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Teaching Strategies to Improve Student Self-Discipline

Janelle Cox

The number-one trait needed to accomplish your goals in life is to have self-discipline. Self-discipline is a learned behavior that not every student has. The ability for a student to be able to monitor and control her own behavior is a concept that many teachers would love their students to have, but unfortunately not all of them do. For the students that do have a strong sense of self-discipline, studies show that they outrank their peers in terms of academic performance. In fact, students with high self-discipline are also known to behave differently, have fewer absences, and do more homework than that of their less-disciplined peers. Self-discipline is not only found to be related to a student’s academic success, but to their behavior as well. One study found that students with a high level of self-discipline were less likely to have behavioral problems in school, as well as lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse. In order to improve your students’ self-discipline it will require some repetitive practice via teaching strategies. Here are a few teaching strategies to help your students improve their self-control, so they will make better choices and not emotional ones.

Teaching Strategies that Reward Self-Control

Create a classroom environment that will reward self-control. You may have heard about a study where children were given the option to have one treat right away or two treats later. The children who opted to wait for the two treats were later found to have performed better on achievement tests as well as were less likely to abuse substances. Therefore, their willingness to wait depended upon how they weighed the benefits. When students have a reason to distrust the promise for a future prize, they will opt for instant gratification. By creating a classroom that is trusting, and rewards self-control, you can help your students develop self-discipline.

Practice Self-Control

One way to practice self-control is to go against the rules. For example, one study wanted to test students’ ability to self-regulate, which would mean they would have to go against what they know. The researchers took a group of preschoolers, both self-disciplined and not, and had them play the game “Red Light, Green Light.” In the normal version of the game, the students would run on green and stop on red. For the study, they changed the rules and asked the students to do the opposite, run on red and stop on green. What they found was the students who were already self-disciplined had not changed their behavior, but the students who did not have any self-control beforehand had now gotten better. By playing games that go against the rules, students who do not know how to self-regulate will learn to gain more self-control.

Take a Brain Break

Teachers use brain breaks for many reasons, mainly to help calm their students down after recess or during transitions. Brain breaks can also help students recharge and refocus in between tasks and help to break up the monotony of the day. When students are going from one task to another, it can be hard for them to keep their self-control. When you give them a brain break, you are giving them the ability to recharge and refocus their minds. Try opting for a quick brain break in between each lesson and activity. They only have to be from 2-5 minutes in length for students to gain the benefits. Studies also show that the shorter your lessons are, the better students will be able to self-regulate.

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Develop Students’ Working Memory

Your working memory is the information that you hold in your brain. It is where you temporarily keep information for a short amount of time. Students who have trouble staying on task and are easily distracted often lack self-discipline. By helping students improve their working memory skills, you can help them pay attention and develop self-control. Try playing brain games like Memory, or word recall where students have to recall the words or pictures that they were just shown. Another fun game is to have students take turns drawing something, then cover it up to see if their partner can recall what they just drew. By simply playing these games a few minutes a day, you can significantly impact your students’ working memory and self-control.

Practice Planning Ahead

Have you ever noticed that when you plan ahead for something like vacation that you are more likely to do it? For example, let’s say that you are planning a family vacation, so you write down everything that you will need to get, and when you need to get it. Did you notice that you were probably more likely to get it done because you planned ahead for it? Planning ahead is an important part of being self-disciplined. Try having students plan ahead for a test, lesson, project, field trip, or class party. The more they are invested in what they are doing, the more likely they will have the self-discipline to do it.

Teaching self-discipline can be achieved. With a little practice and patience, your students can improve their self-control and lead a better life where they are in control themselves, and not led by their emotional choices.

Do you teach self-discipline strategies in your classroom? What kinds of teaching strategies do you use? Please share your tips and ideas in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.


Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds master's of science in education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com, TeachHUB Magazine, and Skyword. She was also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators, or contact her at Janellecox78@yahoo.com.