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The Art of Teaching Self-Control

A few months ago, I missed my train from Delhi to Dehradun. I had to get back home that afternoon and there was no way I was willing to pay for either a flight or a taxi. So I worked up my courage and headed to the bus station.

I hate buses. I get motion sickness just thinking about them. The drivers on our route are reckless and crazy and they sound their horns incessantly. Many of the “Deluxe” buses treat passengers to Bollywood movies at top volume — with screens at intervals the length of the vehicle there is no escaping the raucous and often violent cacophony.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst part of the 7-hour journey from Delhi to Dehradun is that buses have no loos. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but the moment I find myself in a place where I can’t get to a toilet, I suddenly, desperately need to use one. I can’t read; I can’t listen to music; I can’t chat with my seatmate. All I can think about is how badly I need to pee.

On the train, with loos in every compartment, I find I never even think about them. I read my book; I do my writing; I make friends with the person in the next seat. I relax. I have options.

I thought about this phenomenon a few weeks ago while addressing an audience of young teachers about educational inclusion. My presentation was about adapting the curriculum for the children in their classrooms, about making it easy for children to behave properly and learn well. They had many questions, but one with which they all connected was about an 8-year-old boy who couldn’t sit still.

“The moment I call the class to order,” a teacher said, “Vikas starts to fidget. He interrupts, he bothers the other children and he disrupts the entire class. And he constantly asks to leave the room on some flimsy excuse or other. How do I handle him?”

And just like that, I remembered the bus journey to Dehradun. I thought about a little boy named Vikas who must enter his classroom every morning the same way I boarded that bus: dreading the whole time ahead of him, worrying about being confined, anxious about possibly needing to make a quick getaway, but not being allowed to do so.

Like me on the bus, Vikas couldn’t concentrate on his work. He couldn’t listen to his teacher. He couldn’t even enjoy being with his friends. All he could think about was getting away: in case his feelings got to be too much, in case the classroom suddenly felt overwhelming, in case he just needed to run.

If you have a child like Vikas — either in your family or in your class — what can you do to help him relax? How can you reassure him and give him a feeling of safety and calm? How can you help him achieve a sense of control both of himself and his environment?

All these questions went through my mind standing there on the stage, and suddenly, I had a flash of genius: Pretend the classroom is a train. Give Vikas a ticket to ride.

I suggested that his teacher take him aside before class one morning and have a little chat. Ask him what makes him so eager to move all the time, why he feels like he needs to interrupt other students who are working and why it’s important for him to keep leaving the room. Listen carefully to what he has to say and see if there is a simple solution to his problem. Ask him for his own ideas.

One of the easiest, most practical strategies in teaching self-control was to give Vikas a little power. We designed three tickets for him, which his teacher explained were each a “get out of class free” pass that was up to him to spend wisely. When he felt he really needed to go for a walk, he could simply place his ticket on the teacher’s desk and leave the room — no questions asked. He could use all three in the first 15 minutes if he wanted, but then there would be none left for the rest of the period.

  One of the easiest, most practical strategies in teaching self-control was to give Vikas a little power.

Over the next few weeks, what happened was remarkable. At first, Vikas splurged his capital, using all three tickets in rapid succession every day. He soon realised, however, that it made more sense to space them out and save them for when he might really need them.

By the end of the third week, he found, to his own surprise, that he could make it to the end of the class using only one of his precious passes. He had begun to learn the art of self-control.

A mistake parents and teachers often make, especially with children who have developmental disabilities, is over-management. Rather than teach them how to control their own behaviour, we try to control them from the outside by imposing rules and restrictions, which may work in the short-run but are ultimately self-defeating.

By putting the ball in Vikas’ court, we helped him to realise that it was up to him to decide how he behaved and that whatever consequences ensued were his to determine. Ultimately, he decided that he wanted to be a part of the class and that it was worth the effort to overcome the impulse to bolt.

He’s still working on his waiting skills. And he still keeps those tickets in his pocket — just in case.

6 Comments

  1. Gail Calandrella |

    Outstanding article! So insightful….taking a learning moment from your life and applying it to a student. As a behavior therapist for 15 plus years we have the tendency to ” fix” modify behaviors without including the person . WE have the solutions exclusively. Children and adults who have intellectual challenges need to be involved in the process of modifying behaviors. Way to go Jo!!!

  2. Kamala |

    What a lovely idea. In India, we tend to impose too many restrictions on children, especially at a tender age. This is such an ingenuous way to motivate them to delay gratification without the ensuing power struggle. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Ajanta Banerjee |

    Really it is so helpful please do right some for the babies of 3 to 4 years behavioural disorder and how to tackle their stubbornness.

  4. Sana bajia |

    Really appreciable way to teach a child the value of the chances he get in life as well n learn to use them wisely ..

  5. Jo chopra |

    Can this rule be used for a 3.5 years old child? Need help Jo.. my son is such a kind.. When we’d say sit still .. He just can’t..

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