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When it comes to improving classroom learning and education, we’re realizing more and more just how important it is to incorporate psychology into our practices.

After all, education is much more than remembering facts and taking tests. It requires understanding and supporting emotional and mental health and respecting different students’ needs. Locus of control is one such important part of emotional health in the classroom.

This article will discuss exactly what locus of control is, how it impacts the classroom and what you can do to keep the balance in your classroom.

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What is the Locus of Control?

Locus of control is the psychological principle used to describe how much someone believes they have control over their circumstances. It exists as a spectrum, with the two extremes being an extreme internal locus of control and an extremely external locus of control.

In the classroom, the two extreme points of locus of control might look something like this:

Internal locus of control:

The student believes they have 100% control over their work and grades. If they work hard, they’ll reap the rewards. If they don’t do as well as they had hoped, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough.

External locus of control:

The student believes that their intelligence, grades, and success are all predetermined and they do not influence results. The things that happen to them, good and bad, are all the work of external circumstances such as teachers, parents, peers, etc.

Of course, the reality is most people are somewhere more central along the spectrum, but most people tend to skew slightly internally or externally.

How does locus of control impact learning?

There has been a strong ethos of internal locus of control in schools for so long. Children are encouraged to work hard, being told that the harder the work, the better they’ll do.

And that’s not wrong. Hard work does give students a better chance at success (in this case, success is getting a good grade). The issue is hard work alone doesn’t guarantee success. For starters, some students learn academic subjects easier than others, which means that direct effort doesn’t guarantee a hierarchy of grades.

Here are some of the many elements that can determine grade success in school that have nothing to do with hard work:

  • Energy levels
  • Home environment
  • Emotional state
  • Anxiety
  • Bullying and other social interactions at school
  • Interest in the subject

When we teach children that their success is entirely based on what they do, it sets them up for failure now and in adulthood, where opportunities, networking, and other elements also contribute to success. But of course, teaching an external locus of control – that no matter what they do, it won’t guarantee success – is equally as damaging.

So, as with all the greatest things in life, it’s about striking a balance that doesn’t confuse or discourage students.

How to implement the idea of locus of control in the classroom

We don’t live in an ideal world. Our wins aren’t fully determined by what we do or what is done to and around us. This is why it’s important to find ways to promote hard work and trying without expecting results.

Here are a few ways you can do so in your classroom:

1. Reduce the emphasis on grades as a marker of success

Our school system is set up to put grades above all else. From valedictorian runs and GPA-dependent college applications to success-dependent school funding, our students are being persistently told that the only thing that matters is the letter grade at the end of each project or exam. And, of course, grades are important. They aren’t the only marker of success at school. Despite what the school board would have you believe.

So teach your students to look for other ways schools benefit them instead of focusing on the false idea of a direct correlation between hard work and good grades.

2. Instil the values of hard work on self-esteem

It can be demoralizing to realize that even when you work hard, you won’t always achieve the grades you hoped for. And if it’s not dealt with carefully, it can lead students to stop trying… Essentially, they turn from a high internal to a high external locus of control.

So it’s important to establish that hard work builds resistance and self-belief and sparks creativity – all important for self-esteem.

3. Challenge perfectionistic mindsets

The school system is set up for perfectionism, where many students feel like no matter what they achieve, it’s never enough.

If they get 99% on an exam, it’s not a celebration of a great grade. It’s a disappointment for the 1% they got wrong. All this accomplishes is low self-esteem and is usually indicative of an extreme locus of control (which, as we know, in either direction is not healthy).

So if you hear your students expressing perfectionist thoughts, gently redirect them.

Final thoughts

Locus of control is an important psychological concept that can easily affect your student’s self-esteem. Their ability to work hard and study because they want to, without expectations, is compromised.

By empowering your students to live within a more centralized locus of control, you can help them set realistic expectations that will serve them well into adulthood.