Something I’ve heard teachers talk about over and over is the need for students to learn about self-control. I agree that self-control is a super important life skill. That said, it’s not a one-and-done type of thing. It’s a skill that also requires a lot of modeling and reinforcement to develop over time. It’s worth the time and energy in the end though – because kiddos with self-control stay more on task with work and are better able to follow classroom expectations. Have some students in mind that you know need some help with this? Read on for 4 ways to teach self-control to children!
Self-Control vs. Self-Regulation
As the term self-regulation becomes buzzier in the education world, it is bound to get misused from time to time. Because it is connected to self-control, they are sometimes used interchangeably when they really mean different things. Before we dive into teaching kids self-control, we need to decide what specifically we mean.
Self-control is really about stopping yourself from doing something that you maybe shouldn’t do in order to attain your broader goal(s).
- I’m angry and my impulse is to yell at you but I will control myself and my voice level because my goal is to not get in a bigger conflict.
- I want to eat another donut but I will control myself not to because my goal is to maintain my weight.
- I’m excited and want to dance around but I will control myself because I’m in the library and my goal is to not disrupt or annoy people.
Self-regulation is about taking care of your body and feelings to a calm and alert state.
- I am angry so I will take a break from this situation so that my brain calms down.
- I am feeling sleepy and weighed down so I will do a couple jumping jacks to help my brain and body become more alert.
- I am noticing my body shifting and fidgeting and my brain jumping from thought to thought, so I will press a pillow on my lap and count my inhale and exhale for a few breaths.
Self-control and self-regulation are related because when someone is self-regulated, they are far more capable of demonstrating self-control and making helpful choices. If someone is not already regulated, self-regulation needs to come before self-control.
If you’re reading this and thinking “yeah, okay, what my students really need is self-regulation,” then jump over to this post on 5 Ways to Teach Kids Emotional Regulation and this one on Teaching Kids About Flipping Their Lids.
1. Teach What Self-Control Is
Sometimes we tell kids they need to “use more self-control.” They often do need to use more self-control! The problem is that they don’t necessarily know what that means. Kiddos usually understand that self-control is related to good behavior and staying out of trouble but they can’t define it past that. And what’s the best way to teach someone what something really means? Examples!
One way to show students what self-control means and looks like is through stories. You can read about my favorite picture books for teaching self-control if you’re a bibliotherapy lover like me. You can also use made-up stories!
This could look like taking one or more figurines in your office and acting out one of them showing self-control in multiple situations.
“Spiderman wants to share his answer sooooo bad. But Winnie the Pooh calls on the teddy bear. It’s okay. Spiderman puts his arm down quietly and hopes he gets a turn soon”
“The giraffe is telling the horse about his idea for their project. The horse reeeaalllly wants to jump in and talk about her idea but she waits until the giraffe is done first.”
I use a made-up story in my primary social skills curriculum about “Samuel the Self-Control Superhero”. After reading it, I ask the students to recall the ways he showed self-control.
Then, we practice identifying more examples through pictures (taped around my office for us to walk around to if we need more movement!). Pictures can tell a story! For each, the students share what is happening in the picture and if one of the characters is showing self-control.
Matching Types of Self-Control
For older students (3rd-5th graders), you can teach some different categories of self-control:
- Being okay with not getting your way
- Keeping mean or unhelpful thoughts inside your head
- Slowing down your brain and body
- Being patient and waiting your turn
- Thinking before you act
- Stopping yourself from doing things you know you shouldn’t
I do this with a matching activity. The self-control activities in this Boys Counseling Group are video game themed, so we start by talking about what all a controller does when they’re playing a video game. Then we match coins (like the kind you collect in a game): types with examples. If you’re working with students who need a more “fun” activity, you can hide them around your room or flip them over and have them toss beanbags or real coins on top of them before they flip them over (maybe even make it a memory game!).
2. Model and Practice
Once kids know what self-control is, it’s time to dive into the next phase of social-emotional skill building: modeling and practicing what it looks like in different situations. This might be very simple, with you simply modeling and explaining a specific self-control skill and then asking them to practice it themselves with you. Here are some examples:
- Sitting at your desk focusing on the asigned work
- Walk safely through the classroom and hallway
- Keeping hands to self on the rug and in line
- Thinking something you want to blurt out but not saying it (model this by thinking out loud!)
I also have students practice by identifying and showing what they would do in different relevant situations. When I do this in a group, it’s also providing peer modeling. You can have students brainstorm situations themselves, but I’ve found with elementary students, I need to have done that work ahead of time.
In my primary social skills group and boys group, I have cards that students pull (“Pick a card, any card!”) and then respond to them. They have little symbols on them that you can use (or add to your own DIY version) to make it more competitive – kiddos earn points for however many are on each card they pull and practice with.
For many of my students, one of the areas of self-control they struggle in the most is with the words they say. Social filters and self-control go hand in hand! There are a lot of different ways to help students think before they speak, including using stories: I Can’t Believe You Said That and Being Frank are both wonderful, and so is this safari-themed story lesson.
Another idea is to have students act out the social filter process: one kid sits in a chair and acts as the filter. Another student stands on one side and acts as the thought. The “thought” touches their head (to indicate thinking) and says something (you might need to scaffold this). Then they walk towards the “filter”. The filter either directs them to pass through (in which case the thought walks to the other side of the filter and says their thought out loud again) or stops them (and you can have another student come and play an edited more respectful/helpful thing to say).
It’s always a good idea to have students practice or review the idea of using their social filter by giving them examples to sort. With primary students, I sometimes use the metaphor of “superhero words” vs. “villain words,” tying into the superhero theme if I’ve used that with them before.
As a bonus note, my favorite way for students to practice self-control in a scaffolded way is through redos. When a student breaks a role or fails to meet a school expectation due to lack of self-control gives them the perfect opportunity to “redo” their choice.
3. Identify the Consequences of Choices
Students learn about cause and effect in ELA, but they don’t always apply this idea to their own daily actions. They also usually think that consequences are only bad. If self-control involves thinking before acting, we need to make sure that our students know how to do that thinking – we need to teach them about choices and consequences. When we’re in the moment it’s natural to just act on instinct. Kids do this a lot! However when we raise awareness and draw students’ attention to their choices and the consequences to them we give them tools to be more successful at self-control. When kids realize what their choices could do to themselves or others it might give them pause to think of making a different choice.
One super basic way to do this by showing them the Chutes and Ladders board. It’s filled with simple visual examples you can talk through. I used that as my “dang, technology is down” hook for a class guidance lesson.
Another fun way to practice this would be pretending you’re in a video game and students have to correctly identify the consequence to a choice in order to “Level Up.” Students take turns running in place (or doing some other sort of video game character movement) while I read situations. They say what the consequence would be. If they do, the other students hold up “Level Up” signs. If not, they hold up “Game Over” signs
Another activity would be having students put puzzle pieces together, combining choices with their matching consequences. I use picture-heavy puzzles I made when working with younger pre-readers (and EL students). You can also teach choices and consequences by expanding on the visual activity above by asking “What would happen next?” for each of the pictures.
4. Practice Through Play
And last, but certainly not least, you can give the kiddos you’re working with additional and extra fun practice with showing self-control.
Bubbles: Blow bubbles and allow students to pop them as they wish. Then re-explain that sometimes self-control means not doing things you want to do. Ask students to practice self-control by not popping the bubbles the second time around.
Giggle Game: Explain that there is a time and place for laughing and silliness. Students take turns trying as hard as they can (doing whatever they want besides touching) to make another group member laugh. “Winning” is showing self-control by not smiling or laughing when your group member(s) try to make you laugh.
Drum Leader: Students take turns being the drum leader. When they are the leader, they will drum different beats/rhythms and the other students copy/repeat. Then switch leaders. Students have to show focus, patience, and attention to detail.
JENGA: Students have to show patience, physical self-control, thinking before acting, and emotional self-control when playing JENGA.
Board and Card Games: Nearly any fun game you have in your classroom or office provides self-control practice. To help students on the specific self-control skills involved in playing games, provide visuals to reference throughout.