The Essential Skill of Self-Control

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Self-control is restraint practiced over one's own emotions, impulses, or desires. It is the ability to make positive choices, to think before acting. Without self-control, students say and do things impulsively which often leads to trouble. Children need to be taught to pause and think of the consequences that may result from their various behaviors.

It is critical for educators to model self-discipline. For example, if you feel yourself losing control of your class, you may want to take a deep breath and calmly say, "When you talk out-of-turn, I feel frustrated because I can't hear what each one of you has to say." By controlling your own words and actions, you are demonstrating to your students a healthy way to react to stress.

Helping children learn to engage in self-talk increases their self-control. For example, if a child gets hit, he or she needs to stop, think and evaluate before hitting back. The student might say to him or herself:

  •  If I hit him, he'll hit me and we'll get into a fight.
  •  I might get hurt or I might hurt him.
  •  I might be sent to the office or get expelled.
  •  My parents may have to come to school.
  •  I'm not going to let him get me in trouble.
  •  I don't know what his problem is, but I'm going to stay away from him.
  •  I'll choose to do the smart thing and walk away.

Other coping skills include taking deep breaths, counting slowly, drawing a picture or writing down feelings, talking to someone, or asking for help.

Children who are rebellious and lack self-control are often unable to empathize with another child's feelings or point of view. They may misinterpret ambiguous social situations as being hostile. When they feel upset they may provoke others rather than think of positive alternatives like playing with someone else or choosing another activity. These children often do not understand that their anger is a secondary emotion that results from feeling misunderstood, hurt, rejected, afraid, embarrassed, or frustrated. In addition, they may have the distorted view that their aggressive behavior makes them seem tough and admired, while peers often consider them mean. An educator's responsibility is to help dispel their illusions and teach self-control by example and through a variety of methods.

The following are some ways to help children understand themselves and gain self-control. Throughout these exercises mention that:

  •  Each child is in charge of his/her own thoughts, feelings and behavior.
  •  The only person a child can change is him or herself.
  •  Nobody is perfect; everyone makes mistakes.
  1. Have one child at a time come to the front and demonstrate a feeling. Have the other children name it. Then discuss or make a list on the board of the possible reasons a child might experience the feeling.

  2. Ask the students to name positive coping skills they use when they feel angry, sad, lonely, or have another negative feeling. Some examples might include positive self-talk, talking to a friend, reading a book, looking at pictures, exercising, telling an adult, writing about the feeling, etc.

  3. Explain that anger often results from feeling misunderstood, hurt, rejected, afraid, embarrassed, or frustrated. Have the children draw a picture about a time when they felt out-of-control and identify the feeling beneath their anger. After they are finished, carefully pair the children and have them tell each other about their picture. Stress the importance of children listening respectfully to each other.

  4. Have students write down their various reactions to typical problem situations like pushing, spreading rumors, cheating, and name-calling. As a group, have them brainstorm possible consequences of these behaviors. You may want to have the students role play helpful responses to these problem behaviors.

  5. Describe emotionally intense interactions between children. Ask them for examples of positive self-talk to defuse or deal with each one. For example, what if someone said to a child, "Nobody likes you." What could the child say to him or herself?
    • "She's wrong. I do have friends."
    • "I can do many things well. I won't let her upset me."
    • "I am a lovable person."
    • "I will be kind to everyone."
    • "I am in charge of my thoughts, feelings and behaviors."

      Then ask the children to name self-defeating thoughts. For example:

    • "There is no use in trying because I'll never have friends."
    • "I can't do anything right."
    • "I'm worthless."
    • "Others will always pick on me."
    • "I don't deserve to be happy."

  6. Have the children brainstorm traits of students with and without self-control. Put the answers on posters for future reference. This activity and the resulting posters serve to reinforce positive behaviors and support self-appraisal.

  7. To increase children's self-awareness and motivation have them think about their future and write or draw what they do well and what they want to be or do when they grow up. Have the students share their goals with the class.

  8. Teach calming exercises by practicing them together. Stop, take a deep breath, hold it to the count of five, exhale and then repeat, as needed. Also, ask the children to tense their bodies and count slowly to five, relaxing as they count. Provide a quiet place for an out-of-control child to calm him or herself.

Remember that teaching children self-control is an ongoing process. Be attentive to small accomplishments. Comment and encourage peers to notice when a child demonstrates self-control. If educators continually look for opportunities to help students gain control of themselves and stop inappropriate behaviors, they will be contributing to children's future success and to a positive school climate.

For further information on self-control, check out the new Kelly Bear violence prevention videos to be released in March of 2002: Kelly Bear Teaches About Bullying, Kelly Bear Teaches About Resolving Disputes, Kelly Bear Teaches About Self-Control. You can also read the following articles listed on the Kelly Bear Teacher/Counselor Tips page:


Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 12/01

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