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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 Doesn’t Just Happen, It Needs to Be Taught’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 26, 2016 17 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Robert Ward, Sue Defreyne, Allen Mendler, Daniel Rechtschaffen, Carla Tantillo Philibert, and Christine Brandt provide today’s responses.

Response From Robert Ward

Robert Ward teaches English at a public middle school in Los Angeles and is the author of two books for teachers, The Firm, Fair, Fascinating Facilitator and The Teacher Tune-Up. His newest book, A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents: How Children Thrive with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning, was published this fall by Rowman and Littlefield. Interact with Robert on Twitter @RewardingEdu and on his website http://www.rewardingeducation.com/:

Educators are waking up to the fact that academic learning is intertwined with social and emotional learning. Although balance is imperative in helping all students become successful and satisfied, both in the present and future, we still too often approach problems in a one-sided way, neglecting the big picture of the four fundamental needs of children.

Therefore, a child’s self-control is no more or less important than their self-confidence, self-expression, or self-efficacy, and each crucial component must be addressed holistically and equally, right from the beginning. Teachers must all at once capture their students’ hearts, spirits, minds, and manners.

Through this comprehensive approach, every student quickly learns that their dutiful cooperation and courtesy only enhance a classroom environment that also supplies them with community and celebration, curiosity and creativity, and comprehension and capability. Students fortunate to be in this teacher’s class are now thoroughly motivated, not just by the old-school doctrine of “I must” (because my teacher firmly enforces their class procedures) but by three additional enticements:

  • “I should” (because my fair teacher encourages, listens to, and praises me for my efforts and accomplishments)
  • “I want to” (because my fascinating teacher allows me meaningful, engaging opportunities for choice, challenge, collaboration, critical thinking, and personal connections)
  • “I can” (because my teacher as facilitator assists me in independently accessing and interacting with the complex and unfamiliar)

Thus a child who is completely motivated by thoughts of “I must, I should, I want to, and I can” quickly decides, “I will!”

When teachers transform their students’ thoughts into actions, they move them from being passive consumers of knowledge into active producers of insight and intellect. There simply is no room or rationale to be distant, disconnected, or defiant when students have been given the support, stimulation, skills, and structure to excel. It no longer becomes an isolated issue of student self-control but of willpower for what purpose? A firm, fair, fascination facilitator provides students four persuasive reasons to risk, relate, respond, and respect.

If we want children to be reliable and resilient, perseverant and prepared, as well as focused and fearless, teachers must assist them in becoming so—not only by supervising and regulating them but also by increasingly giving kids responsibility, by allowing them to earn trust, and by holding them accountable for their decisions. Children develop self-control only when they have been granted appropriate opportunities and experiences of actual control from which they can learn and grow.

Even in the best of circumstances, all the love, laughter, and learning that teachers lavish upon students do not amount to much without also providing the essential leadership kids need to make their way in a world filled with an onslaught of changes, choices, and charms. Therefore, every child requires guidelines and guidance, as well as order and authority, in order to navigate the inevitable complexities and crises of life. Teaching self-control is not just about school; it is about preparing kids for life.

When adults chronically shield children from every danger, dilemma, disappointment, and disgrace, they only deprive kids of the crucial life lessons that teach them how to cope with harsh realities and how to adjust their choices to better manage their emotions and outcomes. Children must know in no uncertain terms that actions have consequences and that personal effort, attention, and integrity directly affect results, reactions, and rewards. With some support and lots of modeling, kids gradually learn to constructively handle struggles, stumbles, and setbackseven successeson their own.

This is the true sense of control we want for kids and what they really want for themselves. They are looking to their teachers for strong leadership, which means both setting limits and setting the conditions for unlimited potential. Both aspects of leadership are indispensable in shepherding children toward the independence and greatness that come in large part through self-control.

Response From Sue Defreyne

Sue Defreyne (sdefreyne@bhncdsb.ca) is a Student Achievement Teacher with Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board in Ontario and a mother to three boys who make her smile every day:

What is Self-Control?

Self-control is the ability to regulate your emotions. The ability to manage one’s emotions, anxiety and impulses is essential for students to be successful. We need to teach students how to develop their own self-control by giving them the strategies to cope with their own emotions in the daily life of the classroom, on the playground, or even later, when trying to hold a full-time job.

Develop a Trusting Relationship and Model Our Own Anxiety

  • Be responsive to children’s needs, in order to help them they feel accepted and safe. When a child is safe the cortisol levels in brain drop, and this enables children to develop and make better social judgements.
  • Teach a child to regulate their own emotions and behaviours by demonstrating role play and allowing time for the students to problem solve real life circumstances with appropriate emotional responses.

Teach About the Neuroscience of How You Learn

  • The brain has the capacity to change and every time we stretch out of our comfort zone or stick with hard things, our brain forms stronger connections.
  • Teach children how the neural pathways in the frontal cortex helps develops our self-control. With purposeful practice, one can strengthen this muscle.

Classroom Tools

  • Use a visible timer
  • Give warnings when changing different activities
  • Post a daily agenda
  • Use mediation or deep breathing activities
  • Encourage physical movement. Thus releases dopamine in the brain which helps with a positive emotional state.

Give Hope

  • Teach students to set realistic goals, and show them how to scaffold to see their goals as a series of steps, so they can see their successes along the way.
  • Encourage students to use positive self-talk and laughter after making mistakes, and this may help them develop confidence.

Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, and author who resides in Rochester, N.Y. Dr. Mendler has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings; and youth in juvenile detention. Mendler’s books include Connecting With Students (ASCD), When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD) and The Resilient Teacher: How do I stay positive and effective when dealing with difficult people and policies? (ASCD):

Self-control doesn’t just happen, it needs to be taught, practiced, and retaught. How do you expect students to enter the classroom and what should they do when they arrive? How should they seek permission; ask a question; get help? If and when they feel frustrated, angry, or upset, what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to express those emotions?

Present better possibilities to them like telling you after class and sending you a note. Probe for their ideas. Explain and have them practice how to respectfully disagree. Reinforce appropriate behavior by pointing it out (“I really appreciate how Matthew asked Sabrina if it was okay to share the crayons she was using rather than grab them”). Confront inappropriate behavior simply, firmly and directly but with dignity (i.e. “We don’t say that here"; “That was disrespectful. You’re better than that.”) Get with those students later on to explore and practice better options. In essence anticipate problems that are most likely to trigger problems with self-control such as disagreements with other students, putdowns, a poor grade, boredom and perceived unfair treatment by the teacher. Then identify and practice whatever rules and procedures may be necessary to prevent problems from occurring or escalating. After a few days at most, you’ll know which students may require more support to maintain self-control.

I have found it effective to individually ask these students two questions at the beginning of class: “As we start the day, what are at least two things you need to keep in mind to have success?” and “What do you need from me to achieve those goals?” Finally, look for when the problem is absent or less noticeable at school and use that as an opportunity for the student to realize s/he already has what it takes. For example, “Connor, it was really cool to see how you kept your cool when the hall monitor impolitely told you and your buddies to move along. How’d you make that happen?.... Did you take a few deep breaths, tell yourself to chill out or do something else?”

Response From Daniel Rechtschaffen

Daniel Rechtschaffen, a marriage and family therapist, is the author of The Way of Mindful Education and The Mindful Education Workbook. He organizes the annual Mindfulness in Education Conference and Teacher Training at the Omega Institute. Daniel offers keynote speeches and mindfulness trainings at conferences, schools, communities, and businesses, such as University of Wisconsin Madison, Google, Esalen Institute, and schools around the globe. He is the founding director of Mindful Education, a mindfulness and social emotional learning platform for educators:

I am conscious not to teach self-control in a controlling way. My favorite way to support self-control is to teach it as an engaging game. Students need to enjoy the process and to understand what’s in it for them. Whether the challenge is impulse control, emotional regulation, or working with distraction we can help students to find their own motivation to manage it.

One self-control practice that students love is the distraction game. I start by teaching students a mindfulness practice that entails focusing on one small spot. This could be staring at a point on the wall, feeling their breath in their bellies, or feeling the sensation of their feet on the ground. Once they have their focus spot I try to distract them by jumping around the room and making silly noises.

If students start laughing I tell them that this is a great opportunity to notice what it feels like when laughter is rising up in their bodies and to see what it’s like to catch it. If they notice wanting to turn their heads to look where a sound came from they can bring their attention back to their breath. In doing this students get a visceral opportunity to experience what distraction, fidgetiness, and other disruptive feelings are like and how to regulate them.

Choose a distractors assistant to advance the game. When I ask who wants to help me to distract the class most hands go up. I usually choose the student who is the most disruptive in the class. By doing this I create a microcosm of the usual class climate where one dysregulated student is pulling the attention of the rest of the class. Then we get to practice. We have some amazing conversations about what it feels like to be distracted and how we can develop self-control.

Usually we just tell our students not to get distracted or not react so quickly and then we discipline them if they can’t follow our instructions, but until we actually introduce them to the inner-regulation tools how can we expect them to have self-control? When we offer mindfulness tools and then walk students through the experiences they have the opportunity to develop their regulation muscles in real time. Then instead of us having to control our students they will be inspired to develop their own self-control.

Response From Carla Tantillo Philibert

Carla Tantillo Philibert is the founder of Mindful Practices and a certified yoga teacher with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. Carla and her team travel the country to provide high quality professional development to teachers and school communities. Carla is the author of Cooling Down Your Classroom: Using Yoga, Relaxation and Breathing Strategies to Help Students Learn to Keep Their Cool and Everyday SEL in Elementary School: Integrating Social-Emotional Learning and Mindfulness Into Your Classroom—a middle school edition is also available:

School is a personal pursuit housed within a social construct. To be an effective student, today’s learners must juggle their interpersonal with personal needs. (“I want to get an A on this assignment... But, I can’t concentrate because the butthead next to me keeps talking. I want to tell her to shut up... But I know I can’t. She is really distracting me and I’m getting SO angry!”) Instead of assuming students can naturally access self-control skills or are taught self-awareness and self-regulation tools at home, embedding Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Mindfulness activities into the school setting can empower students with the strategies they need to be in control and ready to learn.

As a former teacher and through ten years of delivering SEL practices, I know the consistent inclusion of SEL, mindfulness or yoga into the classroom setting hinges upon the educator thinking through what these self-control strategies will “look, sound and feel like” prior to implementation. SEL is no quick fix for that “problem” student or magic salve when your classroom is “out of control;" consistently implementing a classroom routine that empowers students to POP: Pause, Own It and Practice will lead to better learning for everyone.

Our students cannot regulate behaviors that they are not aware of, and so a student’s ability to control their behavior must be practiced week to week, the same way we would practice multiplication. Create a classroom routine that gives students who are feeling out of control the space to Pause and check-in with how they are feeling. The students are empowered to Own the emotion they are experiencing and pick a Practice that reclaims self-control so they are ready to learn. Self-awareness must precede self-control, the same way a student must learn to add before she can subtract. Through practicing the POP method, the balance between personal and the interpersonal is achieved, and students are empowered to access self-control, creating a cooler and calmer classroom environment for all.

Below are few strategies from my book, Everyday SEL, to help empower students with the tools they need to Pause, Own It and Practice so they can be ready to learn, even in triggering or challenging situations.

Mindful Breathing: Students “listen” to their breathing for 30 seconds, with their eyes closed, shoulders rolled back and feet flat on the floor. They do not exaggerate their breathing or attempt to control it, they simply follow its rhythm.

Grateful Doodling: Students doodle for 60 seconds, drawing something for which they are grateful using words, pictures or symbols. There is no right or wrong way to doodle, the only requirement is that their pen/pencil is in motion on the page for the entire 60 seconds.

Response From Christine Brandt

Christine Brandt is the principal at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Wash., which received the 2016 Vision In Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award as well as being recognized as an AVID National Demonstration School for their school-wide implementation and common language used for teaching and learning of academic content and behavior. In 2015, Jason Lee Middle School was removed from the Washington State identified priority list of low performing schools under Christine’s leadership:

Two years ago we began implementing “The Whole Child” approach as an avenue to teach students to recognize behavior both positive and negative that impacts learning. Through this we developed our behavior pillars of being Respectful, Responsible, Compassionate and Safe which became the common language all staff use when teaching or reminding students about their behavior choices.

At the beginning of and throughout the year, we deliver lesson plans to all students in advisory to support students learning of self-control related to behavior data or areas of focus for the school such as hallway or classroom behavior with a guest teacher. When school wide self-control behaviors are needing to be addressed we work with our “Whole Child” leadership team to assess and implement the lesson to address the area of support needed by students. This approach addresses the majority of our population of students but for our most high need self-control students we use counseling led interventions. These interventions are run by our counseling staff which includes an academic counseling coach. Students are placed in these counseling interventions based on data related to grades, referrals to the office and overall discipline and performance at school through our Tier 2 intervention team which consists of an administrator, counselors, school psychologist and attendance specialist. Counselors run intervention group to support students dealing with identified self-control issues and develop student plans so students check in at the beginning of the day and out at the end of the day with an adult daily as well as all of their teachers to track and support progress. The academic coach sets weekly goals with the students for behavior or academics and addresses self-control issues in a one to one intervention setting.

All of these interventions use the behavior pillar common language to support students in developing self-control. We additionally have partnerships with a local community counseling agencies that comes to our building to support and intervene for our most high-need students with self-control and social and emotional needs. The keys to helping students develop self-control are using common language, teaching behaviors throughout the year based on data that identifies the self-control support needed and implementing interventions to support the most high need student.

Thanks to Robert, Sue, Allen, Daniel, Carla, and Christine 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.

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