Teaching Children to Check Their Own Behavior

Photographs by Jeff Woodward.
“One of my jobs here at school is to help make sure that every single one of you can do your best learning every day.” As a school counselor, that’s how I start my first classroom guidance lesson every year. I go on to say, “For you to do your best learning, you need certain kinds of skills. You need to be able to do things like follow directions the first time, listen with a thinking brain, focus during work time, and keep good self-control. When you have these skills, you can do your best learning, and your teachers can do their best teaching.”

Of all these important skills, I start by teaching self-control because it’s fundamental to students’ success in all areas of school life. They need self-control not just for moving safely in the classroom, tossing a ball gently for a greeting, and eating politely in the cafeteria but also for working independently on a writing piece, playing a math game with a partner, or collaborating with peers on a group project.

And the self-control skill I teach first is something I call a “self-check.” Students pause and use internal self-talk to monitor their own behavior—to ask themselves “Am I doing what I should be doing right now?” Then they correct their behavior if necessary. Pausing gives students time and space to notice what they’re doing; self-talk prompts them to clearly articulate what they notice, name what they need to do, and then do it. Through self-checks, students gain an important measure of autonomy and a solid foundation on which to build other self-control skills they’ll need inside and outside the classroom.

To teach self-checks efficiently at all the grade levels I work with, I use the Responsive Classroom practice called Interactive Modeling. Here’s how that teaching might look with a class of second graders.

Using Interactive Modeling to Teach Self-Checks

1. Say what you will model and why.

Mrs. Wade: “One of the things we’ve been focusing on in Guidance this year is feelings and behaviors. You know that all feelings are OK, but some behaviors are not OK because they interfere with your learning and your classmates’ learning. The OK behaviors are the ones that help everyone do their best learning.

So I have a strategy that I want to teach you called a self-check. A self-check is when you check in with yourself to make sure you’re doing OK behaviors by asking yourself, ‘Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now?’ I’ll pretend I’m a second grader, sitting on the carpet with you listening to a lesson. You’ve already learned how a good listening body looks and feels, so I’m going to do a self-check to see if I have a good listening body. Watch and see how this works. Then be ready to tell me what you noticed.”

2. Model the behavior.

I tell students I’m going to stay in my chair in front of the class so everyone can see me but remind them to pretend I’m sitting on the floor as part of the class. I turn toward the board and pretend I’m listening to a lesson (leaning forward a bit, nodding, smiling, hands in my lap). After a moment, I become distracted by my wristwatch, turning and twisting it around and around my wrist, no longer looking at the board or showing other attentive behaviors.

Soon, I pause and point to my brain to signal that I’m doing a think-aloud (which I’ve taught previously). “Ding, ding, ding,” I say. “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now? No, I’m supposed to have a good listening body.” Then I leave my watch alone and quietly return to a good listening body.

3. Ask Students What They Noticed.

Mrs. Wade: “What’s one thing you noticed I did?”
Shalem: “You caught yourself.”
Mrs. Wade: “How did I catch myself? What did I remember to ask myself?”
Dara:  “Something in your brain went ding ding ding.”
Mrs. Wade: [Prompting for more] “That’s right; my brain reminded me to check in with myself. And what did I ask myself?”
Ben: “You asked yourself, “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now?”
Mrs. Wade: “That’s a really good question to ask ourselves throughout the day. That’s how we can help get those not-OK behaviors turned around quickly. When I asked myself ‘Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now,’ what was my answer, everybody?”
Class: “No!”
Mrs. Wade: “Who remembers what I said to myself in my brain?”
Yelena: “You said, ‘No, I’m supposed to have a good listening body.’ And then you were listening.”
Mrs. Wade: “So talking to myself helped me get back to a good listening body because I was thinking about what I was supposed to be doing.”

4. Invite one or more students to model.

I choose a volunteer to come up to the chair, give him the watch to wear, and tell him to do just what I did.

Mrs. Wade: “Everybody watch while Billy shows us what a self-check looks like.”

5. Again, ask students what they noticed.

After Billy models for us, I have a few students share out what they noticed.

Mrs. Wade: “Who can tell us something they noticed Billy do to go from a not-OK behavior to an OK behavior?”
Gabrielle: “He talked in his brain and said ‘I’m supposed to have a good listening body.”
Alisha:  “He said, ‘Stop playing with the watch and listen.’”
Stephen: “After he talked to himself, he was looking at the board again.”
Mrs. Wade: “So the self-check—the noticing and talking inside his brain—helped Billy get a good listening body back quickly.”

6. Have all students practice.

I tell students that now we’re all going to practice but this time we’ll need to keep our think-alouds in our brains, just as we’ll do when we do self-checks for real. I show them what it looks like to do a self-check when you’re keeping the talking in your brain: Sitting still with a thoughtful expression on my face. Then I invite them all to pretend they’re getting distracted by something (clothes, headband, shoelace), ask themselves with inside-their-brains talk if they’re doing what they should be doing, and then get right back on track.

7. Provide feedback.

After everyone has practiced, I reinforce positive behaviors I noticed.

Mrs. Wade: “Wow, I saw lots of kids sitting still, looking thoughtful, stopping their not-OK behavior, and getting right back to a good listening body!”


I conclude this lesson by reminding the class that their teachers are really good at helping kids stay focused and on track. Because of that, the class is going to have to be really quick at catching themselves with self-checks. “If the teacher has to say to me while I’m playing with my watch, ‘Amy, hands in your lap and eyes up here,’ that’s not a self-check; that’s a teacher-check.”

And I leave students with a challenge to use a self-check before the teacher has to do a teacher-check. The lesson ends with my encouraging words: “You can help yourself, your classmates, and your teacher by checking in with yourself and asking that very important question: ‘Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now?’”

Interactive Modeling: A Powerful Technique for Teaching Children, by Margaret Berry Wilson, provides step-by-step guidance on how to use Interactive Modeling. Includes many practical tips, real-life examples, and sample lessons and scripts that you can adapt for specific classroom needs.

by Amy Wade

Tags: Independence

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