By Chelsey Wilson

Eating one donut instead of five. Doing your homework before you play a video game. Taking a second to cool off before talking to your brother. These are all examples of self control. Teaching self control to kids can have many benefits, such as increasing their mental and physical health, improving relationships, and helping them to be better members of society.

Although it is clear that increase self control can lead to positive outcomes for students, many counselors are left asking 'yes, but how?' These 5 strategies for teaching self control to kids are great for helping your students understand what self control is, why it's important, and how they can practice it.

Talk About Self Control Explicitly

Like any skill, self control must be taught and practiced. Of course, it comes more easily to some children, but we can't expect students to automatically be able to control their feelings, actions and words. When teaching self control to kids, it's important to explicitly talk about it. Explain what self control is, why it's important, and give tangible examples of what self control looks like and what it doesn't look like. If you are looking for some great conversation starters about this topic, check out this set of 72 task cards.

Teach Students To Recognize Their Emotions

Many students lack self control skills because they don’t realize that their feelings are getting out of control. They become angry, excited, or frustrated without noticing it. Then, they act on those emotions without thinking clearly. When students can recognize their emotions before they become too intense, they are able to use coping skills to calm down. This helps them to stay in control of their feelings and actions, and actually be able to use the strategies we teach them.

Teach About Consequences

When teaching self control to kids, it's important to help them establish the habit of considering consequences. One of my favorite ways to do this is by using the book If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff. In this classic tale, a boy gives a mouse a cookie, unleashing a hysterical chain of events. This book is a great way to begin the conversation about the effects that our actions have.

After reading the book, I help students practice considering the consequences of their own actions by creating paper chains. I have each student come up with a decision they might have to make such as - whether or not to do their homework, or whether or not they should yell at a sibling. They then make a paper chain of effects for each choice. For example, they consider the chain of effects that may happen if they do choose to do their homework (get a good grade, feel proud, learn the skills, etc.) and then the chain of effects that may happen if they choose not to do their homework (get a bad grade, be behind in class, feel less confident about their skills, etc.) Helping students get into the habit of thinking about the effects of their choices is a key component of teaching self control.

Teach Replacement Behaviors

Another key strategy to teaching self control is by giving students replacement behaviors to use. If a student is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself in the hallways, suggest that she put her hands in her pockets. If a student continually blurts out in class, teach him how to click his tongue with his lips closed, or to fill his cheeks with air creating a 'bubble' in his mouth. Simply telling the student to stop doing the undesired behavior is not enough, we must teach them what to do instead.

Practice Self Control

Finally, like any skill, self-control comes with practice! Thankfully, there are many great games and activities out there to help students practice self control. Some of my favorites are Jenga, Red Light Green Light, and the marshmallow test. These are great games to play with students as you talk about self control strategies and the importance of self control.

The more we talk about and practice self control with our students, the easier it will be for them to use it. By explicitly talking about it, helping students understand the consequences of their actions, and practicing it, students will build self control habits that will benefit them in all aspects of life.


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