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Self-control in the classroom: student success through structure and support

Self-control in the classroom: student success through structure and support

Your ability to control your cognition, emotions, and impulses may play a part in your personal success. Research has shown that having self-control, which is the ability to resist temptation, has a wide range of advantages.

Self-control is crucial to learning in the classroom. The more students are able to control unhelpful impulses such as procrastinating, losing focus, and distracting themselves, the more effectively they are able to learn.

But how can teachers encourage self-control in their students? Let's take a closer look...

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What are the benefits of developing self-control?

Psychologists famously studied the benefits of self-control in the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Children between ages 3 and 5 were asked to decide between a small, immediate reward (one marshmallow) or a larger reward (two marshmallows) if they were able to wait for a short period of time. Results, although not always replicated, showed that children who had self-control and waited for the two marshmallows were, as adults, more likely to have:


Research has also shown that higher levels of self-control can predict better:

  • Academic performance
  • Physical health
  • Social competence
  • Ability to cope with emotional and behavioural problems


But why did only some children choose to wait for the bigger reward? Can it be taught? Let's take a look at how schools can shape our behaviour…


How do schools affect student self-control?

Even though our self-control can be impacted by our genes, research suggests that the environments, specifically school environments, are also largely responsible for differences between students in self-control.

Levels of discipline is one way that school environments differ. Research suggest that students who are exposed to more school discipline develop more self-control. School discipline is made up of three main factors:


These factors affect self-control on a similar level, regardless of students' gender and age. School discipline therefore affects students’ self-control from preschool to high school.


So how do you increase school discipline to promote self-control?

Making sure students have a structured and supportive classroom where they can learn efficiently and effectively is a school's top priority.

Here are some self-control tips that teachers can apply in the classroom:


Set clear rules

Research suggests that using clear rules in the classroom encourages good student discipline. This provides a clear structure, so students can be better disciplined when they know exactly what is expected of them. 


Reward good behaviour and don’t ignore misbehaviour

It can be tempting to turn a blind eye to misbehaviour. What is more effective however, is recognising students' misbehaviour, telling them why it's inappropriate, and then correcting it. Recognising good behaviour and rewarding it is also important.


Give students some freedom to make their own choices

Research suggests that students who make their own choices have more motivation to complete tasks. Offering students choices in the classroom can make them feel like their opinions are valued and that you care about them. However, too much freedom and autonomy can be a recipe of chaos and anarchy, so this choice does need to be structured and framed within a wider behaviour management system.


Support your students

Helping students to develop a growth mindset, reminding them that they are capable, and being a good resource when they need help with school work are all great examples of how to support your students.


Develop high quality relationships with your students

Research shows that good relationships between teachers and students have been associated with more flexible thinking, better memory, and better self-control. When students have good relationships with their teachers, they also develop secure attachment. This regulates emotions and behaviour, so students become less afraid to fail and encourages learning.



Final Thoughts

Self-control is a good predictor of academic achievement, self-confidence, social intelligence and health. However, if a child fails the marshmallow test, it doesn't necessarily mean that they won't be successful. Self-control is a good predictor of positive outcomes, not a direct cause.

Teachers can promote self-control behaviours in their students by adapting their classroom environments to be more structured and supportive, and by forming good quality relationships with their students.


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