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Classroom Management, Uncategorized   |   Feb 10, 2011

The X factor: self-control

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Picture it: Sicily, 1948. Okay, I’m not Sophia from The Golden Girls, but I do want you to picture a certain time and place so I can ramble a bit and demonstrate an important lesson. The scene: two middle schools within a few blocks of each other in the same Bronx neighborhood in New York City.

The stairwells at School A are littered with trash and students race down them at dismissal, yelling profanities and occasionally stopping to urinate in the corner.  Teachers struggle to get through a lesson in School A. Every few minutes, several students spontaneously burst out in off-color song or rap, stomping on the floors, thumping pencils and books, and dancing…in the middle of what should have been an engaging, collaborative, technology-infused, hands-on activity. They shout random insults to one another and conduct loud conversations across the room as the teacher darts around, trying in vain to focus the class. When corrected for their disruptive behavior, a riotous chorus of protests erupts. “I ain’t say nuthin! You always picking on me! Man! I ain’t do nuthin to nobody!” Anyone who works at School A will tell you the kids are out of control.

Five blocks away in School B’s stairwell, the middle schoolers file wordlessly into their classroom as the bell rings, the girls in plaid knee-length skirts and the boys in dress pants. They sit down immediately in the desks arranged in neat rows and listen for directions. The teacher sits at her desk and instructs the kids to take out a textbook and answer questions from it. Every student in the room does exactly this for forty-five minutes. The teacher addresses ‘misbehavior’ with a sharp look and firm directive: “Are you talking? This is independent work. Be quiet. And tuck your shirt in.” The students accept correction without as much as an eye roll. Penmanship is of equal importance as the content; messy papers with incorrect headings are trashed. Students use rulers to make chart lines straight and erase mistakes unprompted until their papers look perfect. At the end of the day, 100 middle schoolers walk in complete and total silence down six flights of stairs, a single teacher leading the way.

I assure you that School A and School B are each a sight to behold for their own unique reasons. And beheld them I have, because I’ve worked in both. These descriptions are no exaggeration; they show exactly what I experienced each time I stepped inside their doors.


Which school embraces better pedagogy? Which school is trying to train students to be 21st century global citizens? Undoubtedly School A (a public school under the DOE’s control) has embraced the latest educational trends. But there is no learning taking place because of student behavior. School B, which is a private Catholic institution, still embraces instructional methods from the 1950’s…but the learning environment is orderly.

The students in School B outperform the students in School A by double digits in every subject area. And that’s with large class sizes, a total lack of technology (even overhead projectors are unheard of), and few best teaching practices in place.There’s nothing innovative about School B: just worksheets and textbooks and round robin whole-group reading.

Which school would YOU say is more effective? I believe it’s School B, not just because of test scores, but because it produces students who have the ability to demonstrate self-control. This is the “X factor” that the Powers That Be refuse to acknowledge: students with the self-discipline to apply themselves to their school work will usually be successful despite the type or quality of education they receive.

You cannot learn unless you can discipline yourself to sit still, pay attention, read, converse respectfully, concentrate, THINK. And teachers all across America are shouting from the rooftops that most of our students aren’t demonstrating those basic, fundamental skills. Our achievement levels are being compared to Asian countries in which respect, compliance, and the good of the group are valued within the culture. No new DOE-sanctioned curriculum map or standards or ten-point rubric will fix that discrepancy.

So how do we instill self-control in our students? Do we need a complex set of lesson plans and activities, or a systemic movement to change the popular culture and home environments of our students? Both sound complicated and time-consuming. Let’s just start with classroom management. Let’s train students in routines and procedures that support positive learning habits.

Classroom management has been, and will always be, one of my top priorities. Not everyone understands this, especially when there’s so much testing pressure and so many competing agendas. Why do I insist on total quiet when I take my class to lunch? Why do I take the time to model and practice and reinforce clean desk procedures over and over? Why do I wait for every student to have their hands folded before I give directions? Why do I create routines for the classroom library that ensure every student has exactly five books in their reading boxes and every book is returned to the correct genre bin with front cover facing out, right-side up?

Because I want them to develop self-control. I’m teaching them to value the qualities of being detail-oriented, disciplined, orderly, and respectful of everything and everyone in their learning environment. The whole premise of The Cornerstone classroom management is to construct a self-running classroom that frees the teacher to teach. Self-running means the students are able to manage their own learning routines without constant direction from a teacher. I don’t want to control students; I want to train them how to control themselves.

I don’t buy the argument that teaching self-control will produce students who are better prepared for a rote-type factory job than a complex 21st century career in innovative fields. Why are people worried that expecting students to conform to teacher expectations will somehow produce robotic learners who obey every command without critical thought?  We are in no danger of producing a generation of students who wait mindlessly for directions and do exactly what they’re told. In fact, we’re faced with the exact opposite: children who cannot function under any sort of formal structure or authority at all. School B is far from the typical American reality; most children simply do not exert the self-discipline needed to learn, and teachers are not empowered with the tools and time needed to help them.

Sometimes this perspective makes me feel old-school, so I’m glad to see self-control leading some of the headlines this week. Let’s hope this starts a push toward getting students not only to innovate and collaborate, but to control themselves.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I am so happy to read this blog post today. I sometimes feel that I am very old school myself because of my classroom management skills. I expect my students to be quiet in the hall and have procedures for lining up, walking in the hall, etc. They are only first graders, but I feel self-discipline needs to begin early. Thank you for letting me know that my methods are not so old school!

    Teresa Williams

    1. Hi, Teresa! I’m glad this was encouraging. I think it’s high time for an old school backlash because the ’21st century’ approach is seriously lacking in common sense. Teachers need permission to teach their students to respect authority and do what they’re supposed to do (rather than what they feel like doing.) Giving teachers support in this area would make a world of difference in how much our students learn.

  2. Angela,
    This is a great post and a reminder that we really need to help our students become more self sufficient. I really needed that reminder today. I too insist that mine line is quiet and walking nicely despite the fact that even the principal does not feel that is completely neccessary.
    I find that when my students are walking with their hands behind their backs or in the pockets, lips zipped(or a bubble), and eyes facing forward they are more focused, better able to stay together, and we get where we need faster. Efficiency is key. It minimizes wasted time getting from point a to point b and prevents any of my students from getting injured, one of our 4 PBS expectations. 🙂 (Be Safe)

    1. Hi, Amanda! I used to look at classroom management primarily in terms of efficiency, too–exactly the way you see it. That’s a strong enough reason to justify things like walking quietly in the hall. And now recently I’ve been thinking more and more about how much it also benefits the students in terms of instilling good character and responsibility. It’s such a win-win. Keep up the great work with your students! 🙂

  3. You are so right. Self-control is the center of all behavior in the classroom. Since I have been subbing it is apparent to me that the good teachers model and make very clear the expectations for exercising self-control. I think it’s absolutely essential that children are taught how to exercise such self-control in AND out of the classroom. How many teachers really take time to ‘teach’/model/re-teach/re-model the appropriate behavior for when their students spend 40 minutes with their specials teacher, or when they meet a new teacher (i.e. me, the sub!). How many teachers set aside some time to prep their kids when they know they are going to be out? I know this is not always possible, (when an unexpected absence occurs for example) but it really surprises me when I am booked to sub at least a week in advance and the kids in the class are surprised to see me. I’m thinking of a class I had recently. We had a day of pencil tapping, leaving seats without permission, yelling at me, yelling at each other, angry outbursts, accusations of copying and stealing. This was a first grade class!
    How is self-control exercised when there is a visitor in the class? I used to talk to my class about this a lot; about the importance of ‘first impressions’, about establishing a good reputation not just as individuals but as a class community. I had them ‘rehearse’ how to greet the principal when he walked into our classroom. We talked a lot about manners in and around the school. I didn’t have the perfect class but I never forgot about the importance of all of these factors and my role as a teacher in this process. And you are so spot-on in your points about classroom management and maintaining an organized classroom.
    I feel now that many teachers and staff ‘blame’ ADHD/ADD for lack of self-control in *many* of their students. But what strategies are they giving these kids? How are they helping them develop some of the basic skills for self-control? Your post is great, this is such an important topic.

    1. Hi, Becky! I love hearing your perspective as a substitute teacher. I’m sure you COULD write a book on the things you’ve seen–maybe you should start an anonymous blog?

      I hate to blame students’ lack of self control on the teacher, but you’re totally right that in many cases, teachers are not teaching kids the strategies they need to be successful. Obviously the parents need to be doing this first and foremost, so that we teachers can just refine the expectations for an educational setting.

  4. Hi Angela–

    First of all, I am long time reader of your website, but this is the first time I have felt moved to contribute! For the first 8 years of my teaching career I taught integrated dance in public (mostly Title 1) elementary schools. Now I teach in a general education 2nd grade. When you teach dance (or any other movement-based subject, for that matter), control is an absolute necessity or someone will get hurt. Being that keeping students safe is my number 1 priority, I actually wrote my rules to be reflected as the folllowing “controls”:
    I will be in control of my voice,
    I will be in control of my body,
    I will be in control of my space,
    I will be in control of my equipment,
    I will be in control of my kindness.

    Although, I teach in the regular setting now, I still keep these controls as the basis for my classroom management. But like you and the other posters, I don’t just have the “controls”, I also have to teach the kids what does “control” look like. Is it shouting out when it’s not your turn, getting into someone else’s personal space, or playing with the math manipulatives when I am teaching?
    Once I model what “control” looks like and the students practice and practice some more, generally all I have to do now is ask, “Are you in control?” and usually that does that trick.

    Thanks Angela so much for your thought-provoking blogs!

    1. Hi, Katie! Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your words really made me think about how empowering the idea of self-control is for children. They don’t want to be controlled by us anymore than we want to control them! Showing them how THEY can control their voices, their bodies, their spaces, their equipment, their kindness…just beautiful! I love the idea of asking “Are you in control?” This is a great positive spin on the concept of self-discipline.

  5. I hope it didn’t sound like I was blaming teachers for everything. And I also know that there are times when as a teacher you can prepare your kids really well and they will sometimes let you down. I know that my classes did from time to time, and I would end up devastated if I got negative feedback.
    It is definitely a partnership between home and school…however at my last school there was minimal parental involvement. There WERE some great parents, but they were in the minority. So the pressure was really on us to provide good role models. I love Katie’s ‘Control’ rules. These make class rules more explicit and could really help kids think about the nature of taking responsibility for their actions.

    1. Not at all, Becky! I think it’s helpful to examine our roles as teachers in this matter, rather than just lamenting “kids are out of control, parents don’t do their jobs.”

      Regarding the whole substitute teacher thing: the last 2 years I was in the classroom, I found that my students were absolutely terrible for subs. There were a handful of kids in each of those classes that were just maniacs when I wasn’t around: disrespectful and even violent. The same problem happened at lunch, recess, special classes–anytime I wasn’t there. I used to dread coming back to school after being out because I knew the report wouldn’t be good. I tried all sorts of methods to encourage and even outright bribe the kids to behave when I wasn’t around, but for some of them, it just didn’t work. Very frustrating and I always pitied my subs.

      Expecting students to demonstrate the same level of self-control with a stranger as they do with their regular teacher is sometimes unreasonable. I wish it weren’t that way, but for some extreme cases, the classroom teacher is the only thing preventing a troubled child from acting out. Tough stuff.

  6. Funny you should write about this now. I’m currently teaching a grade 7 class that is part of a cohort of 5 classes, all of which seem to actively work against the idea of letting procedures become automatic. My class is sitting here as I type, having begun their silent reading. Beginning in September, part of their morning routine on arrival is to get their reading logs and books from the class bookshelf. Even though for the first weeks I would do spontaneous checks and award points to their English grade for being prepared, only about 20% of the class will now automatically get their supplies in the morning (despite still awarding points for spot checks). Perhaps I am in the minority with so many students refusing to learn procedures and follow them – the example I gave is one of many I could have – but somehow I don’t think so.

    So my question is this:
    Any suggestions for a class of stubborn students for whom procedures, homework and even grades are just ‘too much effort’ and seem to prefer being bossed around.?

    1. Hi, Anna! I think what you’re experiencing is extremely common. In my book, I refer to this phenomenon as “a slow descent into laziness.” The teacher stops modeling, practicing, and reinforcing the expectations as often because she feels the students should know what to do after a certain point. The students read this as “My teacher must not really care anymore about whether I’m maintaining my reading log, because she hardly ever checks it now. I don’t need to put forth the same effort.” It’s a cycle that we fall into very naturally in the classroom, and fortunately, it’s one that can be easily rectified.

      I’d recommend drawing students’ attention to the matter and doing more procedure practice/reinforcement. The spot checks are good–up the ante a bit if needed. Distribute additional reinforcers randomly; maybe jot down the names of the kids who get their supplies right away on a particular morning, and then call them over to your desk in a group. Thank them for doing the right thing without being reminded and give them a few free minutes on the computer or a homework pass or something. This sort of thing rewards the kids who always do the right thing and get less attention because of it, and provides motivation for the sometimes-do-the-right-thing kids to step it up a little bit.

      Don’t get discouraged. This is the type of thing you’ll need to do alllll school year to varying degrees. Stay on top of the situation and I think you’ll see improvement. It’s a battle worth fighting, for sure–you’re teaching your students great work habits!

      1. Angela – Thanks for the advice. I think upping the ante is especially important now for two reasons: 1) it’s nearing spring and things always go nuts then and b) the kids are now only a few months shy of being “ready” for eighth grade!

        I’ll try the homework pass idea – perhaps that’s what will motivate them to do some things…including other homework!

  7. I’ve been in both environments and left a “School A” last year because I just couldn’t take it anymore. The “powers that be” just don’t get it. You really can’t force children who don’t care about school or learning to sit down and learn.

    I am in the same district this year but a new school and it’s world’s different from a year ago. I don’t have a classroom of saints or anything but most of my children are respectful and responsible. Just today I told my students how embarrassed I was to have the other 5th grade class walking behind us because they were so loud and rude and I didn’t want people to think that was US (because it wasn’t). I love my teaching partner (she was my co-op teacher) but I am very firm in my management because I’ve definitely seen the other side and refuse to let my students behave that way. It sucks that we have to be responsible for teaching manners but it often doesn’t come from the homes and I figure if I don’t model and show them what I want, I can’t expect them to do it!

    1. Hi, Sunny! It’s amazing how different your teaching experience can be from one school to another, right?

      I think the key point you shared is that “If I don’t model and show them what I want, I can’t expect them to do it!” I agree that it’s unfortunate that kids may not come to school with qualities of self-control and respectfulness, but children do behave in different ways with different people. As I shared in my response to Becky, I trained my kids to act right when they were with me, but had a hard time getting that skill to transfer to situations with substitutes and other times where I wasn’t around. Some of the stuff kids try with certain teachers in school wouldn’t fly at home, but kids do it because they think they can get away with it in a different environment. It really is up to us as teachers to create expectations for our own classrooms and model, practice, and reinforce them.

  8. Well said Angela! I went to workshop the other day on Global Awareness and 21st Century Skills and the presenter shared a lot of information that compares US students to Asian students and students in other countries. Having traveled to India myself, I can say that respect and immediate compliance are demanded of students there and teachers are highly revered as an authority. Not so much the same in our schools here. Which is why I’ve loved reading The Cornerstone and implementing your ideas in my classroom. While my county’s standards based grading system may not require that I grade students on respectfulness, cleanliness, working with others, etc I know that my students learning environment would be affected WAY too much if I didn’t take the time to teach and continuously model these things over and over again.

    1. Hi, Julie! I think more emphasis should be given to cultural norms when comparing achievement across nations. In China, for example, classrooms often have 50 students sitting in rows; the teacher lectures with no differentiation and students are responsible for learning the information. It’s completely the opposite here where teachers are responsible for presenting content for 100 different learning styles and preferences until the child finally gets it, with no mention of the fact that some kids put forth zero effort and don’t want to get it. Excellence and self-discipline are part of the culture in China; comfort and convenience are part of the culture in America. It’s apples and oranges.

      You make a good point about respect, cleanliness, etc. not being in the standards. In some places they actually are, but aren’t tested, so that’s almost the equivalent of not being there at all. Part of me fears that too much clamoring about the need for teaching self-control will cause it to be regulated and mandated as part of a regimented program just as it has happened for academic subjects. I’m not sure what’s worse–the fact the school boards don’t value it, or the fact that when they value something, they legislate it to death.

  9. The only thing I would add, since I agree with everything in this post, is that for it to work the best, it needs to be schoolwide in nature. I have some little darlings in my kindergarten class that really resist the structure, the routines, and the procedures of my class. Without support from administration, it can be difficult. I find myself getting bogged down in the day to day aspects of teaching 30 5-6 year olds and forget some of basics.

  10. I feel like there are some very important socioeconomic differences between a public school and catholic private school that are not being address in this article. The reasons for differences in behavior are simply not as black and white as have been presented here. I think if the socioeconomic stats for both of these schools were provided, we might see some big differences between school A and school B. Self control is important, but home life, finical stability, familial support, and perhaps most importantly- the overall cultural about how the students feel about school and the role it should play in their lives- are also very important factors beyond self control.

    1. Hi, Katie! Socioeconomics are important, but these two schools were within blocks of each other. Both have high poverty rates with nearly identical student populations. The students in the Catholic school were primarily there on scholarships. It could be argued, however, that the parents of the kids in the Catholic school reached out for scholarship opportunities for their kids, and therefore were more involved and supportive of their kids’ education.

    2. I agree, but I also don’t think that being poor forces a person to behave a certain way, and neither does being rich. I have seen plenty of “rich” kids at good private school act very similar to the kids at school A, feeling as if they were entitled to whatever they wanted and undermining the value of education because they had money. Conversely, I have also seen many “poor” kids at public schools behave themselves wonderfully and go on to be quite successful in academics and life. It’s not always a matter of how much money you have, or how wonderful (or not) your living conditions are. I believe it’s a matter of what’s expected of a person, both at home (major important) and at school. Discipline, which teaches self-control, is key in both places.

      1. Absolutely, Heather! The fact that I saw both well-disciplined students AND out-of-control kids within the same high-poverty neighborhood speaks exactly to your point. All students, regardless of socio-economic status, need to be taught the importance of self-discipline.

  11. I hear ya! As a teacher myself, it is so hard to teach when kids are disruptive. I too, try to instill self-control in my students by making them follow my classroom procedures. Each year, I learn a little bit more about what that means. And it DOES work… I personally believe that children want that structure, want those boundaries, want the safety of knowing “This is what is expected of me, this is what is not acceptable.” I believe it makes them feel safe, and sometimes, may be the only structured environment they’ve ever been in. And, I also believe that they know that I care about them, because I don’t let them do whatever they want, and I have high expectations for them.

  12. I just ordered and received your ebook “The Cornerstone”. I have been trying to set procedures and teach my second graders self-control but it has been a very slow and at time frustrating process this year. I am very much looking forward to reading your book and trying some new ideas. I have tried more with this group than any other group I’ve worked with in 12 years. There are always one or two who have difficulty remembering but this year I have more like 10-12 that are having difficulty. Looking forward to learning.

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