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“Self-Control As A Limited Energy Resource” In The Classroom


Regular readers might remember the lessons on self-control I’ve done with my students (see “I Like This Lesson Because It Make Me Have a Longer Temper” (Part One)). I just learned about some related research that I’m going to try-out in my class.

I was very intrigued to read an article today titled Dogs Offer Clues to Self-Control. That article, I think, is actually a little weird. However, a link in it led me to a much more useful study called The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control.

Through various experiments — with dogs in the article and with people in the study — researchers found that people (and dogs) who had been put in a situation where they had to demonstrate self-control for a longer time would more easily give up trying a complicated task they would be given afterwards. They concluded that self-control is a “limited energy resource” that can get depleted.

Researchers connected that limited resource to a loss of glucose — the subject’s brain used glucose more quickly than it could be replenished when it was exerting self-control for that period of time. Researchers conclude that eating food that releases glucose over an extended period of time, like complex carbohydrates, could serve as an effective way to gain more glucose and, therefore, self-control.

Off-and-on, I keep graham crackers in my classroom for students to eat who have arrived too late to eat the free breakfast offered at our school. Of course, teenagers are always hungry — whether they ate breakfast or not. I’ve noticed that the students who tend to have the most self-control challenges are the ones who seem to ask for graham crackers the most. I haven’t really kept track of if they have bigger problems during the days when I don’t have crackers to give than when I do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case.

I’m going to try to be more intentional about having the crackers, along with peanut better and trail mix. If it can help stop a couple of my students from “bouncing off the walls,” then it will be well-worth the expense.

Any other suggestions of inexpensive complex carbohydrate food to have available?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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


  1. While I think this is a noble effort, I just have to believe that there must be a boundary, a point at which a teacher’s responsibility to solve every problem must exist and come into play. I mean, there has to be something that the students and parents are responsible for.

    For example, when I started teaching, it was during the time of the philosophy that you should give the students pencil and paper, because it was not worth the hassle to deal with if they didn’t have it. So we had “COMMUNITY” pencil cups and such, and paper was provided. For years I operated under that philosophy. I took things as collateral to get students to give me back my pencils or pens; cell phones, money, shoes….don’t ask. I worked under the program that said let the students keep their work in the classroom because they would lose it or forget it if they took it home. So I had class bins for spirals and binders.

    But a few years ago, I realized that all this behavior does is enable dependent behavior. Why bring a pencil if someone is going to give you one? Study? Why do that…my teacher wants me to leave ALL of my work in the classroom (there are some teachers who won’t let the students bring anything home)? I think we are creating students who have no vested interest in their education…not even enough to have something to write with.

    So a few years ago, I just stopped enabling, and I EXPECTED students to come to class prepared. And you know what….they do. For the most part, I have very few request for pens or pencils. And when I do, I expect them to solve their problem….and they do.

    RESPONSIBILITY is a necessary skill. And I know it may not be the same as for the few students who have issues getting food at home. But if it’s that kind of issue…then connect them with the Free an Reduced Lunch program. But I think if you keep giving snacks out…they will keep eating them…even those who are able to do for themselves.

    • Mrs. CJ,

      I have very high expectations for my students in many areas. It’s a delicate balance, though, especially in an inner-city school.

      Especially for a couple of my students who have chronic self-control issues, I think the complex carbohydrate snacks are worth a try.


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