It’s not a fixed trait that you either possess or don’t. Self-control is more like the power in a rechargeable battery: it empties with usage, before replenishing when plugged in. One ingenious experiment showed this by getting university students to attempt some impossible geometry puzzles. However before the puzzles they sat in a waiting room, and on the table was a bowl of radishes, as well as a bowl of freshly-baked chocolate cookies. Some students were allowed the cookies. Others were instructed to resist the cookies and eat the radishes instead.
The cookie-eaters attempted the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes before giving up. The cookie-resisters only held out for 8 minutes. Resisting the cookies used up their self-control.
Stress depletes self-control.
This means that a salesman who was stuck in a traffic jam will be less able to deal with a tricky customer, or a parent with a wailing baby will be less able to deal calmly with an overly playful child. It also means that often we will face students whose self-control is already significantly depleted by the time we see them. This might be because it’s the end of the day, and Period 4 French used up the last bit; or it might be because home is a chaotic hothouse of stress at the moment, and there’s no space to recharge. Either way, their ability to make good decisions has been depleted.
Depleted self-control means poor behaviour.
The tragedy is that the students who most need to value each minute of their education are often those whose self-control has depleted the most. Yet they will be the least able to resist temptations and behave well. It’s not that they don’t have self-control – they’ve just used it all up.
Students need to bypass the self-control system.
There’s no way of fixing their depleted reserves of self-control. They need to bypass the decision-making system, the one that sets up two options and asks them to choose. This system demands self-control, and there’s none of that left.
Habit is the cheat that unlocks good behaviour.
When you act out of habit you don’t need to stop and think, or to weigh up options and make a decision. You just act. Habits are driven by a different part of the brain (they’re tucked away in the basal ganglia, just above the top of the brain stem), and by a different neurological system. If students behave out of habit, then depleting self-control stops being a problem.
Habits are formed of cues, routines, and rewards.
Charles Duhigg’s book, the Power of Habit, teaches us about the habit loop. He says that every habit starts with a cue from the environment, is followed by a routine of behaviour, and culminates in a reward for completion.
For example, a habit of entering the classroom might begin with a cue of being greeted at the door by your teacher, followed by a routine of fetching your folder and immediately beginning the Do Now, and then finished with a reward of being verbally recognised and of completing the first task successfully. A student could choose to do this by using up self-control, or they could launch into autopilot as soon as they are greeted at the door – when habit kicks in and takes over.
The 1 Big Secret to good behaviour is to build habits.
In all schools, but particularly the most challenging, students will come to you with their self-control depleted. They will choose a course of bad behaviour, unless they have a habit of good behaviour that takes over. But there is no one habit called good behaviour – it’s a set of lots of small habits that deal with different cues.
One type of habit is the classroom routine.
Unless you work in an exceptionally well-organised school, you build this yourself. Decide the routine you want the class to have, then decide on a simple and clear cue as well as an appropriate reward. Once established, this habit will make sure your students perform standard tasks just as you wish, regardless of their self-control situation at that time.
Another is the ‘coping strategy’.
Because school isn’t all about predictable situations, students need habits that give them routines for the unexpected. A classic example is ‘counting to ten’ (cue = anger, routine = stop and count to ten, reward = increased calm/reduced risk of regretting a rash action). These are harder to design and teach, particularly for the lone teacher. However if done well they are the most transferable habits, and most useful for students’ futures.
Self-control depletes, habit rescues.
The more stressful situations a student has been through, or difficult decisions they’ve had to make, the lower their self-control will be. This makes it harder for them to behave well if relying on them to make good choices. It is this phenomenon that lies behind much bad behaviour. Habit can rescue students from this problem. It takes over their behaviour, avoiding the need for delayed gratification or tough decisions. If the right habits are in place, depleted self-control is no longer a problem.
How to build habits of good behaviour – coming soon…
Next week’s blog will be on building habits for classroom routines. Then in the coming weeks I’ll cover some different behaviour habits for more general situations, to help students around school and outside of it.
For more reading:
- It Captures Your Mind – an inspirational NY Book Review on how poverty depletes self-control.
- Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue? – a NY Times article about how decision-making depletes self-control.
- The Power of Self-Control – an interview with Roy Baumeister, who pioneered much of this research and conducted the radish/cookie study.