Ego Depletion


We all know children who find it challenging to follow home, classroom, playground and school essential agreements (rules). They self-check, receive reminders, and sincerely want to ‘make the right choice.’ So, why don’t they? They know the rules, why don’t they just follow them?!

While struggling to conform to social norms (adhering to other people’s rules, resisting temptation, controlling thoughts and statements) we experience ego-depletion (Baumeister, social phsychologist).  Ego-depletion is the idea that we have a limited amount of energy to exert self-control. Every time a child needs to self-regulate and suppress an emotion, they withdraw on limited resources. This means that the next time that same child needs to display pro-social behaviour, their ability to control themselves is hindered.

Imagine that a cup of water represents the mental resources children have to self-regulate. Every time a child has to sit still and be quiet, they take a drink of water to fuel themselves. Some children need a sip, some need a big glup. The next task might be to cooperate with a peer – this might require a huge gulp of water and the fuel is depleted. By the time the third self-regulation requirement presents itself, Bam! No water left. A foolish choice gets made.

So how do we help?

Research suggests that positive moods buffer the impairing effects of ego-depletion. Laughing and having some fun seem to allow people to recover faster.

Doing a quick funny energizer in class (here), watching a short comedy video (here) or laughing at jokes with a friend might help those children who need a ‘boost.’

What is most important to remember, is that these children are trying. They want to follow the agreements of the class, they want to do the right thing; sometimes, they just have no willpower left in them and they are vulnerable to foolish choices. Our job as educators is to offer opportunities for all students to ‘re-charge’ their mental resources for self-control.

How do you help your children recharge and self-regulate?