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Helping Students Develop Self-Control


The success of my lessons on learning’s physical impact on the brain has prompted me to think of creating similar lessons that might encourage students to see how learning can more directly benefit them beyond the schoolhouse door.

I’ve begun developing a lesson on the importance of having self-control. Studies show that the ability to have self-discipline (also known as self-regulation) can result in tremendous learning and life benefits.

I’ve just begun to think about it, and am open to hearing ideas.  I’ll be posting what my final plans look like.  Here are the resources I’m reviewing now:

A TED Talk by Joachim de Posada focused on the lessons from famous marshmallow experiment. A marshmallow was put in front of children, the researcher left the room after telling the child he/she would be back shortly and if the child could resist grabbing the one marshmallow she/he would get more upon the researcher’s return. Years later, those who showed self-control were much more successful in their lives.

I briefly explained this study to a joint class we were training to use a web tool to make a slideshow yesterday. The application requires that students email their final creation to themselves in order to obtain the url address of the finished product, which in turn students can then post on our class blog. After taking a minute to summarize the researchers findings, I talked about how tempting it would be once they went to their personal email to open-up other messages from friends in addition to the one from the slideshow site. But I wanted them to “remember the marshmallow.”

These students actually do work for our English classes in a different computer applications class. I spoke to the teacher after school, and he told me that — as far as he could tell — no students did anything other than open up the one email from the slideshow site.

Three other excellent resources on this topic are:

DON’T: The Secret of Self-Control
from The New Yorker magazine.

Self-Regulation Supports Student Learning and Achievement
by Kevin Washburn

Just today, The New York Times published Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?

Any other suggestions of resources or ideas are welcome.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I enjoyed the New York Times post. I had seen the Ted Talk video before but had not realized there was more research on the self-control. I have a pet peeve of seeing parents who do not teach their children self-control. I keep it in because it isn’t my right to tell parents how to raise their children, especially at the grocery store. However, I think parents have more influence in this area than teachers. What are your thoughts? If the parents do not reinforce self-control at home then will the students be able to learn this?

  2. This article and The Secret to Self control were very enlightening articles. I have bookmarked your site and I will check back later.

  3. Thank you Larry for your constant emails with such wonderful resources! Last year, I had my freshmen class read the New Yorker article “Don’t” and most of them really understood the concept about self-control and its connection to success. In fact, my students wanted to get T-shirts with the logo “Don’t eat the marshmallow!” to remind them of the importance of self-control.
    It was one of the most profound lessons for my students. I am so happy that this year I have the TED video to accompany my lessons on self-control to my new class of freshmen! Thank you!

  4. Thta experiment was done with little kids in the 60’s when the www was not around. Try an innercity school with that same school assignment and thwe www and I believe thresults would be so very different. I have 8th graders who are just like Pavlov’ experiment. If I do my work just some of it, what will you give me…….. I tell them thank you for helping YOUR life skills. They do not get it.

  5. I think this area relating behavioral self control to a host of academic achievements is really interesting. This is especially true since self control and impulse control seem learnable at many ages.

    I also just read your post on cash transfers. I agree that I don’t like what they do for education. In terms of students, it gives them external motivation based on incentives which, while perhaps better than having no motivation, is not worth nearly as much as being self-motivated.

  6. Pingback: What’s Happening in the Lab Week Seven | Reflections on Teaching

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