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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >



Building Self-Discipline


Q. Our school district values creativity over self-control, to a fault. I couldn't possibly concentrate in the chaotic, noisy atmosphere I find in the classroom today. How can we expect kids to achieve in this atmosphere?


Self-control is absolutely crucial to academic success. Study after study points that out. In fact, a 2005 article in the scholarly journal Psychological Science found that self-discipline is even more important than a child's IQ for producing a good academic outcome.


That means being able to pay attention in class, refrain from cheating, do your homework every day, and spend the better part of your free time with healthy pursuits like sports and hobbies, instead of destroying your body and mind with TV and junk food, are more likely to turn out a student with lots of school success and career opportunities than just being smart.


That provides hope for parents of all stripes! But it also makes for a tough parenting challenge. That's because a lot of the way public schools are run these days is counter-productive to building discipline in a young person. Adult supervision is minimized from the classroom to the hallways. The atmosphere isn't disciplined; it's chaotic. Parents need to work with schools to change this, and fast.


The "child-centered classroom" in the early grades allows kids to flop on the floor or socialize at tables or clusters of desks, share all materials, run around the room, flit from center to center without a focal point physically or cognitively, make a lot of noise, and disregard the teacher since the teacher is relegated to being a learning coach, not an authority figure. A much better atmosphere for building self-control would be the traditional model. With it, kids learn to sit still at an individual desk with good posture looking toward the front of the classroom, pay attention to the teacher as an authority figure, hold a pencil correctly, maintain control of individual materials, keep a neat desk, and so on. Once you can do those things, you can focus on your studies, and excel.

But schools discourage efforts at mastering little tasks like these with their emphasis on "holistic" learning. Instead of breaking everything down into small pieces, schools tend to direct kids to try to attack massive, big projects. The widespread practice of "whole language" reading instruction is especially destructive. Instead of teaching kids to read by learning the phonograms and spelling rules separately and distinctly, schools just plunge kids into whole books and hope they will learn to guess at words and their meanings by looking at the pictures. Obviously, it doesn't work. When kids can't read very well, they aren't capable of sticking with text very long. If you can't concentrate, you can't sit still and learn. Goodbye, self-control.


At the secondary level, "holistic learning" morphs into schools expecting kids to learn by taking on complex, real-world problems - global hunger, environmental risks, political strife - usually in small groups where distractions like small talk and horse play destroy the time on task availability. Schools could be helping students build up to the problem-solving skills it takes to really address those complex problems if they would give them small, systematically presented, less complicated challenges to work individually and quietly.  


Bottom line: tasks that are far beyond a child's capability result in confusion, failure and misbehavior, or contrived, simplistic solutions. Teachers are forced to "dumb down" the assignments to where they are practically meaningless. Kids end up disappointed and discouraged, or bored stiff. It's a big reason why so many kids "act out" in school with disciplinary breaches, or "check out" into the counter-culture with drugs and alcohol.

Parents should be letting teachers and their school boards know that they want a system-wide emphasis on what it takes to build self-control in kids. That means a return to the disciplined, traditional classroom set-up, a return to phonics-only reading instruction in the early grades, high expectations for attendance, a focus on building excellent study habits, moderate to heavy homework loads, and advice and help for parents to teach their children to minimize TV and junk food, and get a lot of sleep and exercise.


If your school refuses, think about a private school. And do everything you can to make routines and expectations in your home orderly and disciplined. Your child will thank you for it . . . someday!


Homework: Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944. Available to members only on


By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 12 2008


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