The Gift of Self-Control: How to Have a Good Life

Scott Tyink

by Scott Tyink

For Middle Level

I recently witnessed a student discovering new meaning in self-management.

"Circle up," the teacher said in a stern but calm voice to her seventh grade math class.

The students knew what was coming. Their teacher had been out the day before and she had the note in her hand. Any student or teacher knows about the note: it’s the written reflections of the substitute teacher.

The teacher read the note to the class, then opened a discussion:
“Why is it important that we learn to use our self-control all the time?”

Hands slowly went up.

“To follow the rules,” one boy said.

“So we can learn math,” said another.

There was a long pause, then a girl’s hand shot up as if she had just made an important discovery. When the teacher called on her, she confidently said, “So we can have a good life.”

She had insight beyond her thirteen years. Self-control is key to a good life.

This is revealed by comprehensive, long-running research in New Zealand called the Dunedin Study. The study followed a thousand children into adulthood for more than forty years, studying, among other things, self-control.

They found that lower levels of self-control correlated with:

  • more substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs)
  • financial difficulties (affecting home ownership, saving for retirement, etc.)
  • difficulty with money management (living paycheck to paycheck, credit card problems, bankruptcy)
  • health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and dental disease
  • criminal convictions
  • rearing children in single-parent homes

The study concludes, “Our research singles out children’s self-control as a clear target for prevention policy, apart from all other influential features of children’s backgrounds, such as their family life, socio-economic status, or the child’s intelligence.”

When I introduced students to the Developmental Designs approach, I told them I was going to help them uncover an important gift this year, one that would last their lifetimes and help them achieve success after success. The gift was self-control. I said self-control is not something I could hand to them, but something they must develop internally, by using my support and lots of their own thinking, planning, action, and reflectionthe Loop. They would learn to control themselves despite impulses in the other direction, so they could have a good life.

Keeping students engaged in reflection requires using multiple modalities and questions. Here are some ways to prompt thoughtful reflection.

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 March 2014

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