How to Enhance Students’ Self-Control With Research-Supported Strategies

By becoming teachers, we made a commitment to shaping young minds and positively influencing the next generation. But, did you realize that by teaching algebra, geography and basic lessons in self-control, you are literally shaping the brains of your students?

The “rational mind” or part of the brain that processes complex thought and behavior, as well as self-regulation and problem solving, anatomically known as the prefrontal cortex, doesn’t fully develop in humans until the age of 25. Therefore, whether you’re teaching preschoolers or graduate students, your lessons, homework and critical-thinking exercises are likely contributing to the formation of this crucial brain area.

In theory, a college student has a higher capacity for self-control than, say, a fifth-grader (never mind what’s on display at frat parties). This is because college students have had roughly 6-10 more years to develop their prefrontal cortices than their elementary school counterparts.

But, while we understand the limitations of younger children’s rational minds and the natural maturation process, there are also several research-backed strategies to accelerate this development and teach students self-control early on. Much like the strategies we’ve found to help parents raise a self-disciplined child, most of what our students learn comes via observation and internalization of the behaviors of the adults around them.

Here are 5 ways you can foster a classroom of miniature prefrontal-cortex masters in your schools today:

  1. Establish trust. Oftentimes, children express low self-control out of a lack of trust or fear that they won’t be taken care of by the adults or caretakers around them. As researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder suggest, establishing social trust ensures kids that their good behavior is warranted. Make a habit of learning your students’ backgrounds, cultures, hobbies and extracurricular interests to establish trust and give yourself extra insight into how you can best serve them.
  1. Set clear expectations. The key word here is clear. What may be clear to an adult with a fully formed prefrontal cortex is often not so clear to a child. Setting classroom rules, especially as a new teacher, provides a baseline for good behavior. Make it clear that by meeting these expectations, your students are doing their part to maintain the trust established in tip #1.
  1. Give consistent reasons. We all know that “why?” is one of the greatest – and most commonly repeated – questions a child can ask. Instead of using your response as a way to transmit authority, carefully explain the basis of your rules and keep your explanations consistent. Self-control is all about returning to a state of equilibrium, and consistent reasoning and explanation provide the framework upon which that equilibrium rests.  
  1. Encourage your kids to think out loud. In other words, create a space where non-disruptive self-talk is welcome. According to researchers at George Mason University, not only does talking to oneself help children develop the language skills necessary to express their thoughts and feelings, but it also creates an awareness of their desires, slowing down the decision-making process and allowing them more time to make positive, controlled decisions.
  1. Reward as necessary. As Walter Mischel elicited in his studies on delayed gratification, children are much more likely to display self-control when a reward is on the line. Giving children tangible items and praise for good behavior may seem too easy, but for humans who don’t yet possess the neural tools to understand the benefit of self-control, timely and intentional rewards can really help encourage good decision-making. Research shows that rewards and other expressions of positive reinforcement are more impactful at encouraging self-control than the antiquated tradition of issuing detentions and suspensions for poor behavior.

Setting a tone of self-control in the classrooms is as much an art as it is a science. So, if you’re looking for insight on some fully fleshed classroom management models, check out our post on the self-discipline approach to classroom management.

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