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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: ‘Student Autonomy Is a Prerequisite of Self-Control’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 21, 2016 24 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today’s contributors are Jenny Edwards, Libby Woodfin, Thomas R. Hoerr, Dave Stuart Jr., Maurice J. Elias, and Matt Renwick.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD), Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD), and Research on Habits of Mind (2014, Institute for Habits of Mind International), which includes studies that have been done on Habits of Mind (Costa & Kallick, 2008):

How can we best help students to develop self-control? Findings from research studies are clear--by helping students to develop self-control and manage their impulsivity, teachers can save them from a lifetime of difficulties and increase the probability that they will live successful lives.

Moffitt, Poulton, and Caspi (2013) conducted a 40-year study with 1,000 children on the relationship between self-control in young children and their experiences in life. They gathered data 12 times from people between the ages of 3 and 38. When children who had poor self-control became adults, they had:

  • More problems with health
  • More addictive behaviors
  • More difficulties with finances
  • Lower credit ratings
  • A higher likelihood of being on welfare
  • A higher likelihood of staying on welfare for a longer period of time
  • More criminal offenses
  • Poorer parenting skills
  • A higher likelihood that their children would live with one parent
  • A higher likelihood that they would drop out of school
  • A higher likelihood of starting to smoke when they were 15 years old
  • Greater probability of having children out of wedlock in their teenage years

On the other hand, Moffitt et al. (2013) found that when children who had higher levels of self-control became adults, they had:

  • Greater life satisfaction
  • Fewer incidences of suicide

Moffitt et al. (2013) indicated that “differences in self-control between children predict their adult outcomes approximately as well as (sometimes better than) low intelligence and low social class origins, factors known to be extremely difficult to improve through intervention.” They suggested that, “helping teens avoid snares could improve population health, wealth, child welfare, and public safety somewhat, but building self-control skills before the teen years is also warranted.” The researchers concluded that “children with low self-control deplete teachers’ energy for teaching other pupils. Children lacking in self-control may even contribute to teachers’ job dissatisfaction and attrition”.

Art Costa and Bena Kallick (2009) include the Habit of Mind of Managing Impulsivity in their list of Habits of Mind. According to Costa and Kallick (2008), students who control their impulsivity are “clarifying goals, planning a strategy for solving a problem, exploring alternative problem-solving strategies, and debating the consequences of their actions before they begin.” In addition, they take notes in class, listen to what others are saying, use wait time, and participate in class.

Strategies for helping students to develop self-control that have been suggested by researchers who have conducted research in this area include:

  • Teaching them to reply with words rather than becoming angry (Eisenberg et al., 1999)

  • Teaching them skills to enable them to have better social relationships (Eisenberg, Valiente, & Eggum, 2010)

  • Teaching them to divert their attention away from what is causing them to move toward losing self-control (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970)

  • Building their self-esteem in order to help to decrease their aggression (Sylwester, 1997)

  • Helping them to pay attention and be engaged in learning for longer periods of time (Thomas, Bierman, Thompson, & Powers, 2008)

  • Helping them to like school (Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, & Castro, 2007)

  • Helping them to become engaged in the classroom (Valiente, Swanson, & Lemery-Chalfant, 2012)

  • Forming strong, caring relationships with them (Valiente, Swanson, & Lemery-Chalfant, 2012)

  • Being credible and having a mastery goal structure (Andermann, Cupp, & Lane, 2010)

  • Helping them to feel connected to the school (Chen & Jacobson, 2013; Vogel & Barton, 2011)

  • Helping them to have a strong future tine orientation by helping them to visualize the future, make plans for the future, and work toward their goals (Chen & Vazsonyi, 2011)

  • Teaching them martial arts, providing music lessons, inviting them to play computer games, and teaching them a second language (Moffitt et al., 2013)

  • Providing strategies for parents to their children to develop self-control (Mottiff et al., 2013)

Which of these strategies might you use first to help your students to develop self-control?

Response From Libby Woodfin

Libby Woodfin, a former teacher and school counselor, is an author of several books including Management in the Active Classroom and Leaders of Their Own Learning. She is director of publications for EL Education:

Autonomy + Structure = Self-Control

Autonomy is a prerequisite of self-control. Students who possess self-control can independently make good choices and control their own behavior, even in the face of temptation. Our effort to help students develop self-control, therefore, must start with giving them more autonomy so that they learn to independently make positive choices. In a classroom full of students this may seem like a risk; however, classroom management that is overly reliant on students being obedient and following directions not only fails to build the skills of self-control that we want for students, it also lacks effectiveness as a management strategy. Turn your back for a minute, step into the hall, or call in a substitute for the day and things can quickly go off the rails, and it may take a lot of time and energy to get things back on track. Helping students develop self-control through greater autonomy, on the other hand, is what can make a classroom really hum as students learn to monitor themselves and each other and sustain effort even when you’re not looking. It’s the long game—a marathon vs. a sprint.

The effort spent on the front end developing smart structures and systems will pay off when students need less direction from you and can instead take direction from themselves. The following strategies can help students stretch their wings within supportive boundaries.

Develop classroom norms with your students

Norms are the behaviors we wish students to exhibit in the classroom. One of the key differences between norms and rules is that norms are built with students and students agree to live by them. Through a series of open-ended questions, teachers and students co-create the behavioral norms for the classroom. The norms are then posted prominently and serve as the foundation and a reference point for all future conversations about interactions among students and between students and teachers. A set of norms is usually concise (no more than seven), kid-friendly, and applicable to all members of the classroom community. Though norms are usually developed with students at the start of the school year, they can be developed at any time and should be periodically reviewed and revised if necessary. Watch students and teachers building norms together here.

As with all classroom management practices, students need practice and feedback to reinforce the norms. Norms that simply hang on a poster in the classroom will not create a positive culture; students must understand and own the norms, and hold themselves and their peers accountable for the specific behaviors that define those norms. One way to help students do this is to guide them through a process of defining--in their own words—what norms like “respect each other” look like (e.g., “We respect each other. That means we: 1. Talk directly to kids, not behind their backs. 2. Use respectful words about race, gender, abilities. 3. Honor the different cultures and backgrounds of our classmates and teachers by not making assumptions about what they believe and value”). When a student breaks a norm the redirect doesn’t need to come from a teacher (e.g., “because I said so”) but instead can come from the norm itself, which the student has already agreed to uphold. For this reason, building norms is an important foundation for building autonomy and self-control in the classroom.

Maintain consistent and predictable routines

Routines give students a roadmap for important moments during their day—they allow them to internalize and take ownership of their choices and move quickly into new learning experiences. When entering a classroom or transitioning from one activity or space to another within a classroom, students should know exactly what is expected of them. Establishing concrete routines that are practiced and reinforced builds independencestudents don’t have to wait for instructions from the teacher to know what to do. If students are off track a simple “What are you supposed to be doing right now?” can help students reflect on the expectations, which have already been established, and get themselves back on track. This reinforcement helps students internalize expectations and self-monitor their actions.

Routines can be established for transitions, the first five and last five minutes of class, paper management, guidelines for using materials and space, classroom responsibilities, and myriad other important aspects of life in the classroom. In any case, it’s important that the routine is scaffolded for students; very rarely, if ever, are students ready to handle routines independently from the get-go. It can take weeks for students to learn to be independently productive and efficient in their movements, especially if they have regularly experienced more teacher-centered management models in the past. This is true across all grade levels. Once they get there, however, teachers (and students) describe the experience as effective, engaging, and empowering. Routines will really take hold and help students develop self-control when they have a say in building and refining them. Watch students discuss and refine the routines for their classroom jobs here.

Offer students choice and options

The concept of choice, whether behavioral or academic, is central to developing self-control. If they are always told what to do, students can’t build those important skills. This is painfully clear on college campuses, where so many freshmen flounder academically and emotionally because they have not learned to make smart choices academically and socially. Choice can become part of the fabric of classroom life in many varied waysfrom the language of choice, which frames student behaviors as choices they are making (e.g., “I see that Tiana is seated and has gotten right to workthanks for making that choice, Tiana.”), to offering academic choices, which empower students to reflect on their needs (e.g., “You can read the article with the note-catcher built in or you can read the article with the separate note-catcher. Make a choice based on what will be most helpful for you as a reader.”).

School (and life) is not about naturally being a “good student” or “good person,” but about making good choices and taking responsibility for the choices we make. Offering even limited choice is often an important strategy for teachers when students are struggling to make good choices. A “constrained” choice (e.g., “You can sit here with me until you feel ready to rejoin your group or you can go to Ms. Jackson’s office and sit with her until you’re ready. You choose.”) can help students still feel in control and capable of exercising some judgment when having too many choices becomes overwhelming or unproductive. Everyone can make a poor choice, and everyone can make a wise choice. When teachers help students see their actionsbehaviorally and academicallyas choices that they are in control of, they assume more ownership and responsibility for those choices. Peek into classrooms where teachers are offering students choices here.

Developing self-control is a lifelong process; adults are just as likely to struggle with it as students. In the classroom it can feel like a daunting, if not impossible, task. Starting slow and building structures and systems that give students autonomy and choice within well-defined boundaries, however, will give them (and you) a strong chance at success.

Response From Thomas R. Hoerr

Thomas Hoerr’s new book, The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs, shares effective strategies for helping students develop five key skills: self-control, grit, empathy, integrity, and embracing diversity. He is emeritus head of school for New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, and founded, directed, and taught in the Washington University Nonprofit Management Program. He is also the author of Fostering Grit: How do I prepare my students for the real world? (ASCD, 2013), The Art of School Leadership (ASCD, 2005), and Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School (ASCD, 2000):

The starting point to developing students’ self-control is to make it the starting point! That is, students must understand the importance of self-control and work to improve it. Too often, we don’t talk about self-control until it’s absent: we raise its value after a lunchroom altercation or when a test result indicates that a student didn’t study enough. Those are teachable moments, but the best way to develop self-control is to formally teach it as part of our curriculum, just like two-digit division, the three branches of government, and preparing for the SAT.

We should begin by teaching the role of self-control in any kind of successthroughout life, not just in schooland that it can be strengthened with intent and practice. In “The Power of Habit,” (Duhigg, 2012) Muraven says, “Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs...” Similarly, Duhigg says, “Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say ‘thank you.’” We can make a point of identifying people in literature and the news who display strong self-control (or who do not!).

To illustrate that developing self-control now creates a positive trajectory, it is effective to share some findings from The Marshmallow Test (Mischel, 2014). In it, 4-year-olds were given one marshmallow with the promise of a second one in fifteen minutes if they could restrain from eating the first one until then. Michel says, “The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped more adaptively with frustration and stress.”

Once students appreciate that self-control can be developed, they set two kinds of self-control goals - one focused on a scholastics and one on personal growth (e.g., being kinder to a sibling or improving piano playing). Students need to see how the self-control they use in other areas (likely those that are fun) can be transferred to new their new goals. The student who spends hours playing the guitar or shooting hoops can be led to apply some of that same focus and intent to homework.

When setting goals, it’s important for students to anticipate why they will need self-control to succeed. The better able they are to see the difficulties they will face, the better they will be at using self-control and designing strategies to overcome the obstacles. Without strategies, the goals are simply hopes.

Teachers should create situations for students to periodically reflect on their progress and monitor their progress. This might be touching base with the teacher, sharing with others who have similar goals, or keeping a “self-control” journal, designed specifically to track progress on their scholastic and personal goals. Throughout, we need to remind students that developing self-control is very important and that because it’s important, it is not easy. If goals are not met, we need to support students by applauding their efforts and asking them what they could do differently and how self-control might be more helpful.

As goals are achieved, we need to be sure that there is an opportunity for students to celebrate the achievement of the goal and the power of their self-control. Then we to encourage them to use that momentum to continue their successit’s easy to fall backand find a new challenge to pursue.


Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Response From Dave Stuart Jr.

Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) is a high school teacher who also writes and researches about literacy instruction, character strengths, and teacher flourishing. His blog is read by over 35,000 people each month, and he gives keynote speeches and workshops around the country. He believes that all students and teachers can flourish, and he hopes his work helps you toward that:

The point of teaching kids to develop self-control isn’t to get them to obey or comply or behave as if they’re in a prison. Such caricaturizations or misapplications of instruction around self-control miss it all. Rather, self-control is about helping our kids do what they need to do so they can get where they want to be. It’s about getting from Goal Setting, through Goal Striving, and to Goal Attainment (see Figure 1). The key in developing self-control, then, is teaching students to attain their goals.

While I’ve tended to try whatever seems good to me in the moment, I recently came across a promising study by Angela Duckworth, Heidi Grant, Benjamin Loew, Gabriele Oettingen, and Peter M. Gollwitzer (2011) that I’m eager to try out with my ninth graders this fall. The study used a simple pair of interventions during the goal-setting phase and found that students who engaged in the interventions did a significantly greater amount of goal-relevant work during Goal Striving.

First, when we lead our students in setting goals we want them to be as committed to the goal as possible. To help with this, the study’s authors used a technique called Mental Contrasting (MC). In MC, students fantasize about what it will be like to achieve the goal they’ve set, and then they envision what in their present reality will get in the way of attaining the goal.

Second, to overcome the gap between that envisioned obstacles and outcomes, students set an explicit Implementation Intention (II). This can be as simple as an if-then statement, such as “If I encounter X obstacle, I will do Y.”

Since talk of Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions can get wonky fast, Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer’s (two authors on the study) have developed WOOP. WOOP is explained concisely here at Character Lab, but I’ll also lay it out here to save you a click:

  • Wishthis is the goal, clearly stated (e.g., “I want to turn all of my homework in on time during this quarter”)
  • Outcomethis is the first part of mental contrasting (e.g., “If I started turning all of my homework in on time, I would get my Xbox back and my parents would be proud of me and I’d be less stressed”)
  • Obstaclethis is the second part of mental contrasting (e.g., “The problem is that as soon as I get home I get lazy.”)
  • Planthis is the implementation intention (e.g., “If I feel lazy, then I will complete one problem on my math homework”)

While none of these things are silver bullets in creating the perfectly self-regulated child, they seem promising in our quest to help students build flourishing lives through the development of self-control. Research supports the effectiveness of WOOP (unlike some of my previous efforts helping students with goal attainment; see the second half of this post for a classroom video), and WOOP doesn’t threaten to take up huge swaths of important class time.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. He is also author of the new e-book, “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting” and “The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development” (2016, Corwin):

Self-Control Requires Adult Control and Respectful Listening

While there are a lot of instructional techniques to teach self-control, I would like to draw upon some ideas from “The Joys & Oys of Parenting” that I think are basic: adults (teachers and parents) modeling self-control, and respectful listening.

Three steps to modeling self-control with children are:

  • Step 1. Respond, don’t react. Reacting is matching an emotionally charged behavior with your own emotionally charged comeback. Responding is getting your emotions under control and thinking through the best way to resolve the situation. Don’t ignore your emotions, just filter them so you can respond effectively. This creates a safe environment, where you’re not belittling, imposing guilt, or criticizing.

  • Step 2. Admit when you lose self-control. There will be times that we do lose our cool, and then, we need to admit our lack of self-control to our kids and we explain how we will work to do better.

  • Step 3. Beware of overidentifying. It’s tempting to make our children’s experiences our own, especially if we feel like they have been slighted or treated unfairly. While we do need to nurture and protect them, overidentifying can create unhealthy boundaries and give children the message that they can’t deal with problems on their own. If we don’t try to overcontrol our children, they have a better chance at developing self-control

Staying level-headed tells young people that we are confident in their ultimate success. This message is reinforced in the way we listen to and understand them so that we can help them navigate their own problems and concerns.

In fact, it is so easy to get so wrapped up in the duties and responsibilities of teaching and parenting that we often forget how we sound to our students and children. The tone we use to communicate sets the dynamic within classrooms and schools: combative or peaceful, negative or positive, critical or affirming, mundane or joyful.

Let’s think through some ways we may or may not be modeling respectful listening in our classrooms and homes:

  • Do we greet children- and other adults—in a sincere and caring way when we get back together after having been apart, including the start of a new school day, or returning home after a work day?

  • Do we say “please” and “thank you” when talking to each other?

  • How do we handle frustration? Do we lash out and blame? Or are we patient and understanding?

  • Do we apologize when we lose our cool?

  • Do we treat school colleagues and other family members with less consideration than we treat others? Children are always watching us.

The words we use every day with our children have the power to injure, to lift up, to tear down, to motivate, or to disappoint...and this can happen regardless of our intention. We might not mean to make our children feel small or unimportant, but the words and tone we use in everyday dialogue might just be having that effect. Negative words create a critical and disapproving environment. Children are very sensitive; they notice how we talk to them, in school and at home. They may not understand how much stress adults are under. They only know what we show. Self-control comes foremost from self-respect, which in turn comes from feeling respected by others whose actions—and words—prove them to be worthy of respect.

Response From Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin and author of multiple books, including 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Learn more about Matt on his website, and by following him on Twitter @ReadByExample:

For some time in education, teachers have followed clear steps for ensuring students are able to develop essential understandings, knowledge and skills during instruction. Post the learning target on the board. Explain and expand on what is to be learned and why. Offer a brief demonstration that models the new learning. Provide structures and scaffolds that allow students to try it out in supportive groups with peers or the teacher. When deemed ready, students are given time and space to apply what they have learned independently.

This is referred to as the “gradual release of responsibility”, developed by Pearson and Pressley decades ago. It is a mainstay in many literacy-focused professional development resources for teachers. The workshop model, for example, relies on the gradual release of responsibility in order to develop independent readers and writers. It has a solid foundation of research and other points of evidence to support its effectiveness.

So why do we forget about the gradual release of responsibility when it comes to areas of school beyond the disciplines, such as school behaviors or social-emotional habits of mind? Wouldn’t it make sense that what is good for the goose is good for the gander? If we believe that all students are natural learners and that the brain has the ability to grow, then why do so many educators shelve what they know to be good instruction when they attempt to address students’ inabilities to stay focused in class and be safe on the playground?

There are arguments out there that if we give students time and autonomy, they will naturally develop rules for social situation, such as waiting to be called upon and developing rules for a playground game as a group. However, educators live in a world where parents expect that their child will come home everyday without injury or harm. This is not an unreasonable expectation. Therefore, leaders and teachers in education at the very least have to convey to everyone how people should conduct themselves in all areas of school. If they make a mistake, we reflect on these choices and reteach what is expected as needed. This approach is beyond compliance; it’s about making social norms concrete and visible for our students.

Thanks to to Jenny, Libby, Thomas, Dave, Maurice and Matt for their contributions!

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