How Children Succeed “Book Club” Part 2 – Self-control

In case you missed the first two installments in our “book club” series, you can read the introduction here and Part 1 – Grit here.

Character Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to research-based approaches to character, summarizes self-control as an ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, or behaviors when they conflict with important goals. It can be broken down into interpersonal self-control and work/school related self-control. Interpersonal self-control encompasses a student’s ability to keep emotions in check and to allow others to speak without interruption. Self-control in the context of work or school refers to preparation, focus, and initiative.
Application to College Success
Data from the book Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities reveals that a student’s high-school GPA is a better predictor of college completion than either his/her SAT or ACT score. The reason: high school grades reflect a student’s level of self-control – both his/her habits and qualities. And college is entirely an exercise in self-control.
Opportunities and Strategies for Developing Self-Control
How can educators cultivate self-control on a daily basis within the constraints of their classrooms and required curricular objectives?

  • Guide students through a time management exercise. This strategy, implemented in our middle school seminar classes, is incredibly empowering for students. Tell students that they will be tracking their time from when the last school bell rings to when they go to bed. The next day, after looking at how they spent their time post-school, students develop a plan. They create two categories: 1) Things I Have to Do and 2) Things I Want to Do. Students then rank the items listed in each category by “most important” to “not as important.” Lastly, students will create a time-management plan based on their ranking of each item.


  • Help students (and parents) make small adjustments. This strategy can be a great follow-up to the time-management exercise. Once students have identified how long they spend completing their homework or engaging in other after school activities, help students determine small changes that they can make to become a stronger manager of their time. For example, every school year, I have students complain that, “There is too much homework!” or “It takes me too long!” It turns out the student is often working on homework while watching television, or that the student is attempting to complete his/her homework in a common room area rather than finding a quiet, focused space. Though this may seem like an obvious strategy, the reality is that we must explicitly teach our students how to develop positive habits.


  • Give students the tools and strategies to track their behaviors. I’ve seen this strategy be exceptionally empowering for both middle and high-school students. Determine a big-picture goal that encompasses both habits and qualities related to self-control. From there, give students the tools to track their progress and the necessary lessons to be successful. Below are two examples:


  • GRIT. This acronym was used by my team this past year to help students develop positive habits and qualities, many of which were related to self-control. At the beginning of each six-week grading period, students were given a GRIT tracker. Students were required to reach the following goals in order to earn GRIT. G – Growth:  Increase grade by at least 3 points from progress report to report card in at least two different classes. R – Responsibility: Earn at least 1 Zero Hero (One week of 100% attendance, 100% homework completion, and zero behavior infractions). I – Investment: Attend at least 1 afterschool event or 1 lunch tutorial. T- Trustworthiness: Avoid earning an Honor Code Violation. In order to help students achieve GRIT, teachers would guide students to identify actions steps such as attending lunch tutorials, writing down homework for every class, or studying vocabulary for an extra five minutes every night.


  • BE SWAG. This acronym, developed by the ninth grade team at our North Central campus, stands for each ninth grade course: biology, English I, Spanish, world geography, algebra, and geometry. In order to earn a “BE SWAG” within a six week grading period, a student must earn at least an 80 percent in a course. After earning an 80 percent for a given course, in order to earn an additional “BE SWAG” for that course, a student must increase his/her grade by at least a third (i.e. from a B- minus to a B). In order to support students in earning BE SWAG, the team taught students how to develop critical habits such as retaking any assessment below an 80 percent, attending after-school tutorials, and how to monitor their own understanding throughout their classes.


  • Guide students to monitor their own emotional reactions and develop interventions. This strategy is targeted at interpersonal self-control and comes from our Student Support Counselors. For students who struggle to manage their emotions, the first step is to help the student recognize when he/she is beginning to feel upset, frustrated, or angry. Once the student is able to recognize his/her emotional response to an upsetting event, help the student identify small interventions. These interventions might be as simple as counting backwards from 10 or giving the teacher a special hand signal that indicates that the student needs to step outside the classroom and get a drink of water.

What strategies do you have for developing self-control in your students? Share your ideas in the comments section below. 

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