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Self-Control is About Goal-Attainment: Here’s How to Help Students Develop It

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The point of teaching kids to develop self-control isn’t to get them to obey or comply or behave as if they’re in a prison. Such caricaturizations or misapplications of instruction around self-control miss it all. Rather, self-control is about helping our kids do what they need to do so they can get where they want to be. It’s about getting from Goal Setting, through Goal Striving, and to Goal Attainment (see Figure 1). The key in developing self-control, then, is teaching students to attain their goals.

Figure 1: The Three Phases of Goal Pursuit.

Figure 1: The Three Phases of Goal Pursuit. How do we get students from I to III?

While I’ve tended to try whatever seems good to me in the moment, I recently came across a promising study [1] that I’m eager to try out with my ninth graders this fall. The study used a simple pair of interventions during the goal-setting phase and found that students who engaged in the interventions did a significantly greater amount of goal-relevant work during Goal Striving.

First, when we lead our students in setting goals, we want them to be as committed to the goal as possible. To help with this, the study’s authors used a technique called Mental Contrasting (MC). In MC, students fantasize about what it will be like to achieve the goal they’ve set, and then they envision what in their present reality will get in the way of attaining the goal.

Second, to overcome the gap between the envisioned obstacles and outcomes, students set an explicit Implementation Intention (II). This can be as simple as an if-then statement, such as “If I encounter X obstacle, then I will do Y.”

Since talk of Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions can get wonky fast, Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer's (two authors on the study) have developed WOOP. WOOP is explained concisely here at Character Lab, but I’ll also lay it out here to save you a click:

  • Wish — this is the goal, clearly stated (e.g., “I want to turn all of my homework in on time during this quarter.”)
  • Outcome — this is the first part of mental contrasting (e.g., “If I started turning all of my homework in on time, I would get my Xbox back, and my parents would be proud of me, and I'd be less stressed.”)
  • Obstacle — this is the second part of mental contrasting (e.g., “The problem is that as soon as I get home I get lazy.”)
  • Plan — this is the implementation intention (e.g., “If I feel lazy, then I will complete one problem on my math homework.”)

While none of these things are silver bullets in creating the perfectly self-regulated child, they seem promising in our quest to help students build flourishing lives through the development of self-control. Research supports the effectiveness of WOOP (unlike some of my previous efforts helping students with goal attainment; see the second half of this post for a classroom video), and WOOP doesn’t threaten to take up huge swaths of important class time.


  1. Duckworth, Angela Lee, Grant, Heidi, Loew, Benjamin, Oettingen, Gabriele and Gollwitzer, Peter M. (2011) ‘Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions', Educational Psychology, 31: 1, 17 — 26, First published on: 14 September 2010 (iFirst). (You can access it here.)

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