Avoiding the After-lunch Avalanche of Willpower Depletion

Scott Tyink

by Scott Tyink

For Middle Level

Any middle school teacher knows about the avalanche: Students who at 9:00 a.m. are polite, orderly, and studious can become antsy, blurting, or sleepy after lunch. The relative calm of self-control during the morning turns into a quick-moving avalanche of "willpower depletion."

In a study by psychologist Roy Baumeister, students were brought into a room filled with the aroma of freshly baked cookies. On a table were a plate of cookies and a bowl of radishes. Certain students were asked to eat only radishes, while others ate the cookies. Then both groups were given a challenging puzzle, with 30 minutes to solve it. Radish eaters resisted the enticing cookies, but they gave up on the puzzle after eight minutes, while cookie eaters persevered for 19 minutes. Apparently, the radish eaters had used up their willpower just resisting the cookies.

Students who have difficulty with self-control might work hard at the beginning of the day to control themselves, but at some point their willpower can become depleted. After all, sitting still, paying attention, focusing on group work, and concentrating all require willpower.

Research has revealed several things you can do to reduce the after-lunch loss of willpower.

  • Lift spirits and willpower by showing a funny video and laughing together.
  • Meditative breathing for five minutes has shown significant impact on self-control. Have students focus on a point or close their eyes and concentrate on their breathing. They can think "inhale" and "exhale." During the five minutes, remind them to let go of distracting thoughts and refocus on breathing.1
  • Take a few minutes for movement. A 2010 analysis of ten studies of exercise found that the most effective way to increase self-control was a five-minute dose of exercise. Play Simon Says or Coseeki, or do a rollicking cheer. Moving the classroom furniture around to facilitate working in a circle or in groups also provides movement.2

Whose willpower is it anyway?
People who exert self-control to please others (extrinsic motivation) deplete their store faster than those who do it for themselves (intrinsic motivation), according to a study by Mark Muraven, PhD, of the University at Albany, and colleagues. Teach students how to be in control of themselves by giving them strategies and allowing them to practice. Read how one teacher taught her students to enter her classroom so they could do it for themselves: Modeling and Practicing Routines to Improve Behavior.

Scott Tyink has helped to design and facilitate Developmental Designs workshops, consulted in middle schools, and coached teachers for more than 10 years. For 14 years, he taught adolescents in grades 5 through 8. He co-organized, directed, and taught in La Crosse, Wisconsin's first multiage middle-level charter school, where he developed curriculum that integrated arts and technology to inspire and challenge students.

Posted February 2014

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