Self-control is the ability to stop and think before we act. The truth is that we use self-control all the time, from choosing to say kind words to deciding when to start a chore. Ultimately, strong self-control skills can help kids and teens make good decisions now and in the future.
While self-control is an important skill for all of us, this is an especially important topic for middle school kids. Scientifically, the emotions part of their brain is developing more quickly than the thinking part of their brains. What this means is that teens are more likely to act impulsively based on their feelings, rather than thinking through a situation. The good news is that we can teach this skills with practice.
Kids and young adults can learn and build strategies to help them strengthen their self-control skills over time. Here are a few lessons, activities, and games to try with your middle school learners:
After posing a question for discussion in class, give solid wait time. This serves a few different purposes. For one, this gives more students a chance to stop and think about their answer (even if they don’t actually raise their hand). Also, the students who want to share out their response are required to take a little more time to wait and develop patience.
This is certainly a more challenging activity for some students than others. For students who struggle with waiting to share, consider adding interventions like having them write down their response in a journal.
Part of self-control is learning to inhibit responses to help make a better choice. For this activity, incorporate some type of high-interest physical activity. For example, you can have students make paper airplanes. Have students stand at a line with their paper airplanes to race. Countdown from 10 with students. The idea is that students must wait until the countdown is over before letting their paper airplane fly. You can continue this again and again, and you can integrate other movement activities as well such as tossing a ball or running.
Hit the Pause Button
A big part of self-control is learning how to pause before we respond. This is especially challenging for children and teens with growing minds.
For this “hit the pause button” activity, teach students that they can use strategies pause their brains instead of reacting on their first impulse. Come with strategies for your learners to “hit the pause button.” You might distract yourself with a certain phrase or start thinking of something you are grateful for. You might also calm yourself with taking deep breaths or picturing a happy place. It’s important to mention that each child’s list might be a little difference, and that’s okay! It’s important to find the strategies that best work for you as an individual.
Coping Strategy Practice
Coping strategies are the activities we use to relax our bodies and minds. Learning healthy calming strategies is essential to building self-control, but the magic is actually practicing them. That’s because when kids are upset or overwhelmed in the moment, they are not going to think their best; They can’t think clearly at all! If we want kids and teens to use their coping strategies, they have to be practiced to the point where they are second nature (and this takes a lot of practice).
Choose different coping strategies to try on different days, from mindful coloring to listening to music.
Routines are a long-term strategy for self-control. Ultimately, strong routines and healthy habits are where the magic is! The idea is that once an activity is a solid routine, we need less mental energy and self-control skills to complete it. For example, if starting homework right away once you get home from school is part of your routine, it’s just what you do; you don’t need to convince yourself to get started. It’s just your daily routine.
With that said, developing routines and healthy habits takes time and planning.
Talk about routines in the classroom, such as steps for turning in homework or what to do when you’re out sick for a day. You can also come up with routines together for getting ready for school in the morning, organizing materials, and starting homework at home.
Real-life situations can be a great self-control learning tool for kids and young adults. These scenarios can give practice thinking through challenges before kids actually experience them. Also, scenarios lend themselves to group conversations. So often, kids learn best from other kids.
Self-control scenario: You see a balloon in the hallway on someone’s locker and want to pop it. What might you do? In this situation, students might talk about having the urge to want to pop the balloon at first. However, if we pause and think, we can consider that this probably would be mean to whose birthday it was. It’s better just to walk by.
Use a whole set of self-control scenarios or come up with your own situations to discuss. These can be a lot of fun as students discuss and learn together! You can integrate writing by turning these into writing prompts.
Practicing mindfulness can be a great way to build self-regulation and self-control skills over time. To get started, explain to students that they will be practicing mindfulness. This is a technique that helps us build awareness without reacting. We are learning to notice our surroundings and just breathe for a moment.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness but one simple way is a mindfulness 5-4-3-2-1 check-in. Have students take 5 deep breaths, list 4 things they can see or notice, identify 3 things they are grateful for, say 2 positive self-talk phrases, and name one thing they are looking forward to today.
Think It – Say It
Sometimes the first things we think aren’t necessarily the best things to say! Part of self-control is developing a social filter that helps us make good choices for what we say out loud.
For this activity, give an example of a situation. Have students brainstorm what they might think in their heads and then share what they might actually say. One good example is being put with a partner you don’t really like. At first, you might think, “I don’t want to work with them.” Of course, we know that would hurt someone’s feelings and it’s not really a helpful comment. So, instead, we might say, “Hi, let’s work our best together,” or you might say nothing at all and just get started.
Have students come up with their own scenarios and thoughts to discuss.
Read alouds can help teach all sorts of social-emotional skills, including self-control. Something important to mention is that read alouds are not only for young kids! Even older kids can enjoy a read aloud and learn a lesson through the story. A few favorite books to choose from include:
- Breathe and Be by Kate Coombs
- My Magical Choices by Becky Cummings
- My Magic Breath by Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor
- Sammy the Self-Control Skunk by Pathway 2 Success
Shout It Out
There are many self-control games you can use to teach and practice self-control skills! These can be memorable and engaging. Before playing, take a few moments to talk about self-control and how it applies to the game you’re playing.
Here’s one to try called Shout it Out. Have a set of questions (these can even be related to your current academic content). Have two students go face-to-face to answer the trivia question first. The key here is that only those two students can shout out the answer. All the others in class must have self-control and keep it to themselves, even if they know the answer.
Working through problem situations is always a great way to boost self-control skills. Provide a situation and ask students to brainstorm what they might do and why. Here’s an example to try: Anita is in a science group with a few friends from class. She realizes she’s the only one doing the work. Anita feels frustrated. What is the problem? What can she do? What advice would you give her?
Working through problem-solving situations provides practice in real-life challenges kids and teens might encounter. At that same, it builds our abilities to stop, think, and consider our options to make a great choice.
If you have just a few minutes left in class, you can try playing an old favorite game. First, let your students know that Simon Says builds self-control and attention skills. Have students stand in a circle (or stand up at their desks). While standing in the center, repeat actions such as, “Simon says touch your toes,” and “Simon says pat your head.” At one point, you will give an action without Simon, such as, “Hop up and down.” Students who did that would then have to sit down, and the game continues until only one person remains.
Think alouds help kids and young adults see into our own thinking and how we solve problems. The best part is that think alouds can be easily sprinkled throughout the day.
Develop Goals and Track Progress
Build self-control for the long-term using goals. Simply put, goal-setting is an important self-management skill necessary for success. Have students come up with their own goals over short or long periods of time. Write these down and come up with a few actionable steps to get there. Come back and review goals on a regular basis (once a week or month) to stay on track.
Developing emotional control requires practice. One important point to share with middle school learners is that research shows that just naming our emotions can reduce the intensity of those very feelings. This makes a very good case for learning to check in with yourself and sharing how you feel.
Use an emotions check-in to help students identify how they’re feeling and what they might need to help them move forward for the day.
Brainteaser of the Day
One component of self-control is being able to wait and have patience. For this activity, students will be practicing just that!
Provide a daily brainteaser posted up on the board. The important point here is to not give the answer! Let students think about it and even try to solve it on their own. At the end of the day, you can return to the brainteaser and discuss the answer together.
Mindful breathing is a technique that helps us focus on our inhales and exhales in the present moment. This self-regulation strategy can help reduce stress, build self-awareness, improve focus, and strengthen abilities for self-control.
Cool Off the Pizza Breathing – Have students imagine there is a hot slice of their favorite pizza in front of them. Slowly breathe in to smell the pizza aroma. Then, breathe out to cool the pizza down. Try this a few times.
Shape Breathing – Have students draw any shape on a piece of paper or on the board. Have them trace the shape with their finger or pencil. For each line, breathe in and breathe out slowly.
Self-regulation is not an endless resource; it requires breaks and students need to know this! Practice taking a break between tasks with engaging brain breaks. There are many different brain breaks to choose from.
One is try is Mindful Observance. Pick an object near you. This can be any object. Just pause and notice it. Focus all of your attention on this one object. Observe what it looks like, how it moves, what shapes it has, and how it makes you feel.
Integrate journal writing and self-control by providing a prompt and letting students share their ideas. After writing, give time for kids to share and learn together.
- Would you rather calm down with deep breathing or going for a jog? Why?
- Imagine you get to school and realize you have a pop quiz. You don’t feel prepared. What is the problem? What can you do?
- Stop and think: You are assigned to work with someone you don’t really get along with. What can you do?
An all-time favorite game, Jenga serves as a meaningful way to talk about and practice self-control with kids and teens. Students must stop and think about which wooden piece they will remove. They also have to use movement control to slowly remove the piece without toppling over the tower.
Movement and exercise boost self-control skills. You can add movement with activities like brain breaks between challenging tasks. Movement can also be integrated right into the class, from having kids get up to work at different centers around the room to doing jumping jacks while reciting vocabulary.
More Self-Control Activities
If you’re ready to help your students boost their self-control skills, start them off with these Self-Control Lessons and Activities. I like to think of them as a “self-control boot camp.” They include engaging activities to teach skills to pause, think, and make the right choice in the moment.