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Libby Woodfin Answers: How Can We Best Help Students Develop Self-Control?

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    Alexis Margolin

This response piece written by Libby Woodfin, EL Education Director of Publications, was originally published on Education Week's Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo blog.

Libby Woodfin Quote

Autonomy + Structure = Self-Control
Students who possess self-control can independently make good choices and control their own behavior, even in the face of temptation. Our effort to help students develop self-control, therefore, must start with giving them more autonomy so that they learn to independently make positive choices. In a classroom full of students this may seem like a risk; however, classroom management that is overly reliant on students being obedient and following directions not only fails to build the skills of self-control that we want for students, it also lacks effectiveness as a management strategy. Turn your back for a minute, step into the hall, or call in a substitute for the day and things can quickly go off the rails, and it may take a lot of time and energy to get things back on track. Helping students develop self-control through greater autonomy, on the other hand, is what can make a classroom really hum as students learn to monitor themselves and each other and sustain effort even when you're not looking. It's the long game—a marathon vs. a sprint.

The effort spent on the front end developing smart structures and systems will pay off when students need less direction from you and can instead take direction from themselves. The following strategies can help students stretch their wings within supportive boundaries.

Develop classroom norms with your students
Norms are the behaviors we wish students to exhibit in the classroom. One of the key differences between norms and rules is that norms are built with students and students agree to live by them. Through a series of open-ended questions, teachers and students co-create the behavioral norms for the classroom.The norms are then posted prominently and serve as the foundation and a reference point for all future conversations about interactions among students and between students and teachers. A set of norms is usually concise (no more than seven), kid-friendly, and applicable to all members of the classroom community. Though norms are usually developed with students at the start of the school year, they can be developed at any time and should be periodically reviewed and revised if necessary. Watch students and teachers building norms together here.

As with all classroom management practices, students need practice and feedback to reinforce the norms. Norms that simply hang on a poster in the classroom will not create a positive culture; students must understand and own the norms, and hold themselves and their peers accountable for the specific behaviors that define those norms. One way to help students do this is to guide them through a process of defining--in their own words—whatnorms like "respect each other" look like (e.g., "We respect each other. That means we: 1. Talk directly to kids, not behind their backs. 2. Use respectful words about race, gender, abilities. 3. Honor the different cultures and backgrounds of our classmates and teachers by not making assumptions about what they believe and value"). When a student breaks a norm the redirect doesn't need to come from a teacher (e.g., "because I said so") but instead can come from the norm itself, which the student has already agreed to uphold. For this reason, building norms is an important foundation for building autonomy and self-control in the classroom.

Maintain consistent and predictable routines
Routines give students a roadmap for important moments during their day—they allow them to internalize and take ownership of their choices and move quickly into new learning experiences. When entering a classroom or transitioning from one activity or space to another within a classroom, students should know exactly what is expected of them. Establishing concrete routines that are practiced and reinforced builds independence—students don't have to wait for instructions from the teacher to know what to do. If students are off track a simple "What are you supposed to be doing right now?" can help students reflect on the expectations, which have already been established, and get themselves back on track. This reinforcement helps students internalize expectations and self-monitor their actions.

Routines can be established for transitions, the first five and last five minutes of class, paper management, guidelines for using materials and space, classroom responsibilities, and myriad other important aspects of life in the classroom. In any case, it's important that the routine is scaffolded for students; very rarely, if ever, are students ready to handle routines independently from the get-go. It can take weeks for students to learn to be independently productive and efficient in their movements, especially if they have regularly experienced more teacher-centered management models in the past. This is true across all grade levels. Once they get there, however, teachers (and students) describe the experience as effective, engaging, and empowering. Routines will really take hold and help students develop self-control when they have a say in building and refining them. Watch students discuss and refine the routines for their classroom jobs here.

Offer students choice and options
The concept of choice, whether behavioral or academic, is central to developing self-control. If they are always told what to do, students can't build those important skills. This is painfully clear on college campuses, where so many freshmen flounder academically and emotionally because they have not learned to make smart choices academically and socially. Choice can become part of the fabric of classroom life in many varied ways—from the language of choice, which frames student behaviors as choices they are making (e.g., "I see that Tiana is seated and has gotten right to work—thanks for making that choice, Tiana."), to offering academic choices, which empower students to reflect on their needs (e.g., "You can read the article with the note-catcher built in or you can read the article with the separate note-catcher. Make a choice based on what will be most helpful for you as a reader.").

School (and life) is not about naturally being a "good student" or "good person," but about making good choices and taking responsibility for the choices we make. Offering even limited choice is often an important strategy for teachers when students are struggling to make good choices. A "constrained" choice (e.g., "You can sit here with me until you feel ready to rejoin your group or you can go to Ms. Jackson's office and sit with her until you're ready. You choose.") can help students still feel in control and capable of exercising some judgment when having too many choices becomes overwhelming or unproductive. Everyone can make a poor choice, and everyone can make a wise choice. When teachers help students see their actions—behaviorally and academically—as choices that they are in control of, they assume more ownership and responsibility for those choices. Peek into classrooms where teachers are offering students choices here.

Developing self-control is a lifelong process; adults are just as likely to struggle with it as students. In the classroom it can feel like a daunting, if not impossible, task. Starting slow and building structures and systems that give students autonomy and choice within well-defined boundaries, however, will give them (and you) a strong chance at success.