Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Self-Control Can Be Learned’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 19, 2016 19 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we best help students develop self-control?

Classroom management is critical for creating a positive learning atmosphere in the classroom. Helping students develop self-control is clearly a benefit for everybody, including them, in creating that kind of atmosphere. In addition, having that skill benefits their lives outside of school, too.

Today, we’ll consider 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.

I shared my strategies in a previous post here titled Several Ways To Help Students Develop Self-Control.

You might also be interested in another resource I’ve created, The Best Posts About Helping Students Develop Their Capacity For Self-Control.

And, of course, you can check out all the previous posts here on Classroom Management Advice.

Response From Bryan Harris

Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development and Public Relations for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Education and a Master of Educational Leadership degree from Northern Arizona University. In 2013, he earned a doctorate (EdD) from Bethel University in Minnesota after studying factors impacting new teacher retention. He also holds a certification in brain-based learning from Jensen Learning Corporation. Each year, he speaks to thousands of educators all over the country on the topics of student engagement, motivation, classroom management, and brain-based learning. He is author or coauthor of several books including the popular 2010 book Battling Boredom. He can be reached at on his website:

In January 2015, I wrote a post providing some suggestions about effective classroom management strategies. In that post, I stated that the most important thing a teacher can do in regards to classroom management is to teach students how to control and regulate their own behavior.

While I won’t repeat the content or research from that post, it’s important to note two key ideas: self-regulation and self-control can be learned; and the ability to control one’s behavior is a key feature of success in school and in life.

With that said, here are four ways to teach students how to regulate their own behavior.

  1. Support the Brain: Without providing a primer on the brain, suffice it to say that the brain is an energy hog. It’s only about 2 percent of a person’s body weight but it uses about 20 percent of the body’s total energy consumption. The brain gets its energy from glucose. Whenever someone undertakes a task that requires willpower or self-control, glucose is depleted. If there are low levels of glucose in the brain it can be very difficult to exhibit self-control. So, allow students to eat and drink (to replenish glucose) and increase the amount of physical movement (this can release glucose stored in the liver).

  2. Make it Fun: Learning self-control doesn’t have to be painful and it shouldn’t feel like a chore. In fact, if we approach the development of self-regulation skills from the perspective that students have to suffer, we are likely going to be facing some very reluctant students. In order to make it fun, incorporate games like Simon Says and Concentration, use role-playing scenarios where students deal with real-life situations and problems, and engage students with intriguing scenarios and questions.

  3. Improve Working Memory: Sometimes referred to as short-term memory, working memory has been described as the brain’s Post-it note where information is stored for short periods of time as the brain decides what to do with it. The information stored in working memory drives planning, problem-solving, organization, and attention. In order to improve working memory use spot-the-difference puzzles and play games like 20 Questions where students have to hold information in working memory. Also externalize information such as time limits, guidelines, and directions with visual cues and written reminders.

  4. Do a Room Check: The physical environment of the classroom can have a tremendous impact on a student’s ability to focus and exhibit self-control. Some students, particularly those low in self-regulation are sensitive to what Eric Jensen (2012) refers to as “hot cues”. That is, there are things in the environment that can be very difficult to ignore. So, spend some time analyzing the classroom with a keen eye towards things that could be a distraction for students. Consider things like placement of desks and pencil sharpeners, the amount of clutter, and traffic patterns. Ask yourself this question, “Is my room neat, tidy, and organized or cluttered, messy, and overly stimulating?”

Response From Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman

Jennifer envisions classrooms filled with thinking caps-because uniforms are uninspiring as well as students with plastic utensils-because every student deserves a seat at the learning table. As an educator with a terminal degree in Special Education and a License in School Counseling, she’s written about her classroom and higher education experiences in Teaching Tolerance, ASCD, and Teach Thought. For education research and resources follow her on twitter: @DrJDavisBowman:

The Misunderstanding of Self-Control

Let’s amend Alyson Noel’s quote:

There are two emotions: love and fear... and both are managed via self-control. When you manage conflicts with the individuals in your life, you experience love. When you are unable to manage the anxieties in your life, you experience fear.

I believe self-control is the force behind everything. Yes, everything. We just don’t understand that yet.

As a recent Post Graduate student, I misunderstood self-control. I erroneously believed it meant ‘managing everything on my own’. I remember needing help managing research in an online-obsessed world-when I could not afford a computer. I remember the isolation. I remember the fear of appearing weak. I remember the pressure to manage the deadlines/workflow on my own—even without the resources.

I worry our students misunderstand self-control, too.

Students misunderstand how it works. They hear of self-control development, but more specifics are needed. New research shows that part of our brain consistently recognizes when self-control is needed. The issue is, that there is another part of the brain that makes the decision whether or not to exert self-control- and this ability depletes over time.

Teachers misunderstand what it looks like. Sometimes it is overt, like a student back-talking. Other times, students provide subtle hints. The clue is hidden in a messy back pack (inability to manage organizational needs). The clue is revealed through a students’ late assignment (inability to manage time). Or, it manifests in a students’ “I can’t” proclamation (inability to problem solve). Lastly, a clue resides in a students’ reluctance to ask for help (belief that they can manage on own).

So, how can we understand it better? I like to identify a working model. Recently, my student exclaimed that one teacher didn’t like her. I acknowledged her ability to maintain self-control (get a tutor and submit work) in spite of the circumstances.

Remember models work best under specific conditions. Although there’s a push for learning from mistakes, research shows that recalling self-control failure leads to more failures. It puts students in a bad mood and then a need to indulge follows (a need to refrain from refraining oneself).

Another strategy is writing. I begin class with a “Question of the Day.” During the beginning of the year, I focus on social-emotional skills. The following are questions (from research) to get students writing about self-control:

  1. Where does self-control come from?

  2. Is self-control black and white? Can you demonstrate it and struggle with it simultaneously?

  3. Is self-control contagious?

Lastly, rather than formal self-control instruction, consider games or challenges.

  1. Create a friendly competition to list as many examples of characters (from class readings) showing self-control within a month/semester.

  2. Determine who can create a self-control hashtag such as #SoSelfControl #SelfControlRIP or #SelfControlMatters.

  3. See who can design the best graphic for ‘This is your brain on self-control (thanks to Leah Rumack for inspiring this idea).

  4. See who can compile the best stock phrase list for self-control mishaps to improve accountability (thanks to Justin Baeder for inspiring this idea).

  5. Encourage a race to create self-control emojis (use myemojicreator.com to help)

I’m curious to know, what misconceptions regarding self-control have you or or students encountered? How has your understanding of self-control changed through your years of teaching?

Response From Amanda Koonlaba

Amanda Koonlaba, Ed.S., NBCT, is a teacher, artist, and writer. She is a member of the 2015 class of ASCD Emerging Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @akoonlaba:

Teachers should begin helping students develop self-control by developing high-quality classroom management. I’ve spent some time this summer reading about different schools of thought regarding classroom management. I’ve read Matthew Linsin to Harry Wong. I even attended a lecture by Harry and Rosemary Wong. I just felt I needed to refresh my own understandings of classroom management. It had been a while since I had really analyzed this area of my practice.

One of my biggest takeaways has been that we, as teachers, must ensure that all classroom practices are developmentally appropriate. For instance, a kindergarten teacher cannot expect students to sit completely still for long periods of time. In addition, it is not appropriate to demand students remain silent for long periods of time. Human nature must be considered when we develop our classroom management plans. Humans must be allowed to move their bodies and interact with others.

If we develop appropriate expectations for student behavior and clearly communicate these to students, they will be set up for success. By clearly communicating, I mean that we must spend the time teaching these expectations in the beginning of our relationship with them. We need to model what is expected and offer opportunities for students to think about the expectations and to practice them. We must also ensure we have very clear consequences and that our students understand those. Even adults cannot exhibit self-control in situations where the expectations and consequences are unclear. In addition, it is important to note that inconsistency in holding students accountable for meeting our expectations is just as bad as having no expectations.

If we consider the tiers outlined in the Positive Behavior Support theories, then we understand that 80 percent of our students will respond to an effective classroom management plan. We build this by considering what is developmentally appropriate and being clear about expectations and consequences. This is the first step in helping our students develop self-control.

Response From Nancy Steineke

Nancy Steineke is the author/co-author of eight professional books including the Texts and Lessons series. In addition, she has a keen interest in social-emotional learning and how it is connected with creating a positive classroom community that results in high achievement for all:

When we talk about student self-control, what are we really talking about? Is it defined as students quietly complying with a teacher’s rules and directives? Or is it defined as students making conscious behavior choices that reward their own needs and goals? If we accept the second definition, then we can begin to see that self-control does not necessarily lead to compliance. For example, students sometimes skillfully use disruption to mask their own lack of confidence related to the classwork at hand. We teachers complain that this disruption is keeping everyone from learning, but derailing instruction is exactly the way an insecure student can hide a deficiency!

Another issue related to self-control is developmental. Tweens and teens are wired for risk-taking and impulsive behavior, the result of an immature pre-frontal cortex. One biological consequence of this is that teens rely more heavily the brain’s limbic system for interpreting events, sometimes resulting in gross inaccuracies. For example, when a student reacts to a simple teacher directive with an “uncalled for” overreaction, this is the limbic system at work! So what’s a teacher to do?

First, make behavior expectations explicit, but give students a voice in the creation of those expectations. Colleague Kim Onak of Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois has students brainstorm learning “Must Haves/Can’t Stands” lists. Along the way, important conversations about expectations emerge. “It’s a guarantee that one student will say she can’t stand homework, but that leads to a conversation about what kinds of homework are helpful for learning. In the end, homework isn’t eliminated, yet students are more likely to complete it when it is assigned. That’s a conversation worth having!” From individual lists, a final list of expectations (one list combined from multiple class sections) is negotiated and posted in the classroom for review and reflection.

Second, teach students how to monitor their own positive class contributions. It only takes a moment at the end of class for students to jot down a way they helped someone else in class learn or how their behavior reflected those negotiated expectations. When students understand that true leadership means ensuring your own success while also contributing to the success of others, their behavior choices will reflect a “self-control” their teachers and classmates will appreciate.

Third, give students a quick lesson on brain development. Understanding the biology of why they might sometimes react in ways adults deem unpredictable gives them empowering insight. This self-awareness might actually squelch an impulsive act before it occurs or offer an entrance to discussing unproductive student behavior in a less personal more factual way.

Finally, work to create a classroom community that emphasizes kindness, helpfulness, and understanding, a community where each student has a stake and values one another. Everybody slips up sooner or later. Instead of automatically taking every misstep as a personal affront, students and teachers need to work together to breathe deeply and take a step back, working collectively to diffuse a situation rather than escalate it. Together teachers and students need to find the unique strengths in one another so that they can act as resources for one another while also offering the support that everyone needs to confidently grow and learn.

Response From Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson is a full-time education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement (ASCD), The Well-Balanced Teacher (ASCD) and The First Six Weeks of School (Responsive Classroom). To learn more about Mike and his work, or to invite him to work with your school or district, check out his website. You can connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher:

Imagine yourself teaching an academic skill to a student. Perhaps it is something like a decoding skill in reading or how to use a division algorithm. How do you teach those kinds of skills? Chance are, if you’re a good teacher, you tackle it from various angles. You might model the skill several different ways, helping students see it over and over again. You might have students try some guided practice, where they give the skill a try with you nearby, coaching and supporting their work. You know you’ll need to teach the skill several times, coming back to it many times as students practice and consolidate. And of course, you realize that students will learn these skills at different rates and through different means, so you’ll differentiate learning to help all students be successful.

Consider how ridiculous it would be to simply look at students and demand, “Divide!” or “Decode!” without teaching them the skills they need to be successful. And yet, that’s just what too often happens with skills like self-control. Students are told, “Behave!” or “Stay in control!” or “Settle down!” without being taught how to do so.

So, how do we best teach skills like self-control? We use all of the great teaching strategies we use to teach academics ones! For example, just before students are about to engage in an independent work period--one where there may be lots of distractions in the classroom—we might say, “It can be hard to stay focused when there’s a lot going on around you. I’m going to model what it looks like to stay focused on my work. Watch me and see if you can figure out what I’m doing.” As three students talk nearby you, you then show how you quickly glance up and them and then refocus on your work, perhaps putting your finger on your paper to help focus your eyes. “What did you see me do?” you ask the class. You might then brainstorm a few other strategies with the class—ones that they can think of that can help maintain focus and control in a busy room.

The explicit teaching of social-emotional skills is so important for students, yet there’s another piece of this work that’s just as important—the mindset of the teacher. Just like we should never expect to teach an academic skill once and then expect students to have a skill, the same is true for skills like self-control. We must recognize that students will need practice, coaching, practice, guidance, practice, more direct instruction, and then some more practice. We also need to understand that the teaching of social-emotional learning is an integral and on-going part of our work—not an annoyance or hindrance to the “real” teaching of academics.

Quite simply put, if we want our students to develop self-control, then we need to devote the time, energy, positive energy, and effective skills that we do to the teaching of anything that our students need!

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke:

There are undoubtedly dozens of tricks we could implement to help teach students self-control. The most powerful one, though, might be the simplest: modeling.

I remember the time I grew very frustrated with my daughter, who was on a seemingly endless rant to her older brother. Fed up, I turned to her and shouted, as loud as I could, “STOP SHOUTING!”

Instantly, I saw the irony. Shouting to get her to stop shouting? It was like reviving a dwindling fire by pouring lighter fluid on it. Effective in the short term, maybe, but not something that will last.

Some of my most frequent discipline referrals are for students who habitually struggle with self-control, and generally, by the time they are sent to the office to see me, they are decidedly not in control at all; they may be furious, defensive, and willing to do just about anything to make it all just go away.

When this happens, I make sure I pay very, very close attention to the control I have over myself. I invite the student to sit down, speaking in my calmest, most reassuring voice. I do not make any sudden movements, instead being deliberate and slow. I sit or stand in a way that could never be perceived as defensive, angry, or jittery. I listen carefully without interrupting. I force myself to wait before I respond to any comment, accusation, or baited comment. I breathe deeply. I control every single part of myself, from my body to my mind to my words. Sometimes, I’ll even articulate what I’m doing: “I know you are very upset and are struggling to control your words and your body right now. In order to make sure I don’t follow your lead, I am working hard to stay calm and focused.” I will even point out the physical choices I am making. “I am going to stop talking and breathe deeply for awhile. I am going to make sure I think very carefully before I begin talking again.”

More often than not, as I model self-control, I will see students begin to calm themselves, simply by being in the midst of my calm.

It’s simple, but it works. Modeling self-control is an easy, mutually beneficial way to teach students how to maintain control—and it’s a skill they will need to put into practice throughout their entire lives.

Thanks to Bryan, Jennifer, Amada, Nancy, Mike, and Jen for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

Author Interviews

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days...


Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.