Monitoring Our Environment May Lead to Self-Control


“stopping may actually be a relatively automatic and effortless process, and, in some sense, a mere by-product of being appropriately mindful of environmental change. Instead of stopping, the central role is occupied by the ability to attend vigilantly to features of the world that might demand changes in behavior.

—Cognitive Neuroscience Society blog, “Children Need to Learn Context to Know When to Stop

This interview is a bit difficult to parse for a layman like myself, but it jibes with my ken.

It makes more sense to train a child to become aware of the physical changes that can occur during emotional stress rather than merely techniques for “stop and think.” You can’t stop and think if you aren’t able to monitor yourself enough to know that you need to stop and think!

The Traits of Achievement

A provocative opinion piece in the NY Times, “What Drives Success?” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, suggested this Sunday that cultural traits can provide the impetus for success:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

Reading this, I thought of how this “Triple Package” of traits connects to some of the concepts that Jim Collins articulates in Good to Great (which I’ve discussed here before) for the most successful organizations.

In the framework of concepts that Collin’s lays out in his book,”Confront the Brutal Facts,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and “A Culture of Discipline” especially resonate with the logic that the authors of the NY Times article present, though I will argue that the term “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld choose may not be the most useful.

Let’s look a little closer at how these traits of successful organizations and cultures align.

Insecurity and the Brutal Facts

According to Collins, one of the central traits of remarkably successful organizations that have gone from good to great is that they are willing to “confront the brutal facts.” In other words, these organizations create an environment where the truth is able to be heard, even when it might not be something that leaders want to hear. There are mechanisms in place for people to provide honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

This openness to unpleasant news bears some linkage to the trait of insecurity in an individual or culture. When you are insecure, you are sensitive to feedback even from strangers in the street. You dissect run-of-the-mill conversations to determine why your comments didn’t seem to land the way you imagined it would.

Insecurity, as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest, can be pathological in the absence of the other traits of success: “Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough.” But when complemented by other qualities, this sense of never being good enough can turn into a driver of achievement. Insecure cultures, like organizations, tend not to be complacent.

Insecurity, the Superiority Complex, and the Stockdale Paradox

One of the ways that Jim Collins explains how “Level 5 Leaders” manifest the capacity for “confronting the brutal facts” is what he terms the “Stockdale Paradox.” Named after an Admiral who was tortured “over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973,” the paradox delineates that even as you confront the brutal facts of your reality, you must also be able to “retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”

This paradoxical faith, even when faced with the most daunting of circumstances, parallels the notion of a “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld refer to. However, I don’t feel that the latter terminology is the most productive. When considered from the vantage of Admiral Jim Stockdale, it wasn’t necessarily a feeling of being better than others that enabled him to survive and thrive in horrific circumstances—it was that he had an unwavering faith that he would prevail. This may seem like equivocation, but I feel there is a subtle distinction between an unearned sense of superiority and a disciplined determination and will. Someone who believes they are superior or exceptional are not likely to confront the brutal facts of their reality for any sustained period of time. Yet someone who believes they will prevail against all odds—even as they confront the brutal reality of their existence—can continue to endure far beyond even their own expectations.

The Hedgehog Concept and the Superiority Complex

Another concept Collins explores in Good to Great that aligns with this unfortunately named “superiority complex” is the “Hedgehog Concept.” A common quality of successful organizations that Collins studied was that they had a strong and clear understanding of what they were best at, and they took action based on this understanding with a relentless focus.

This is again why I think using a term like “superiority complex” is unfortunate. There are certainly people who are masters of their craft who act like they have a superiority complex. Yet if they are truly masters, they most likely have a fairly accurate picture of their weaknesses and strengths in their particular domain. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in “The Myth of Practice Makes Perfect“:

“Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation (Bold added).

Again, we can see the focus on confronting the brutal facts of reality. Someone who does have a superior skill or expertise in a domain has gained that superiority through a relentless focus on their weaknesses.

Similarly, in the top functioning organizations, a Hedgehog Concept is brought into fruition via a commitment to hard work and investment based on the understanding of what it can be best at. Collins writes that “The Hedgehog Concept requires a severe standard of excellence. It’s not just about building on strength and competence, but about understanding what your organization truly has the potential to be the very best at and sticking to it.”

Impulse Control and A Culture of Discipline

A final correlation between Chua and Rubenfeld’s explication of “What Drives Success?” and Collins’ Good to Great is the skill of “impulse control” and “a culture of discipline.” I’m not going to spend much time on this, as I think this one is more self-evident, especially given the increased focus in education and other realms on self-control and grit. Suffice it to say that what ties together a relentless focus on excellence and an uncompromising openness to negative feedback is discipline.

As Collins’ neatly frames it, “A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who then take disciplined action.”

So what drives success?

It’s interesting to compare Chua and Rubenfeld’s cultural traits of success against Collins’ framework of organizational success, because it enables us to recognize that both any given group of people or organization will rise or fall based upon the culture that is established via thoughts and action. Furthermore, the traits and patterns of successful groups and organizations can be studied and emulated.

So the question for your homework this week is: how does a school establish a culture steeped in such traits of success?

Learning and Teaching Self-Control

When I began teaching in the South Bronx in a 12:1:1 5th grade classroom, I was struck by an alarming gap in fundamental social and emotional skills of my students. For example, once when I rewarded them with some free time in the schoolyard and watched them “play,” I realized that some of them had no idea how to play. Some stood around and moped. “This is boring,” one of them listlessly stated.

Or when I found that I was unable to complete a full sentence when teaching a lesson because I would be interrupted by a student insulting another student, or a student cutting me off to say something that had nothing to do with the topic, or a student growing violently aggressive because I didn’t call on him when he raised his hand. . .

Each day was made up of hundreds of small moments such as these, where I was overwhelmed by just how much my students needed me to guide them through. I couldn’t seem to even dip a toe into academic content some days, as I seemed to be helplessly trying to stamp out a hemorrhaging barrage of emotional fires.

But one of the most fundamental things my students needed me to do was control my own reactions and emotions to these fires. I hadn’t been trained in how to counsel a student who went into hysterics when I placed a piece of paper in front of her and asked her to write. I hadn’t been trained in how to avoid escalating aggression with a student who cursed me out when I asked him to answer a question on a text.

That first year, my students were training me in self-control.

I realized that if I was unable to consciously monitor how I reacted and responded to my students, then I would not be able to help them. When a student caused me to feel something terrible inside, such as anger, or fear, I came to recognize that they were sharing with me a similar feeling they had inside. And if I responded in kind, rather than guiding them to a positive place, I was merely perpetuating and escalating those entrenched feelings, solidified in their hearts by years of toxic, chronic and acute stress.

They needed me to go down into that place inside of myself, with them, and guide them through those terrible feelings to some place better. And I could only do that through first modeling how I was controlling myself, then teaching them what it was I was doing.

Even today, I still can barely talk about a couple of the students from my first two years, as I will begin sobbing. The tiniest glimpses I got into the reality of their lives was devastating.

The moment in my first year—when I realized that for some of my students I was the single most consistent and influential adult figure in their lives, simply because I got up and walked into their classroom every single day—was overwhelming. Every single thing I did, from what I wore to what I said, had an incalculable impact on them.

And this is why I believe that any “program” that teaches students social-emotional skills without addressing the adults teaching them is misguided.

I’m writing about this because this is an issue I’m passionate about (read: my literature review and action research on self-control at City College, my blog on the “hidden curriculum” on GothamSchools, and my ASCD Express article on using Life Space Crisis Intervention) but also because I just read a NY Times article on teaching social-emotional skills that I felt missed this most fundamental aspect of such teaching.

In “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” by Jennifer Kahn, the author explores the trend of teaching social-emotional skills in schools, and how it is getting implemented in a few different schools.

If we reframe the teaching of social-emotional skills by recognizing the necessity for the adult to first understand and exhibit self-control, then this point becomes elucidated in Kahn’s article. Let’s examine a few passages that illustrate this:

Social-emotional learning programs often rely on strategies from conventional therapy, like the ability to get distance on a feeling, or to unpack the deeper emotions that may be hidden within it. But fostering these skills in a child is a complex undertaking. For a child to master empathy, Jones notes, she first needs to understand her own emotions: to develop a sense of what sadness, anger or disappointment feels like — its intensity and duration, its causes. That awareness is what lays the groundwork for the next step: the ability to intuit how another person might be feeling about a situation based on how you would feel in a similar circumstance.

What is unstated here is that for such skills to be fostered in a child, the adult must first understand her own emotions and display empathy. THEN, the teacher can model and guide the student through how to understand her own emotions.

Let’s look at another example, where Kahn observes a classroom being taught a packaged program of social-emotional skills. A student, who Kahn amusingly nicknames “Backpack Boy,” challenges the program’s interpretation of a complicated event with multiple perspectives:

[The teacher] allowed the debate to go on for several minutes, then moved crisply to the official point of the lesson: that once a thing is in your possession, you are responsible for it. The class ended with each group writing the steps of restitution on a piece of poster board. It was a disappointing moment. Though Little-Brown was engaged and thoughtful, the class still felt more like a rote exercise in social obligation than a nuanced exploration of a complicated issue. It was hard to believe that the resolution was satisfying to someone like Backpack Boy — one of the few students who seemed eager to wrestle with the knotty issues on which justice can turn.

The teacher is teaching a program, rather than listening to the child who was attempting to communicate his experience and understanding of something complicated. He was grappling with something deep that he could have used guidance in. 

The author of a social-emotional program, Ruler, is one of the only adults in the article who acknowledges, albeit somewhat shallowly, that adults must also understand social-emotional skills:

For Ruler to work, he maintains, the tools need to be embraced not just by students but also by teachers and administrators.

I say “somewhat shallowly” because it’s not simply that “tools need to be embraced,” but moreover that the adults must be capable of empathy, conflict resolution, and self-control, not merely able to understand the terms or charts of a given program.

The adults in a school must first be able to demonstrate self-control and empathy in order to create a positive environment and culture of caring. Only then will they be able to guide and teach students in these critically important skills.