Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Help Students Develop Self-Control

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 24, 2011 8 min read
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Last week, I posed the question:

How can we help students develop self-control?

As I mentioned in that post, I’ve received several months-worth of questions so far (please keep ‘em coming!), but now and then I’m also planning to include a question that I’ve come up with....and I’ll label them as “Questions On My Mind.”

These questions, like the one I’m addressing today, will be challenges that I’m interested in exploring and/or ones whose answers I think might provide helpful background for upcoming topics that educators have already submitted.

As I mentioned last week, I know that the topic of this post is often on many teacher’s minds, and it’s always better to help students increase their capacity of self-control near the beginning of the year than waiting for it to become an issue later on. Success can enhance the learning environment for all students in the classroom and increase the odds of a teacher maintaining his/her sanity! In addition, Plenty of studies have found significant long-term implications for students who have, and who have not, deepened what are also called “self-regulation” skills.

Another reason I wanted to begin discussing self-control today (this is just the first of a few posts on the topic over the next year) is because a professor whose research has informed much of my thinking on it has just published a book and agreed to offer a response today.

Roy F. Baumeister, along with journalist John Tierney, has written Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. The New York Times published a major excerpt in its Magazine in August, and it has received laudatory reviews.

Professor Baumeister directs the social psychology program at Florida State University. Later in this post, I’ll share some examples of how I have applied his research in my classes over the years.

Response from Roy F. Baumeister:

How might one go about increasing self-control? At its core, the capacity for self-control is essentially the ability to change yourself. It operates like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise. This means building self-control in any sphere will help it work better in other spheres.

Self-control depends on willpower, which is a limited resource. That means that it gets used up. All acts of self-control deplete that same resource. Sitting still, paying attention, waiting one’s turn,resisting the urge to laugh or shout something out, even delaying going to the rest room all deplete self-control. Some children have stronger impulses than others, and so their self-control will get used up faster than that of mild-mannered children.

Crucially, some kinds of thinking and decision making also use willpower. In some of our experiments, we saw dramatic drops in IQ scores after people had exerted self-control. It works in the other direction, too: After thinking hard, self-control will be impaired. A multiple-choice exam or essay test will drain willpower, making it harder to behave oneself afterward. By the end of a day, both thinking and self-control may be compromised, though a nap or snack can help restore the fuel for willpower.

Self-control works like a muscle. It gets tired when you use it. But it also gets stronger with regular exercise. Practicing self-control in any sphere will strengthen your ability to use it in any other sphere. In some of our research, people perform arbitrary exercises of self-control, like improving their posture, changing some everyday speech patterns (e.g., trying to speak with complete sentences, to avoid cuss words, to refrain from abbreviations), or using their non-habitual hand for simple tasks like opening doors or brushing teeth. These translate into improved performance on tests of self-control that have no relation to them. A recent study even found that the increase in willpower led to more success at quitting smoking.

How to implement this in the classroom? The “Tools of the Mind” preschools try to build self-control among young children with games that require them to maintain roles across multiple days and organize their behavior along the demands of the role. With older students, self-discipline may be cultivated in other ways, such as setting and keeping goals or other deadlines, being neat or punctual, or some of the exercises like posture and speech changes.

How I’ve Applied This Research In The Classroom:

Professor Baumeister’s identification of self-control as a “limited energy resource” that needs to be replenished as it get depleted -- as well as viewing it like a muscle that can be strengthened through practice -- changed my way of thinking, as well as opening up a whole new field of study to researchers.

One of his many findings has been that the brain uses glucose more quickly than it can be replenished when it is exerting self-control. He concluded that eating food that releases glucose over an extended period of time, like complex carbohydrates, could serve as an effective way to gain more glucose and, therefore, self-control. I keep a limited supply of graham crackers, trail mix, and peanut butter in my classroom, and have found that the students who tend to have the most self-control challenges are the ones who seem to ask for the snacks the most. In a very limited study I did -- one that I’m sure would not withstand the proof of scientific rigor -- student misbehavior in one class was higher in the two weeks prior to my offering the snacks than afterwards.

Researchers have used Professor Baumeister’s discoveries as a reason to explore other ways self-control can be replenished, including through self-affirmation exercises and by remembering better times. I’ve used these findings to develop short “reflection cards” on cardstock that I give to students when they are having difficulties. I ask them to leave the room and return when they have written responses to these two requests printed on the card:

1. Please write at least three sentences about a time (or times) you have felt successful and happy:

2. Please write at least three sentences about something that is important to you (friends, family, sports, etc.) and why it’s important:

I’ve never thought that asking students to write why they were misbehaving was particularly useful, especially right “in the moment” -- often they don’t have a clue! But I’ve found that invariably students return to the classroom in a much better frame of mind after they complete the card. In fact, it’s not unusual for students -- before a situation reaches a point requiring my intervention -- to go to my desk where the cards are kept, take one, and then bring it back to their seat where they fill it out and give it to me later. I obviously encourage this kind of self-initiative. Of course, sometimes they are a little unclear on the concept. A student once wrote this response to the second question after having a conflict with “Sam": “It is very important to me that that I kick Sam’s _______.”

Of course, in both of these cases, I’m sure some could say that the success of these interventions has nothing to do with the research -- that students respond to the snacks because they demonstrate that I care more for them as individuals, and that the reflection cards work because they just give students a “break.”

For my teaching practice, though, I’m less concerned about why they work and more focused on the fact that they do work. And I would not have tried them without reading about Professor Baumeister’s research.

Obviously, these are just two examples of relatively short-term “fixes.” If you’d like to learn more about how I’ve applied these ideas and others in helping my students develop a greater capacity for self-control over both the long and short terms, you can read My Best Posts About Helping Students Develop Their Capacity For Self-Control and see lesson plans in my book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves (the publisher has several available free at that link). And, as I mentioned earlier, this is just the first of several posts here on this topic.

Responses From Readers:

Readers shared other thoughts:

Claudia Swisher:

I think it starts with me. If I model self-control and respect, students will follow. Maybe not right at first, but they will. For instance, I will not begin to talk to the class until everyone is quiet. I wait respectfully, and I thank the students when they’re all sitting quietly, looking my direction. Are they all really listening? Of course not. But it’s a teachable moment about waiting, respect, and gratitude. How can I expect self control from my students if I don’t have it myself?


We can help children develop an understanding of respect. Not just for the teacher, or the other children but for themselves. My husband is a black belt student of Kung Fu and karate and has developed self control. Techniques for breathing which they can be guided through at the beginning of each class.

Debbie Allen:

K-2 students love to stick up their hands and blurt out (often irrelevent) answers to questions. I’ve taken a cue from Doug Lemov’s _Teach Like a Champion_ and now require five silent “counts” of “think time” before I allow anyone to answer.

John Thompson, one of my favorite bloggers, had this to say:

....delayed gratification is an approriate topic for discussion. Since I was in the Social Studies program, I was allowed to discuss it from multiple lessons, and I did so whenever I had a chance. But the key here is discussion. We can lead conversations, just like teachers have always done....And who knows, by discussing these issues, think of what we can learn from the younger generation.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Roy F. Baumeister, MrsP, Claudia Swisher, Debbie Allen and John Thompson for sharing their answers!

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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

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.