Self-control is an important skill for children and adults alike. It’s the ability that helps us pause, think, and then act to make a good choice. The beauty of self-control is that it is a skill we can strengthen through modeling, activities, games, and meaningful strategies. Whether children are in kindergarten or 4th grade, there are many activities we can use to build self-control skills.
There are actually different types of self-control, and understanding them can help us strengthen them with practice and supports.
- Impulse control – Being able to weigh options and make an informed choice.
- Emotional control – Being able to effectively manage feelings with different strategies.
- Physical control – Being able to control and management the movement of our bodies.
Here are some activities, games, and strategies to build self-control with your young learners:
Calming strategy practice
Calming strategies help us manage tough emotions and cope with daily challenges. The important point to remember about calming strategies is that kids need LOTS of practice with these skills. That’s because when we are overwhelmed or upset, we aren’t thinking clearly (and this is especially true for children). Those calming strategies need to be almost second nature if we want kids to use them when they really need them the most.
Spend just 5 or 10 minutes a day practicing some different calm-down strategies together: deep breathing, coloring, exercising, listening to music, reading, journal writing, and even talking about our feelings.
For this activity, have two students stand face-to-face. One student will be the leader. They can move their body any way they want. The other partner must “mirror” the image by copying exactly what they are doing. Students will be practicing self-control by staying engaged, focused, and following along.
Use modeling dough
Have students use modeling dough to write out the words “Stop, Think, Act.” Each time one of the words is put together, take time to talk about what it means and why it is important for self-control skills.
Read picture books
Read alouds are always a beneficial way to build social-emotional skills, including self-control. You can ultimately read any book and pause to discuss self-control in the story line. Get a free list of read alouds for social-emotional skills including self-control.
Here are a few books that best align with self-control skills as well:
- What If? by Colleen Doyle Bryant
- My Magic Breath by Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor
- A Little Spot of Patience by Diane Alber
- Breathe and Be by Kate Coombs
Stop and think
Provide a real-life situation. This could be a problem or a challenge your learners might encounter. Then, ask children to think about what they might do and why. Working through problem-solving scenarios is a great way to work on self-control skills because it’s providing practice with situations before children themselves actually have to deal with them in real life.
In other words, this is like doing a test-run with real-life scenarios. Children have to pause, think about the problem, come up with possible solutions, and share what the best choice might be.
Another benefit to problem-solving scenarios with a group is that children can learn from other children’s responses. Maybe if they don’t know exactly how to handle a situation, a friend or partner will.
Mindfulness is a self-regulation skill that helps us focus on the present moment and just be. This increases self-awareness of our thoughts and feelings while also building calm and self-control.
One strategy to try is getting outside for a nature walk. Have students use their senses to notice what they can see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.
Another technique is to have students sit in a comfortable position, close their eyes, and just breathe. You can play calming music when you give this one a try.
After practicing mindfulness, take time to talk about how it helps us feel calm and focused.
I love this activity! Have your students make their own paper airplanes. Then, have students stand in a line and count down from 10 (or whatever number you choose) before they are allowed to toss the airplane. The wait time allows for kids to build self-control as they wait their turn.
Ask an engaging question, but don’t accept responses right away. Have students hold their thought in their heads and give wait time. This allows all students a chance to think of a response, and it also builds self-control for those who are waiting and ready to share their thoughts.
You can play “Wait Time” as a game with high-interest questions, but you can also implement this as a strategy throughout the day as well.
Focusing on our breathing is one of the best calming strategies to build self-control. The idea behind mindful breathing is that if we can control our breathing, we can help lower our heart rate, relax our muscles, and calm our minds.
Snake Breathing – Imagine you are a snake. Slowly breathe in. Then, slowly breathe out with a hiss.
Balloon Breathing – Slowly breathe in. Breathe out like you are blowing up a balloon.
For this activity, have students dance as you play music. Let them know that once you yell, “Freeze!” students must stop and pause exactly as they are. You can let students know they can move again by shouting, “Melt!” Continue this several times.
Writing can be a meaningful way to build self-control skills while also learning important academic abilities at the same time. Provide a prompt on the board and say it out loud. Let students know that they should stop and think about what they are going to write before they get started. Give time for discussion. Then, allow students time to write!
Self-control prompts also can be another strategy for journal writing. Here are a few to try:
- What is your favorite calming strategy? How does it help you feel?
- Why is it important to stop and think before acting?
- Check in with yourself! How do you feel right now?
- Imagine you lose your pencil but the teacher said no talking. Stop and think: What can you do?
Blowing bubbles is a great self-control activity for a couple different reasons. For one, it builds mindful breathing techniques because you have to blow out slowly.
Another way to add self-control into bubble activities is to play “Don’t burst the bubbles.” Have students stand in a circle (outside is better for this since bubbles will be blown all around). One person in the middle will blow their bubbles all around. The other students must stand still and not burst any bubbles! After a few times, allow a different student to blow the bubbles.
Developing goals strengthen self-control skills over time. Work with your learners to come up with a task they want to accomplish in the short-term. A goal could be reading a book on their own, writing their own story, or learning to play soccer.
Have students write their goals (or draw a picture of them). Keep these in a special binder. Make it a point to review these goals in a month or so to check in on progress. It’s important for students to see that they can achieve their goals with hard work!
Integrate social skills and music with an activity called orchestra. For this activity, one person will start as the conductor of the orchestra. They can wave their hands very small to indicate that the orchestra should be playing quietly. They can make their hands big to encourage the orchestra to play loudly. Lastly, they can put their hands all the way down to completely silence the orchestra.
Pass out different instruments to your students, such as drums and triangles, but really anything will do! Have your students play their instruments and follow along with the conductor.
For this activity, one student can spend a certain period of time (5 or 10 minutes) sharing a story to the class. They have the floor! Self-control comes in where your other students should listen and wait their turn to ask a question or share.
In partners or groups, give students a scenario to act out together. Students must use self-control to stay in character, as they also think about the choices they are making in that scenario.
Build self-control and self-management skills with lessons and activities for K-2 learners. Learn more!
Nature brain break
In order to think our best, we all need breaks. Brain breaks are an excellent way to integrate strategies between tasks. Specifically, nature brain breaks add an extra element of calm and relaxation in the classroom.
Butterfly Breathing: Imagine you are a beautiful butterfly. Use your arms to pretend you are flapping your wings as you breathe in and out slowly.
Forest Visualization: Sit in a comfortable way. Close your eyes. Imagine that you are walking through a forest with trees all around you. Picture what you can feel, see, hear, taste, and smell.
Nature Walk: When you can, get outside! Take a nature walk and notice what you hear, smell, see, and feel.
A think aloud is the practice of saying what we are thinking in our heads out loud. This is an incredibly helpful self-regulation strategy for kids because it is modeling what we are doing and why.
Best of all, think alouds can be modeled anytime – math problems, reading comprehension activities, and even social skills like working well with others in a group.
A classic game, Simon Says builds self-control as students must stop and think about their actions before doing them. Explain to students that you will say phrases like, “Simon says touch your toes,” and “Simon says hop up and down.” They must follow along and complete those actions. At one point, you will just say a phrase like, “Pat your head.” Students should not follow along, since Simon didn’t say to do it!
Once you practice a few times with students, you can have a student become the leader.
Free play is a highly underrated strategy for strengthening self-control skills. In order for kids to truly apply self-control practices into their lives, they need to have the practice to do just that.
Before giving free play, it helps to give reminders about self-control, including how we must pause, think, and act with the best choice.
After your free play session, you can meet back together to discuss what good choices your students made.
Another way to boost self-control and self-regulation skills is through calm and mindful coloring. Play some calming music (instrumental or nature sounds work great!). Pass out coloring pages and have students color mindfully as they breathe in and out. Try a free set of mindfulness coloring pages to give this a try.
Draw what I draw
For this activity, students can draw on paper or on small whiteboards. Start by drawing up on the board. Go step-by-step so students can copy what you do. Once you are finished, allow students to share their creations. You can allow students to be the drawing leader as well.
In order to foster self-control skills with learners, we must also emphasize movement and exercise. Try a 10-minute exercise break between tasks with activities like jumping jacks, squats, high stepping, jogging in place, and stretches. Once your students get the idea, you can even select a leader to lead the group! This can be a great way to integrate leadership skills too.
Another suggestion is to head to YouTube and find a kid-friendly exercise routine. These can also be a great option, since you can play the video and just follow along.
Have students line up like a marching band. They can pretend to play the drums or other instruments as they march. One student will have to be the leader and their job is important! Allow students to march. After a minute or so, shout out, “Halt!” All students should stop marching and playing instruments. Have the leader head to the back of the line to allow a new leader. Then, continue.
Visual reminders help serve as important reminders for children. Use bulletin boards or posters in your classroom to remind students to stop, think, act, and reflect after making a choice.
Have one person stand in front of the group as the leader. The leader will do a short dance. Then, the others will try to copy that dance right back. Continue this a few times and then switch with a new leader.
Duck, duck, goose
Have students sit in a circle. As they sit, they need to wait patiently for their turn while also listening for their name to possibly be called. One student will go around tapping on the students heads and saying, “duck.” When they choose someone, they will tap their head and say, “goose.” That person will then get up and chase the other student until they can tag them.
You can also add a twist to this game by using words besides duck, duck, goose. For example, you might have students say, “blue blue green” if you are learning about colors, or anything else that works!