The ability to control your thoughts, actions, and impulses; to choose your actions and reactions. To resist something you want now for something you want more later. Parents and teachers want their students to develop self-control. Sometimes we try to practice child control, which is an exercise in futility. We can’t control our kids, so we hope they will somehow manage themselves. We certainly don’t want to see our kids grow up to make impulsive decisions as adults.
We often talk about self-control as if it is an innate personality trait rather than something that can be changed. We talk about kids as if they have ‘good self-control’ or ‘bad self-control.’ But self-control, just like other skills, can be taught; but how?
Emotional Regulation: Emotions are one of the most significant barriers to self-mastery. We get angry and yell, sad and shop or eat ice cream, or frustrated and give up. The first step in mastering anything is to recognize it. Children first need to learn to identify their emotions. It is especially important to explicitly teach this step to children with disabilities such as Autism or ADHD, as they don’t always pick up cues as quickly as their peers. Once children learn to identify their emotions, they can learn how to put them into words and what to do with them.
“If you learn self-control, you can master anything.” – Author Unknown
This skill is crucial for K-12 students as they often encounter conflicts with peers. Use the proven-effective BeCool method to teach your students how to remain Cool and in control, which enables them to respond assertively in the face of conflict. This response promotes further cooperation and helps students avoid the negative consequences of being Hot (blowing up) or Cold (giving up).
Emotional Role Models: To learn to regulate emotions, children need good emotional role models. If Dad flies off the handle every time his favorite team misses a shot, mom loses it each time the kids inevitably make a mess, or teacher melts down when the class is not on their best behavior, kids will follow suit. Kids need to see their parents and teachers faced with stress and work through it. Self-talk in front of students can go a long way. Sharing your struggles in the classroom is OK. It might go something like this: ‘Teacher is frustrated by the mess in our classroom. I’m going to take a few deep breaths, and then we can talk about how to fix it.’
Practice: Talk to kids too much, and, to them, you start to sound like the teacher on Charlie Brown (wa, wa, wa, wa, wa) to your students. Kids need bite-sized bits of information and practice practice practice. Create opportunities for students to practice delaying gratification. When kids don’t get it right the first time, a do-over or practice session is a great idea. Maybe the first time your student yelled at their friend when they didn’t want to play their favorite game at recess (for the 100th time.) You role-play what they could have done differently and then let them try it out at the next recess.
Social media is frequently a source of inspiration for stupid, impulsive decisions. Have you heard of the ‘Tide Pod challenge’ where teenagers eat deadly laundry pods? This is the antithesis of self-control. A new social media challenge though actually presents a great idea for teaching self-control. The ‘Try Not to Challenge’ encourages kids to try not to sing along to their favorite song, quote a famous movie, or laugh at a hilarious video. This is a great exercise for building the ability to control impulses, and it can easily be integrated into the classroom. Kids of all ages would enjoy the ‘Try Not to Challenge’ it’s a fun way to practice their self-control and emotional regulation skills.
Consistency: All students can benefit from a consistent schedule, but especially those with Autism or ADHD. These students need to have predictability in their lives. They learn that those around them are dependable and it gives them a safe space to try new things. Kids with trustworthy caregivers and teachers believe that you will follow through. When you tell a child, first finish your homework and then you can play, but you don’t follow through, there is little reason for them to do their homework. When you are consistent and reliable, they know what to expect, which makes self-control much more motivating.
Limits are a vital part of consistency. While almost no kid will tell you they like limits, they are essential. Limits are the building blocks of self-control. They give kids the motivation to delay gratification. They are a model for a student for the future. A student with clear limits set by teachers and parents can learn to set limits for themselves.
Help your students develop ninja level self-control. Just model self-control, practice with your kids, create a safe environment for them, and set clear limits.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.