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Teaching Self-Control:
A Curriculum for Responsible Behavior

Martin Henley has created a curriculum for teaching students the self-control skills they need to control impulses, manage group situations, and adapt to school routines. The Teaching Self-Control curriculum includes role-plays, simulations, learning center activities, and children's literature that can be used to teach those skills. Included: Twenty self-control skills all children need.

Dr. Martin Henley

Years ago, students learned self-control at home; today, most teachers recognize that they play a large role in developing students' social skills, sense of responsibility, cooperative learning skills, and organizational abilities. Developing those skills -- and many more -- is the focus of Martin Henley's newly published curriculum, Teaching Self-Control: A Curriculum for Responsible Behavior.

In an effort to develop a theoretically sound and practical social skills curriculum, Henley and a group of elementary and secondary level teachers launched the Preventive Discipline Project in the early 1990s. "After four years of data collection, revisions, and animated discussions, we found that self-control consists of 20 separate social skills," said Henley, a professor of education at Westfield State College in Massachusetts. The Teaching Self-Control curriculum they developed includes specific activities for teaching those 20 skills. (See sidebar.)

In addition, the curriculum includes a Self-Control Inventory that educators can use to rate individual students' skills and a Student Self-Report Form that students can use to rate their own abilities.

Recently, Henley talked with Education World editors about his curriculum.

Education World: How do you respond to teachers who say that teaching self-control is not part of their job?

Martin Henley: This is my favorite question. It often comes up during workshops I present. Teachers don't have to be concerned about whether teaching self-control is their job or not -- they are already doing it. Every time a teacher tells a student to stop goofing-off, raise a hand, sit up straight, or finish a task, that teacher is teaching self-control. Some call it discipline; others call it classroom management.

Twenty Skills of Self-Control

Martin Henley's Teaching Self-Control curriculum offers specific lesson plans for teaching 20 concepts of self-control. Each lesson includes an activity for introducing the concept and a variety of cross-curricular activities for reinforcing it. Many of the lessons include simulation activities, role-plays, cooperative learning activities, and children's books that provide a non-threatening way to teach or model the skills. Click here for a list of skills taught with Henley's curriculum. If you recognize a handful of skills your students need to master, Henley's book surely will be worth its price.

Learn more about how you can purchase Teaching Self-Control: A Curriculum for Responsible Behavior

Imagine teaching math or reading without a curriculum; each teacher would be on his or her own, making decisions about what students need to learn. What the self-control curriculum does is provide direction. The most exciting part of this social skills program is that it articulates the specific social skills comprising self-control. The curriculum provides each teacher with a common set of research-derived objectives for teaching students the social skills they need to control impulses, manage group situations, and accommodate to school routines.

EW: You say "Disruptive youth have an invisible disability..."

Henley: Disruptive students are handicapped by their lack of social-skill development. This disability is not obvious, like cerebral palsy or mental retardation is. What draws our attention to disruptive youth is the symptoms of their disability -- refusing to finish a task, talking back, and bullying. At a more basic level, those students are disabled by inadequacies in their emotional intelligence -- shortcomings in their abilities to anticipate consequences, control impulses, manage stress, and understand how their behavior affects others.

Disruptive youth have a "contagious" disability. Working with a student with a learning disability does not affect a teacher's ability to read, nor does teaching a student with mental retardation affect one's ability to think in abstract terms. But those who teach disruptive youth have to keep a firm grip on their own emotions or else they end up modeling the same angry and acting-out behaviors they are trying to change.

EW: Point systems and rewards are the foundation of many teachers' classroom management systems, but you think there is a better way?

Henley: Yes, I do, because those behavior-modification systems control, but they don't teach students to be responsible.

As a young substitute teacher I experienced firsthand the downside of classroom management systems based on rewards and punishment. While the regular classroom teacher was present in the classroom, everything was fine; but when the teacher was absent, the students felt no obligation to behave. Rather, they reacted as if they had just been set free from jail. "Oh boy, a sub!" was the usual first reaction I got when I walked into that classroom, followed by an entire day of me simply trying to maintain some semblance of order. For me, that was an epiphany.

In order to learn responsible behavior, students need to have some control over their environment. They need to feel a sense of ownership for their own behavior. Teachers create this kind of classroom environment by discussing rules and sanctions, giving choices, listening to students, and caring about how students feel.

Having said all that, I am realistic enough to understand that point and level systems are not likely to disappear. So a couple of years ago I wrote an article explaining how the self-control curriculum could be merged with point and level systems. ["Points, Level Systems and Teaching Responsibility," Reaching Today's Youth: The Community Circle of Caring Journal Spring 1997 (Vol. 1, Issue 4)].

Additionally, many behavior-modification programs do not follow basic applied behavior analysis guidelines. Rather, the programs are based on homespun theories of behavior modification. The purpose of behavior modification is to change behavior through reinforcement, gradually phase out the external structure, and allow internal reinforcement to maintain the behavior. A successful behavior-modification system would gradually be phased out, but point systems and other similar programs become institutionalized.

"Disruptive youth have a 'contagious' disability. Working with a student with a learning disability does not affect a teacher's ability to read, nor does teaching a student with mental retardation affect one's ability to think in abstract terms. But those who teach disruptive youth have to keep a firm grip on their own emotions or else they end up modeling the same angry and acting-out behaviors they are trying to change."

-- Martin Henley
Author, Teaching Self-Control

EW: So you believe students can be taught the skills of self-control...

Henley: Yes. How do youngsters who do not exhibit problem behaviors develop their self-control skills? They learned them both directly and indirectly from their parents and siblings. There are three reasons why youngsters demonstrate deficiencies in self-control:

  1. They were never taught the skills.
  2. They have not had enough opportunities to practice the skills.
  3. They have a metabolic or neurological problem that inhibits their ability to control their impulses.

All of those difficulties can be solved educationally.

EW: Is your curriculum based on specific studies or philosophies?

Henley: Fritz Redl and David Wineman's classic book on aggressive youth -- Children Who Hate -- described 22 situations that trigger loss of self-control. They talked about such events as situational lure, "gadgetorial seduction," and newness panic -- great terms! As a teacher, I found that by using the Redl and Wineman format I was able to anticipate what type of situations would trigger self-control problems.

I had this student Peter. He was 12 years old. Part of his difficulty was "gadgetorial seduction." Once a prop caught his fancy -- a toy, a tape recorder, a ruler, someone's pet bird -- he was drawn to that "gadget" like a moth to a flame. If I didn't give Peter some time to use, play with, or manipulate the desired object he would find his own way. Stealing was one method he often employed. Back then we called my approach "hurdle help," today we call it positive behavior support.

Our small special education school was located adjacent to Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. One day, a government helicopter buzzed our building and landed at a National Seashore station about 500 yards away. Peter's eyes were as big as half-dollars. "Martin," he said, "a helicopter!" -- and out the door he ran as fast as he could towards the helicopter and its whirling blades. I went after him like a shot. I grabbed him about 200 yards from the aircraft That was a close one.

Peter couldn't help himself -- he was unable (dis-abled) to control his impulses when confronted with an enticing object.

It was events such as those that compelled me to want to find out if Redl and Wineman's observations about self-control deficiencies -- published in 1951 -- were still relevant in today's schools, so I enlisted the help of 15 teachers (they are listed on the back page of the book) and we spent three years accumulating data on how and when students lost their self-control in classrooms. We organized, classified, and distilled our findings. We then turned the situations into 20 positive statements about self-control. For example, some students act out their feelings in a variety of different ways such as refusing to do work, talking back, or temper tantrums. We asked ourselves What social skill is missing? and our answer was verbalizing feelings. "Verbalizing feelings" became one of our 20 skills. So are "gadgetorial seduction" and "situational lure," but with slightly less sexy language.

My work was also influenced by a number of other educators -- including Nicholas Long, William Morse, and Peter Knoblock.

EW: Your curriculum includes a self-control inventory for teachers to give students as well as a student self-report form. How can those tools help teachers?

Henley: The purpose of the Self-Control Inventory (SCI) is to provide a practical way for teachers to assess the self-control skills of their students. The student and family report forms are matched to the SCI, albeit in simpler language. Those forms provide input about how students view themselves and how parents view the students. (Note: Forms are provided in Spanish too.) When people purchase the book, they have copyright permission for all forms. The SCI can be used for many purposes, including

  • establishing priorities for teaching the self-control curriculum;
  • identifying students' self-control strengths as well as weaknesses;
  • writing IEPs and behavior-management plans;
  • enabling the teacher to anticipate situations that trigger self-control breakdowns;
  • providing a common language for professionals, students, and families in talking about self-control; and
  • providing a guide in selecting positive behavior supports.

This e-interview with Martin Henley is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World



Last updated 01/14/2012