Help young learners to start thinking and talking about the concept of ‘self-management’, and thereby begin to uncover for themselves the skills and dispositions involved

This e-bulletin continues to explore how the QCA Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills framework can be put into practice, exploring useful case studies, digests of relevant research and, above all, practical ideas for classroom use. It is hoped that these resources will help staff and students to develop a common understanding of what the different PTLS skills and competencies mean, and a common language for exploring their value both in school and in everyday life. For this term, our focus will be on exploring the ‘self-managers’ strand of the framework.

The QCA framework describes self-management in a broad sense – its definition covering not only the management of time, targets and resources, but also the emotional resourcefulness required for the management of feelings, risk, relationships, change, challenge and stress. It pinpoints some of the dispositions required by effective self-managers, namely: organisation, flexibility, initiative, commitment and perseverance.

This week we will begin with an introductory strategy that can help young learners to start thinking and talking about the concept of ‘self-management’, and thereby begin to uncover for themselves the skills and dispositions involved.

Introducing ‘self-management’
1. You will need to prepare a challenging – and potentially frustrating! – task for students to attempt individually or in small groups (depending upon the complexity of the task). Logic problems and puzzles, riddles and cryptograms are good options – there are many useful resources for these online. Two sites that stand out are and (the latter has an online interactive version of the Tower of Hanoi challenge described below).

Have a go at the task yourself first, in order to set a suitable time limit for students. This should be just long enough for the task to be achievable, but short enough to add an element of pressure. Another option is to say that the task is finished when every group has found a solution, which gives students/teams who finish quickly the opportunity to develop clues with which to support their peers.

One of my favourite challenges is the Tower of Hanoi puzzle, invented by the French mathematician Edouard Lucas in 1883. Players are given a tower of blocks, initially stacked in increasing size in one of three spaces.

The objective is to transfer the entire tower from start to end point in the minimum number of moves, moving only one block at a time and never a larger one onto a smaller. Click here for clear, step-by-step, interactive instructions and a paper version of the resource. To reduce the difficulty, reduce the number of blocks down to a minimum of three. Ten minutes is normally an adequate time limit for this task where all five blocks are used.

2. Explain to students that you are going to offer them a challenge in order to introduce the idea of ‘self-management’, a skill which underpins success not only across all areas of the curriculum, but also in all aspects of life. Give students time, in groups, to come up with some ideas about what ‘self-management’ might involve before they begin the task. With younger students, it often helps to use the analogy of a football manager:

What does his role involve? What different things does he ‘manage’?
Responses often include: thinking up strategies, setting targets, coping with difficult players/emotional players, setting high standards for the team, motivating them, helping them cope with defeat, managing money etc.

What qualities does this require?
Responses often include: leadership, determination, optimism, sense of humour, being organised and committed.

It is easy to see the parallel here with the skill of ‘self-management’, which involves many of the same qualities – such as self-leadership and self-motivation. The analogy is effective in triggering a range of related ideas about what ‘managing oneself’ might involve – both how it might be similar, and how it might be different.

3. After the students have attempted the challenge that you have chosen, a thorough debrief is of crucial importance if the focus on self-management is to be maintained. Students will want to explain their responses and how they cracked the challenge, but the key aim of the debrief will also be to get everyone talking about how they felt prior to the task, the various emotions they felt as they struggled with it, how they coped with the feeling of challenge and pressure, how they related to their teammates and so on. In short, whether, and to what extent, they displayed the skills and qualities of ‘self-management’ that they identified in advance. New insights will also emerge that can be added to the class definition.

To begin with, you could use the ‘disposition bricks’, which are designed to get students talking about learning dispositions. Give each group a set of bricks in order to help scaffold their reflection. Questions you could ask might include:

  • Try to agree on which was the most important disposition or quality that you needed to do the task.
  • Select a brick that shows the disposition or quality that you found the easiest to display.
  • Select a brick that shows the disposition or quality that you were most tested on. Why did you find it a challenge? What helped you to rise to the challenge?

Students may experience a significant degree of frustration as they attempt challenges such as these – I know I do! My frustration begins as soon as someone even mentions a brain teaser or logic puzzle! The focus of your students’ frustration may well be with the task itself, with themselves, or with their peers in a team situation. Encourage students to talk about what they experienced and why, and to share anecdotes about other, similar occasions, both in and out of school, when they have been faced with a difficult challenge and have had to manage frustration and other difficult emotions such as anxiety and helplessness. Invite them to reflect on what they do in these situations so that interesting and effective strategies can be shared.

You might also like, at this point, to introduce students to the concept of the ‘Pit’ in learning in order to reassure them that it is very often the case that we feel an initial decline in confidence and competence when introduced to a new and difficult challenge – a feeling of floundering around ‘in the pit’. It is here that we really need those self-management skills and qualities until our performance improves and our confidence recovers. It may also be useful to share your own experiences and approaches with the class.

Keep a look out, too, for future developments on the BBC Blast website ( – a creative arts website for young people. The Blast team is currently interviewing well known artists, musicians, writers and media personalities – each interview focusing on one of the six areas of the QCA Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills framework. You may like to use these short video clips with your students, in order, for example, to explore how a well-known celebrity views the challenge of ‘self-management’.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2009

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.