Circle of Control Activity and Lesson Plan

circle of control lesson

Part of my 3rd grade’s problem solving unit, after we tackle conflict resolution, is to identify problems inside vs. outside of our control. As many, many other counselors have done, I start with a hands on visual to introduce the idea (though I don’t use play-doh). This is the lesson I created and how I deliver my circle of control activity:

  • Give each student a pipe cleaner and 2 minutes to “create” something with it.
  • Have a few students share out what they created.
  • Explain that they changed the pipe cleaner and that they had control of it.
  • Ask students to remember in their minds what they made and then collect the pipe cleaners.
  • Give each student a rock/marble (I use the ones I use for my worry monster!).
  • Ask them to create the same thing with the rock that they created with the pipe cleaner.
  • As they begin with the “what?”, “huh?”, “I can’t!”, I ask for someone to explain what’s different about this challenge.
  • Collect the rocks and explain: You can’t change the rock. You don’t have control over
    what shape it is. Some problems are like the pipe cleaners – we have
    control over them and can change them. Some problems are like rocks – we
    don’t have control over them.

The students move onto the rug and I read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Unlike other times I do read alouds, I don’t stop and ask them questions throughout but instead tell them that I want them to think about each of his problems as I read it and begin to think if they’re outside or inside of Alexander’s control. I don’t *love* this book – the illustrations are boring, the language is outdated, and it just doesn’t click with me. Last year my school’s librarian and I went on an exhaustive search to find something better – no luck! So I keep using this and now I appreciate it more!

I ask them to all move into a circle now and I give each of them one of Alexander’s problems. A large hula hoop is set in the middle and explain that we’ll take turns reading his problems and deciding if it’s a pipe cleaner problem inside his control or a rock problem outside, and putting it in the appropriate place in or around the hula hoop. I have the card reader give their answer and then students use their “agree” and “disagree” hand motions to indicate their opinion. When there isn’t a consensus, we talk through it. We usually decide to put a few ON the hoop because they could go either way.

As a management strategy, I have the students keep the cards face down on the floor in front of them instead of in their hands when it’s not their turn. Because I will later do 1-3 lessons with them about helpful thoughts/cognitions, I emphasize with some of them the difference between facts/events (mom made lima beans for dinner) and opinions (hating lima beans).

circle of control activity

Then I have the students do the same circle of control activity in pairs or trios with a different set of problems/ideas – other problems a 3rd grader may face. This is often the first time that someone tells them they are in control of their own emotions and it shocks some of them! By the end of the lesson, they haven’t fully mastered the ability to determine, independently and in the moment, whether or not every problem is in our out of their control…but…they are more likely to do so and are definitely able to when prompted by their teachers with a quick “Is this problem inside or outside of your control?”. Win!

circle of control activity

Which book is most helpful for your students learning circle of control? What does your circle of control activity look like?


18 Responses

  1. It’s interesting that I came across your post today on this specific book. I waited ages for it to become available at my local library so I could share it with my two children (ages 4 and 6), having remembered it from when I was a girl, though not as well as I thought. I was so disappointed by the lack of resolution to the story – “some days are just like that” was mostly useless as an ending. I thought for sure there’d be some tip to Alexander about dealing with disappointments. But your post helps me to see the potential in the book and my six-year-old especially could use some training on control. Thank you!

  2. Love this lesson!! What age group do you typically do this with? Do you have any print outs or ones you use for the problems from the book?

    1. Hi! I did this in 45 minutes, including all the elements. You could easily shorten it to 30 if needed.


  3. This looks fantastic and a resource I have been looking for!
    I was wondering if you had any other resources activities that were similar to this or a follow up?

    1. Hi! Usually if I’m using that as part of a class lesson, my next lessons are about conflict resolution strategies, taking responsibility for our actions, and coping skills. Sort of a “you know what’s IN your control, here’s what you can do about it!”.

      I also have this group curriculum that includes a locus of control activity and then other activities to boost resiliency (for individuals r small groups): https://shop.theresponsivecounselor.com/product/resiliency-activities-and-group-curriculum-printable-and-digital/


    1. Hi! I think the story and the sort with Alexander’s problems would definitely work for K! The other parts could be a little abstract for them, but it might depend a lot on the cohort.


  4. I came across this post while searching for group activities in addiction counseling. Although it was meant for children, locus of control is something many adults don’t understand either and I’m excited to see how some variation of this exercise could be used with my groups. Thanks for the ideas!

    1. I think yes for individuals and groups, maybe less so for class lessons. I feel like whole group, big kids are more likely to think something is “too young” for them. I think it depends a lot on the specific cohort, though!


  5. I just completed this lesson with a 3rd grade class and they LOVED it! We swapped out the cards and hula-hoop for magnets. I had students place them on the dry erase board either inside or outside of our control circle that I drew. As a first-year school counselor your lessons have helped me SO much. Thank you for sharing these ideas!

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Hello, I’m Sara!

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