consistency in patterns of behavior, such as sleeping and eating. However, as infants move into toddlerhood, they are faced with the challenge of regulating their behavior as it relates to others in social situations. This type of self-regulation is typically not seen with any degree of consistency until a child’s second year. However, the capacity to self- regulate may develop earlier or later depending on:

  1. Developmental progress in other areas, such as cognition and working memory, which help children become aware of what constitutes acceptable social behavior.
  2. The child’s temperament, both reactivity and effortful control.
  3. The quality of parent-child interactions.
  4. The quality of the general home and/or school (day-care) environment.

Why is self-regulation important? Being good at behavioral self-regulation (compared to having difficulty regulating one’s behavior) is associated with numerous positive outcomes for children, including:

  1. More success in the transition to school and better academic achievement once they start school.
  2. Higher levels of social competence, as seen in greater success developing school-based peer relationships.
  3. Fewer problems with externalizing behaviors such as anger and impulsivity.
  4. Higher levels of pro-social behaviors as children move from infancy into toddlerhood and early childhood, and increases in prosocial behavior throughout childhood.

In the now classic “Marshmallow Test” (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972) children are confronted with the choice of a small immediate reward (a single marshmallow) and a larger delayed reward (several marshmallows). Walter Mischel and his colleagues over the years have found that the ability to delay gratification at the age of four predicted better academic performance and health later in life (Mischel, et al., 2011).

How do we study it? The developmental trajectory for self-regulation can be investigated by directly observing the nature and frequency of children’s compliant behaviors. Compliance, simply stated, is a child’s cooperation or “going along with” the rules and standards of behavior for their immediate environment (e.g., home or school).

Internalization: How do self-regulation and compliance develop? As a child’s ability to self-regulate develops, so does the nature of compliant behavior. Let’s use getting ready to eat a meal as an example:

  1. When self-regulated behavior is beginning to emerge, compliant behavior requires a high degree of caregiver support: A very young child will need assistance with hand washing, putting on a bib, and getting seated
  2. Compliance needs less support as self-regulation continues to develop. A child of two may be able to perform these tasks with less or no assistance, but will likely require a reminder and perhaps direct supervision to do them.
  3. Compliance needs very little direct support as children develop more and more self-regulatory skills.
  4. Self-regulatory competence: An older child will be able to get ready for a meal without prompting or assistance.

In other words, as a child develops the ability to self-regulate their behavior, the nature of compliance shifts from assisted, externally motivated behavior to independent, internally motivated behavior. The development of independent, internally motivated compliance is referred to as “internalization” and represents a child’s acceptance and understanding of, and willingness to behave in accordance with, the rules and standards of their environment.

Emotional self-regulation. Emotional self-regulation refers specifically to an individual’s ability to recognize and name how they are feeling, and to express their emotions constructively. Adaptive emotion regulation involves staying in touch with how you are genuinely feeling while at the same time making intentional decisions about how you are going to express those feelings. Three- and four-year-olds learn new ways of expressing their feelings verbally. They also learn how to cope with negative emotions in ways that make themselves feel better—they put their heads down to reduce sensory input that may be overwhelming or unpleasant, they talk out loud to reassure themselves that things will be okay, and they recalibrate their goals or desires to match the options that are available to them, rather than to continue asking for something they cannot have (Thompson & Goodvin, 2007). These strategies, and others, reduce the frequency and severity of tantrums, feelings of loneliness, and other unpleasant emotional responses. They can also help children remain calm when they are very excited or happy.

The same cognitive processes related to self-control and executive function (response initiation, response inhibition, delayed gratification, effortful control, and cognitive flexibility) are responsible for regulating children’s emotions. However, caretakers can help facilitate adaptive behavior regulation by using goal-focused language (e.g., want, need, don’t like) in everyday conversations, by validating children’s goals and preferences as real and important, by explaining prosocial strategies that allow everyone in a given transaction to have their goals and preferences taken into consideration (e.g. by taking turns or sharing), and by being patient. Compared with children with poor behavioral regulation skills, those who learn adaptive behavioral and emotional regulation strategies learn more, like school better, and are disciplined less frequently. They are also less anxious and stressed, more empathetic, and get along better with parents, teachers, and peers (Chang et al., 2003; Colman et al., 2006; Eisenberg et al., 2005; Morris et al., 2011; Raikes et al., 2007; Rothbart et al., 2006).

Talking about Emotions
Here you have a little clip of a young child talking about his feelings. It may seem a little staged (or edited) but it’s great to see such a young one in touch with those complex things we call emotions.

Social and Emotional Competence

Social and personality development is built from social, biological, and representational influences. These influences result in important developmental outcomes that matter to children, parents, and society: a young adult’s capacity to engage in socially constructive actions (helping, caring, sharing with others), to curb hostile or aggressive impulses, to live according to meaningful moral values, to develop a healthy identity and sense of self, and to develop talents and achieve success in using them. These are some of the developmental outcomes that denote social and emotional competence.

These achievements of social and personality development derive from the interaction of many social, biological, and representational influences. Consider, for example, the development of conscience, which is an early foundation for moral development.

Conscience consists of the cognitive, emotional, and social influences that cause young children to create and act consistently with internalized standards of right and wrong (Kochanska, 2002). It emerges from young children’s experiences with parents, particularly in the development of a mutually responsive relationship that motivates young children to respond constructively to the parents’ requests and expectations. Biologically-based temperament is involved, as some children are temperamentally more capable of motivated self-regulation (a quality called effortful control) than are others, while some children are more prone to the fear and anxiety that parental disapproval can evoke. The development of conscience is influenced by having a good fit between the child’s temperamental qualities and the ways parents communicate and reinforce behavioral expectations.

Conscience development also expands as young children begin to represent moral values and think of themselves as moral beings. By the end of the preschool years, for example, young children develop a “moral self” by which they think of themselves as people who want to do the right thing, who feel badly after misbehaving, and who feel uncomfortable when others misbehave. In the development of conscience, young children become more socially and emotionally competent in a manner that provides a foundation for later moral conduct (Thompson, 2012).


Chang, L., Schwartz, D., Dodge, K. A., & McBride-Chang, C. (2003). Harsh parenting in relation to child emotion regulation and aggression. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(4), 598-606. doi:

Colman, R. A., Hardy, S. A., Albert, M., Raffaelli, M., & Crockett, L. (2006). Early predictors of self‐regulation in middle childhood. Infant and Child Development, 15(4), 421-437.

Eisenberg, N., Sadovsky, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2005). Associations of emotion‐related regulation with language skills, emotion knowledge, and academic outcomes. New directions for child and adolescent development, 2005(109), 109-118.

Dougherty, D.M., Marsh, D.M., Mathias, C.W., & Swann, A.C. (2005). The conceptualization of impulsivity: Bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Psychiatric Times, 22(8), 32-35.

Erikson, E. (1982). The life cycle completed. NY: Norton & Company.

Fay-Stammbach, T., Hawes, D. J., & Meredith, P. (2014). Parenting influences on executive function in early childhood: A review. Child Development Perspectives, 8(4), 258-264.

Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(6), 191-195.

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Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Zeiss, A. R. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 204–218.

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Morris, M. D., Steinberg, L., Aucoin, K. J., & Keyes, A. W. (2011). The influence of mother–child emotion regulation strategies on children’s expression of anger and sadness. Developmental psychology, 47(1), 213.

Raikes, H. A., Robinson, J. L., Bradley, R. H., Raikes, H. H., & Ayoub, C. C. (2007). Developmental trends in self‐regulation among low‐income toddlers. Social Development, 16(1), 128-149.

Rothbart, M. K., Sheese, B. E., Rueda, M. R., & Posner, M. I. (2011). Developing mechanisms of self-regulation in early life. Emotion review, 3(2), 207-213.

Thompson, R. A. (2012). Whither the preconventional child? Toward a life‐span moral development theory. Child development perspectives, 6(4), 423-429.

Thompson, R. A., & Goodvin, R. (2007). Taming the tempest in the teapot. Socioemotional development in the toddler years: Transitions and transformations, 320-341.

Traverso, L., Viterbori, P., & Usai, M. C. (2015). Improving executive function in childhood: Evaluation of a training intervention for 5-year-old children. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00525

OER Attribution:

“Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective, Second Edition” by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0

Lifespan Development by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Additional materials (Behavioral and Emotional Regulation) by Ellen Skinner & Eli Labinger, Portland State University is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0

Child Growth and Development by College of the Canyons, Jennifer Paris, Antoinette Ricardo, and Dawn Rymond and is used under a CC BY 4.0 international license


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