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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Learning Self-Regulation’ Is Needed on Path to Academic Success

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 29, 2016 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; and Part Three here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we best help students develop self-control?

Part One considered how teachers can best help students strengthen these self-control skills with suggestions from Bryan Harris, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Amanda Koonlaba, Nancy Steineke, Mike Anderson, and Jen Schwanke. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan, Jennifer, and Amanda on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s contributors were Jenny Edwards, Libby Woodfin, Thomas R. Hoerr, Dave Stuart Jr., Maurice J. Elias, and Matt Renwick.

In Part Three, Robert Ward, Sue Defreyne, Allen Mendler, Daniel Rechtschaffen, Carla Tantillo Philibert, and Christine Brandt provided their responses.

In today’s post—the final in this series—Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Thomas Armstrong, Joe Hendershott, Jeffrey Benson, Mark Katz, and Jonathan Cassie contribute their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Dr. Donna Wilson is an author and psychologist who conducts professional development internationally for teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Donna’s blog can be found here and she can be contacted directly at Donna@brainsmart.org. Marcus Conyers is a doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster and founder of BrainSMART, Inc. Donna and Marcus are the developers of the Drive Your Brain program and their latest book is Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas, published by ASCD:

Learning self-regulation is one of the key skills young children need to start on the path to academic success. Children are better able to access knowledge and practice learning skills if they understand that they can control their ability to pay attention, resist distractions, and develop social emotional skills. Self-regulation can help students begin to develop a clear intent about what they want to achieve.

A variety of research, from psychologist Walter Mischel’s well-known marshmallow test conducted in the late 1960s to a long-term New Zealand study, indicates that children who exhibit self-control at an early age are more likely to perform better in school and on the job and even enjoy better health in their later years.

An important aspect of these studies is that children can be taught strategies that improve their ability to self-regulate. In Mischel’s test, a researcher placed a marshmallow in front of a preschooler and told the child that if he or she could resist eating the treat until the adult returned to the room, the reward would be a second marshmallow. Children who were coached to use cognitive strategies such as focusing on something other than the marshmallow were more successful in the challenge--and went on to use better coping strategies as adolescents and to score better on SAT scores than their peers who weren’t able to resist an early treat.

Thus, guiding children in preschool and early elementary grades to take charge of their thinking and behavior can help create an upward cycle in which they experience academic gains and positive reinforcement that encourage their self-perception as effective, successful learners. These teaching strategies can help younger students improve their ability to “drive their brains.”

  • Talk in simple and concrete terms about how children can take control of their thoughts and actions and what benefits they can realize by doing so. For example, in her pre-K/kindergarten class, our graduate Regina Cabadaidis teaches her 3- to 6-year-olds about self-regulation as one aspect of metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking.”

  • Model and point out examples of self-regulation, such as taking turns, inviting other children to participate in an activity, and sharing. Examples of the benefits of self-regulation may be found in everyday interactions among students and in their favorite stories. When Ms. Cabadaidis read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to her class, her students excitedly pointed out that Peter got into lots of trouble because he didn’t think carefully before he acted.

  • Scaffold the development of self-regulation by providing explicit instructions and guidance on focusing attention on learning tasks and setting and working toward learning goals and then gradually diminishing this support so that children truly do become more self-regulating.

Over time, children can learn to regulate their thoughts and actions—and reap lifelong benefits by doing so!

Response From Thomas Armstrong

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of 16 books including The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (ASCD, 2016). His book is available through ASCD, on Amazon, or through his website:

The issue of self-control is a particularly important one for adolescents because the areas of the brain that are associated with self-control are located in the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) and don’t fully develop until the early to mid-twenties. During the teen years, the prefrontal cortex goes through a lot of reorganization. Especially key in this transformation is the ''pruning’ of excess neural connections and the ''myelination’’ or insulation of nerve channels, both of which serve to carry neuronal impulses more quickly and efficiently to all centers of the brain including the limbic system where impulsiveness often runs rampant. The pruning of dendrites in the prefrontal cortex (the branches of neurons that connect with other neurons) is highly subject to environmental influences, a feature of the brain called ''neuroplasticity.’'

This means that educators have a huge responsibility in providing experiences that effectively ''wire’’ those self-control connections in the brain. Above all, educators need to refrain from using punishment, criticism, zero tolerance policies, or other authoritarian methods of ''getting kids to control themselves.’' None of these interventions allows the self-control areas of the brain to properly develop. Instead, secondary educators need to give students increasing responsibilities and should provide them with opportunities make choises at all levels of the curriculum. This effort will help lay the educational, psychological, and neurological foundations for self-control. Specific interventions that can assist in this regard include some of the following strategies:

  • let students choose their own reading materials
  • use self-assessment frequently in the classroom
  • allow for greater student voice in how the classroom and the school is run
  • permit students to create projects in areas of interest and passion
  • offer more electives at the secondary school level
  • use student polling frequently
  • listen to students’ ideas and opinions with respect
  • give students the opportunity to learn material at their own rate
  • provide opportunities for independent study

In these and other ways, educators can empower students to take charge of their own learning, and optimally develop those prefrontal functions so important in developing self-control.

Response From Joe Hendershott

Joe Hendershott, Ed.D., is a sought-after speaker on the effects of trauma and working with wounded children. As founder/president of Hope 4 The Wounded, LLC, he also provides staff development training and has authored two books: Reaching The Wounded Student and 7 Ways to Transform the Lives of Wounded Students, published by the Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. Joe has over 20 years of experience as a teacher and school administrator in various traditional, alternative, residential treatment, and correctional educational settings and holds a doctorate in leadership studies and a masters in school administration:

Helping our students develop self-control has major overall benefits, both individually and culturally within schools. Many students who have experienced trauma come from situations beyond their control or environments out of control. Students tend to act out as a way of feeling in control of their surroundings. While this is a normal response to childhood trauma, it tends to present in unhealthy ways like being argumentative, risk taking, not listening, or trying to control others, which could lead to other dysfunctional behaviors like bullying.

By learning to exhibit self-control, others can feel safe around those experiencing emotional trauma or discomfort. Not only is it critical for school safety, but developing self-control helps a person feel safe within themselves and their surroundings. So how do we get to this point? Creating inclusive environments and not only teaching empathy to our students, but positioning them to give and receive empathy with one another is a start to children feeling connected with themselves and others in their surroundings. Children of all ages have a core longing for safety, security, and acceptance. Teaching empathic skills raises one’s social awareness, allowing children to be more accepting of one another’s backgrounds and differences. When a child begins to feel it’s acceptable to be who they are and not judged by others or feel they must fit a social norm, they are less likely to be out of control and be more self-regulated. Isolation should be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary to the safety of others because it tends to feed a child’s feelings of not belonging and being out of control.

Here are a few strategies to encourage an inclusive community where children can begin to exhibit more self-control taken from my book 7 Ways to Transform the Lives of Wounded Students:

  1. Students need to feel that they belong in their learning community early on. Feeling isolated within this community only feeds their false belief of unworthiness, which then follows them into larger communities.

  2. Provide opportunities for students to interact within their community. This encourages a sense of purpose and belonging.

  3. Find redeeming qualities in students. This does not excuse or endorse bad behaviors, but it does allow students to see they have an identity beyond the behavior.

  4. Seek restorative justice as an alternative discipline approach to further self-awareness.

  5. True community values its members, recognizing that each has special contributions to make to their community. Having a sense of belonging is critical in helping students feel safe and secure enough to begin exploring their unique gifts and abilities instead of choosing disruptive behaviors.

Response From Jeffrey Benson

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 40 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson is the author of Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD) and 10 Steps to Managing Change in Schools (ASCD), and the co-author of Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life(Corwin), with Rachel Poliner. Connect with him at his website:

This practice is adapted from Jeffrey Benson’s book Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014).

Here’s a practice that is effective for students of all ages, and particularly for students who overtly struggle with stress and anxiety, which may be synonymous in adults’ eyes with loss of self-control. Every student has a “Safety Card” (for older students also called a “Chill Out” card). The card asks students to identify (In either words or a drawing) three activities they can do for a couple of minutes when they are upset and unable to focus; i.e. put head down and close eyes; doodle in a special doodling book; take a walk to the water cooler. I had a student who sat by the paper recycling and quietly shredded paper, another who put on headphones, another who knit. The options are as diverse for students as they probably are for the adults in the building; each of us has learned ways to manage ourselves when stressed, and student need the opportunity to experiment and learn about their own ways of coping. Most importantly, the card gives the students a chance to plan for rough times, rather than trying to think their way through a rough time when their decision-making ability will be compromised by the emotional struggles at hand.

The students keep one copy of their safety card, and the staff keeps another. Students can raise a hand with a silent signal that lets the teacher know they have chosen one of their options. The teacher can later give the students feedback about how they transitioned in and out of their chill-out activity. The students can be praised for self-identifying their escalating emotions, and for making a safe decision to change the situation. Adults and students can also be in an on-going dialogue about additions and deletions to the safety card as the students get older, exploring what chill-out activities help them most.

The copy of the safety card for the staff is used when an adult is asked to help a student gain self-control. The staff person brings the card to the student and says, “I am here to help you do one of your three chill-out options. Which one of these do you think will work for you now?”

Response From Mark Katz

Mark Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical and consulting psychologist and author of Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life. For over 30 years, he has served as the Director of Learning Development Services, an educational, psychological and neuropsychological center in San Diego. He is a past recipient of the Rosenberry Award, a national award given yearly by Children’s Hospital in Denver in recognition of an individual’s contribution to the field of behavioral science. He is also a past recipient of the CHADD (Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorder) Hall of Fame Award:

Research shows a strong link between self-control problems in childhood and overall health, mental health, and life adjustment problems down the road. It’s accordingly no surprise that prevention specialists are increasingly interested in helping struggling school-age children improve their emotional self-regulation and self-control skills. The following three simple practices can help:

Aerobic Exercise

Harvard psychiatrist and ADHD expert John Ratey, MD, says “A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin.” Studies show that physical activity helps children pay attention, control their behavior, and do better in school. One resource I recommend to educators is Build Our Kids’ Success (BOKS), a free program that offers schools a well-designed, structured before-school aerobic activity curriculum that’s fun and easy to implement. The program also provides free training and support. Geared initially for students in kindergarten to 5th grade, BOKS has recently expanded its curriculum to include both early childhood and middle school. An initiative of the Reebok Foundation, the program has enrolled more than 1,800 schools. To learn about the three-step process for bringing BOKS to your school, log on to the website.

The PAX Good Behavior Game

The PAX Good Behavior Game is a simple, fun activity in which teams of students root for each other to commit as few behavioral errors as possible during a designated period of time. Time parameters increase as the children’s self-regulation skills improve. The program is proving to be an excellent, universal prevention tool for enhancing self-control skills among school-aged children. Research shows it to also prevent a host of later-life problems among young children prone to aggressive and impulsive behaviors. The PAX Good Behavior Game is listed on the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP). Teachers and schools can learn more about the game’s impressive long-term benefits.

Zones of Regulation

Helping students learn to recognize their own emotional states is an important foundation for improving self-control skills. Developed by Leah Kuypers, MA, an occupational therapist and social learning specialist, the Zones of Regulation model categorizes states of emotional control and arousal into four easily identified, color-coded zones, each of which can be explained to students much as we would explain traffic signs. Red means stop. Yellow is a warning to slow down and be cautious. Blue is like a rest area off the freeway, a place where we can stop, take a break, and get re-energized. Green means we’re good to go. Within the course of 18 lessons, children learn ways to identify their different states emotional arousal and control. Children who previously struggled when asked to explain how they feel gain a vocabulary for doing so. Children also learn about different tools for moving from one zone to another, including tools for staying in the green zone, a zone we need to be in to function well in class.

Response From Jonathan Cassie

Jonathan Cassie is the author of Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students (ASCD). Cassie is head of the senior school at Sewickley Academy, just outside Pittsburgh, and has taught history, English, Latin, and game design at schools in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Throughout his 20-year career in independent schools, he has been a student and practitioner of innovation and change in education:

When I think about student self-control, I am mindful of the experience of students in a typical, 19th century classroom configuration. Lecturing teachers. Busy work. Anything-but-just-in-time assessment data to help these students improve their work. In short, the kind of environment where even the most engaged student who loves learning would struggle to sustain their interest.

21st century teachers have lots of tools in their quivers to overcome the problems of conventionality. One of these tools is gamified instruction. Teachers using this method use the mechanics that make games so powerfully effective at attracting and sustaining commitment and attention and turn that engagement towards a meaningful learning objective. In my book Level Up Your Classroom, I argue that systems of feedback and rewards help students direct their own behavior in the classroom. I give the example of how powerfully motivating it is to accomplish something exciting within the context of the game itself, like playing a Triple Word Score in Scrabble. What would the equivalent of the Triple Word Score be for your learners in your classrooms? I also give the example of the video game Super Mario Kart and how it gives you feedback. At every point in the game, the game tells you exactly how far ahead or behind your opponents you are. What would you have to do differently in your planning and instruction to give your students that level of granular feedback? The greatest games already do this through one mechanism or another. Perhaps that mechanism you might use is a finite resource (like money in Monopoly) that a player would have to give another player if they “lost.”

Games, even the most narrative ones, are always giving the player some kind of feedback to change or continue playing strategy and behavior. What would it look like if you changed a unit of instruction so that, like in a great video game, a student could “die” over and over again as they learn the unit? Gamers don’t flinch when they die in a game...that means they’re learning. And they know it. Throw them into something, tell them they are responsible for slaying the boss and give them some power-ups and healing potions along the way!

Responses From Readers

Bharath Divyang:

I believe that self-control & self-regulation are extremely important skills for children to develop. They are the executive functions required to create a mature and decent individual in the society. Here are few points that’s necessary

1. This is a skill learnt by doing, not by reading about it.
2. This skill should be acquired over a period of time. It takes a good three to four years for children to start showing impulse-control
3. It should be a game or a gamified system
4. The students should choose it
5. It should have a strong element of feedback
6. Mentoring the student plays a key role.

Given these points, I believe any activity can be used to develop self-control as long they fulfill these points. I have chosen chess (long tenure, strong feedback, game) and coding (long tenure, strong feedback, gamified system).

But I’m sure others can be used too—I see strong potential in sports, music and even academics.

Thanks to Donna, Thomas, Joe, Jeffrey, Mark, and Jonathan for their contributions, and thanks to readers for their comments!!

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