Self-control in the classroom

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As is his practice, Dan Willingham reviews the literature to draw concrete, explicit lessons for classroom teachers in his column in the American Educator.  His focus in the latest edition is self-control ("self-regulation" to cognitive scientists).

Defining self-regulation as the ability to control one's emotions and attention and to plan and control behavior, he notes that it is linked to higher levels of school readiness in preschool; predicts reading and mathematics proficiency in kindergarten; and is associated with academic achievement through elementary and middle school. We all inherit a propensity for self-regulation from our parents, but that can be changed in the home through emotional supports (effective praise, affection, encouragement, sensitivity) and cognitive supports (intellectual engagement and stimulation; structure and limits in the home; predictability).

Willingham notes that research points to three environmental factors that tend to reduce one's self-control: negative emotions like anger, frustration and stress; lapses, where a loss of self-control decreases future control; and cues, or temptations in the environment. Teachers can recognize when negative emotions, lapses, and cues make self-regulation difficult for children and provide calm and warm redirection and correction for misbehavior; additional environmental support (quieter work space, more guidance, more frequent check-ins); and, identify, mitigate, or eliminate triggers entirely.

We agree, and question whether teachers receive enough practical training in these kinds of strategies. In fact, a key indicator for the classroom management standard we've developed for our national teacher preparation project looks at whether student teachers practice and receive effective feedback on using these approaches.