About a month ago, after a successful series of lessons on how learning physically makes the brain grow stronger, I wrote some preliminary thoughts on preparing a similar lesson on student “self-regulation” and self-control.

I got sidetracked by a variety of things, but then two things happened to move it up on my priority list:

First, I began thinking more about it earlier this week when Alice Mercer and I spoke, and she talked about a similar lesson she was putting together. She did the lesson, and just posted about it today. It’s a must-read, and I think it’s a great way to go, especially if you are teaching younger learners (though she’s got some great stuff there for teachers at any grade-level). It’s just another reason why educators should definitely be subscribing to her blog.  It’s definitely one of my favorites.

Secondly, yesterday I had a few relatively minor behavioral issues in my mainstream ninth-grade English class. It wasn’t a big deal, but it hadn’t happened before. It was also, I think, a result of an error I made — it was the first time this year I had students do group work in greater than a pair (we tried groups of three), and it was earliest I had ever tried that in a school year. Even for as good a class as this one is, I should have known it’s just too early in the year to do have a bigger group with ninth-graders. And since I’m not going to be in class tomorrow (I’m leading a workshop on developing parent engagement), it’ll be the first time they’ve had a sub. That combination made me decide early this morning that today would be a very good time to have a lesson on developing self-control. It’s another one of several I’m trying out that might encourage students to see how learning can more directly benefit them beyond the schoolhouse door.

The lesson went quite well. In fact, it went so well I decided to modify it and immediately do with my Intermediate English class, too.   Over the weekend I’ll write a “Part Two” to this post sharing a complete description of how things went in that class (quite well, in fact) and include examples of student work).  The title of this post comes from what a student in that class wrote about what he learned today.


Part One: Lesson Introduction (took about ten minutes):

I began by asking students to take a minute and write down what they thought “self-control” meant. After a minute, students shared their definitions with a partner, and I asked some to share what they wrote with the whole class. Here are a few examples:

“Self control is when you can control yourself, like behave when you are in a tough situation.”

“Control yourself and control your actions.”

“Control yourself from doing bad things.”

“The ability to control strong emotions.”

“Self-control means to hold yourself from doing bad things.”

I theatrically modeled self-control while sitting at a school desk stopping myself from throwing a pencil at a student (it was obvious that I was pretending to be a particular student in class and everybody was cracking-up — including that student. I also gave other examples in my own life (not eating a Reese’s Peanut Buttercup, etc.).

Next, students thought of a time when they did not have self control and wrote about it for a minute. They then shared those stories with a partner, and a few shared with the entire class. Here are a few examples:

“I lost control when I had a bad attitude with my mom and yelled at her.”

“Yesterday in school because somebody stole my iPod from the locker. I ended up socking the wall and door in the locker room.”

“When I took $5 from my Mom’s purse.”

Then, students thought of a time when they showed self-control, shared it with a partner, and then a few with the class. Here are some examples:

“Everyday when I come to school.”

“When I didn’t hit my friend.”

“When we had a sub in my other class and I was doing my work instead of talking.”

Part Two: Reading (about thirty minutes)

Students were divided into pairs. For the first time this year (and perhaps the only time) I decided to let them choose their partners, and that worked out fine.

I gave them part of The New Yorker article titled DON’T: The Secret of Self Control. The article is about the famous experiment where children were tested to see if they could wait fifteen minutes without eating a marshmallow in front of them. If they could, they’d receive a second marshmallow. With a few minor removals, I just used the first two-and-a-half pages that print-out. They took turns reading each paragraph to each other. After each one, they highlighted what they thought was the most important part of the paragraph — up to six words. After they completed the reading (they handled it pretty well — the only phrase I reviewed with them was “delayed gratification” — each pair got a sheet of paper and made a mini-poster writing what they thought were the three most important parts of the article. Then I “paired-up the pairs” and each group shared their poster, and a few shared them up-front. Some examples included:

We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.” (that’s a quote from the article.

“Kids that can’t wait have behavior problems.”

“Kids that can wait have a better mind.”

Part Three: Video (ten minutes)

I then showed the engaging six minute TED Talks video showing a replication of the experiment . Students loved it.

In-Class Experiment, Read Aloud & Modeling (ten minutes):

I put a lollipop on the desk of each student (I got that idea from Alice Mercer), and told them if it was still there thirty minutes later, I’d give them a second one. Students loved it.

I then gave copies of a later excerpt from The New Yorker article that talked about how young people can develop self-control, and read it aloud as students read along. It was particularly timely because this part mentions metacognition, and we had been discussing that word and its meaning in the context of learning reading strategies:

At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

I then did some theatrical role-modeling again, holding myself back from throwing a pencil and saying to myself, “I need to focus on reading so I can make my brain grow” and “I don’t want to throw the pencil because I want to do well in this class.” I talked about other things I could say to myself when the TV is yelling “Watch me now!” when I know I should be doing work instead, and gave a few other examples.

Poster & Final Reflection (45 minutes or so):

I showed students a poster I had made. One side was titled “When I Want To Do This:” and the other side was titled “Instead I’ll Do This:” The first side showed a drawing of me throwing a pencil at someone. The second side showed me sitting at a desk reading and thinking “I want to do well in this class.”

I told students I wanted them to think of a time when they didn’t have self-control — they could use the example they had written about or think of another time. They would draw that on the first side. On the second side I wanted them to draw what they wanted to do instead, and write in a “thought-bubble” how they could divert themselves from losing control.

Students didn’t have time to finish the poster today, and will finish them tomorrow. I’ll create an online slideshow of them as I did for the “growing the brain” culminating project and share them here.  They looked pretty interesting.

In the final few minutes I asked students to write if they found the lesson useful or interesting, and to include why or why not.

As I mentioned earlier, the title of this post is what one of my Intermediate English students wrote in response to this question. Here are a few responses from my mainstream ninth-graders:

“It was interesting because I need to learn self-control.”

“It was interesting because the project is really cool that it could tell about the kids that are successful and are not.”

“This was interesting cus it was showing us how to control our self from doing something bad.”

“It was interesting because I wanted to see if any one in our class ate the lollipop.”

In fact, no one did, so everyone got a second one. Right before the bell rang, I asked the class what it meant that they all got the second candy. Just about everybody yelled, “We’ll be successful!”

I know, that ending sounds a bit simplistic.  But I certainly can’t complain about all my students leaving class feeling like they’re going to be successful.