Prayer and Self-Regulation: A Spiritual Practice that Increases Focus and Self Control

Editor’s Note: Enjoy this week’s blog by Luciano Cid, Assistant Professor of Biola University’s School of Education, as he explains the connection between the role of prayer and self-regulation in a child’s development.

Young Girl reading quietly on a couch demonstrating prayer and self-regulationRecently, while I was teaching Sunday school to a group of four and five year old children, I experienced an amazing psycho-spiritual event. You see, although the children who normally make up my Sunday school class tend to be extremely well behaved and respectful, this particular day, for some reason, a great majority of them were acting a bit unruly.

A Spiritual Practice and Self Control

At the time, I thought this was particularly problematic given the topic we were supposed to cover (i.e., the power of prayer) — a subject that can be extremely esoteric in nature to most adults, and extremely difficult for children who, as it happened to be, were in need of guided activity rather than quietness and introspection. In fact, if I can be completely honest, even before I knew how that day would shape up, I already held some hesitation about my ability to achieve such objectives with four and five year old kids. This was because I knew coming in — due to that week’s preparation — that the lesson called for a time in which the children and I would all share prayer requests and then pray with and for one another for an extended period of time.

Regardless of my personal assessment of the children’s behavioral and emotional states, I opted to push through and do exactly as the lesson requested. To my surprise, elation, and sense of awe, once we began to share and pray as a class, the children completely altered their behavior. The difference was so striking that it caught my attention immediately. Those same children who had been unruly and difficult to settle down a minute before, were now focused, quiet, and completely on task (i.e., praying with and for one another). It was as if someone flipped a self-regulatory switch in their brains from off to on. In that moment, I realized that I needed to look deeper into this phenomenon and write about it.

Executive Functioning, Self-Regulation, and the Role of Prayer

To fully explicate the entire body of work that has focused on the concepts of self-regulation and executive function would require much more space than is afforded on this blog. Consequently, I will not expound on its entirety and will leave it up to the reader to continue to educate him or herself on the manner. For our present purpose, however, I will simply use the literature to offer a working definition of the concepts at hand.

In essence, executive function and self-regulation must be viewed as one’s ability to “plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully” (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, n.d.) — skills that most of us would agree are perennially important to one’s success both in and out of school. To continue the investigation of these concepts, beyond this definition, read more on executive functioning from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

During my own research of these topics, I found out that much had been written on the correlation between one’s ability to demonstrate executive functioning (i.e., self-regulation/self-control) and the act of prayer (Friese & Wänke, 2014; Friese, Schweizer, Arnoux, Sutter, & Wänke, 2014; McCullough & Willoughby, 2009). In fact, one particular article even investigated the causal relationship between religious priming — not prayer in particular — and the subjects’ ability to demonstrate self-control (Rounding, Lee, Jacobson, & Ji, 2012).

In the end, this article suggested that previous humans may have employed religious concepts as cultural catalysts for “promot[ing] self-control … [as well as a] myriad of positive behaviors, [that] ultimately facilitat[e] social interactions and cooperation among increasingly larger numbers of people who are not biologically related” (p.640-641). In short, the literature does indeed show that connections between religious ideas, such as prayer, and the capacity to self-regulate, do exist.

Prayerful Reflection

Given such research connections between prayer and self-regulation, the following practical questions should be prayerfully considered:

  • Heavenly Father, do I, as a parent, employ prayer as an executive functioning tool for my children to learn how to self-regulate (i.e., focus) both in and out of our homeschooling?
  • Lord, when should I provide my student the opportunity to individually pray when their behavior calls for it?
  • Abba, for all my children, but especially for my children who have Individualized Educational Plans (IEP), should times of personal prayer be an objective within a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to assist in self-regulation, as well as in worship?

 

Lord, while I don’t teach my child to pray to calm him, but rather to worship, is the act of prayer itself leading to what Scriptures describe as the “peace that passes all understanding” [Philippians 4:7]? Lord, in my own life, am I practicing prayer, not only to humble myself before You, worship you, confess, and petition, but am I practicing prayer as a spiritual discipline that mitigates against stress and becomes a lifelong protective factor for wholistic health? Teach me, Lord, how to pray and help me teach my children how to pray, beginning with memorizing the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23.* In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

 

Luciano Cid, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Biola University

Read Dr. Cid’s past contributions to the Inspired Home Educator:

 


*The book, 21 Seconds to Change the World, will show you why these two Scriptures passages should be memorized for lifetime spiritual benefit.

 

References:

Center on the Developing Child Harvard University (n.d.).Executive Function and Self-Regulation. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

Friese, M., Schweizer, L., Arnoux, A., Sutter, F., & Wanke, M. (2014). Personal prayer counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition, 29, 90–95.

Friese, M. & Wanke, M. (2014). Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 56–59.

McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B.L.B. (2009). Religion, self- control, and self-regulation: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 69-93.

Rounding, K., Lee, A., Jacobson, J. A., & Ji, L. J. (2012). Religion replenishes self-control. Psychological Science, 23, 635–642.