habit /hab-it/ : an acquired behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary
At this time each year many of us make resolutions to develop better habits in our lives. Habits are processes by which we make our actions automatic, ultimately working by themselves without conscious thought or intention. Routines are a set of habits. In schools, we know that establishing good routines is pivotal to student success. However, if we are unable to help our students to establish habits that align with our routines, our routines get derailed.
So Why Do So Many of Us Struggle?
Let’s be honest, building good habits takes a lot of work for anyone and is seldom fun. When we are in the process of developing a habit, we exhaust a lot of mental resources in getting started and keeping it going. We are essentially countering our existing default habits and therefore need to stay focused in order to get to a point where the new habits become automatic and natural to us.
The same is true for our students. Asking them to wait quietly in a line is probably not fun for most kids and goes against their natural instinct, which is to move and play. However, the ability for students to be quiet and still is a necessary part of a functional classroom. How might we begin to explore tactics that leverage students’ natural instinct to move and play in order to master a skill like this one? In this example, using simple games such as freezing in the shape of an animal can be an effective way to begin to associate stillness with fun and play.
The good news is that you can habituate almost anything. The key is knowing that while establishing new habits or routines, relying on willpower alone likely won’t work for you or your students. Over time, the habits that we develop (and stick to) form and strengthen neural pathways in our brain that make them much easier maintain . Metaphorically speaking, our brains eventually move from driving a manual transmission to driving automatic.
5 Routine-Building Fundamentals
- Start small or with just one new thing at a time. The concept of ego depletion illustrates that we only have so many mental resources in our ‘bucket’ before we exhaust our willpower and lose self-control. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to small, easy to form habits as ‘keystone habits’ because they can have a crossover effect to building larger, more complex routines. This concept is explored in the article Make Your Bed, Change Your Life, as the simple act of making your bed every day has been correlated with increased productivity and success in other parts of life. The key to success in building classroom routines is to identify the ‘keystone habits’ for your students that can help them build up to your larger routines.
- Make sure that the environmental conditions have been set for success. If our students are struggling with classroom routines, we have to be aware of the barriers that are getting in their way. Once we identify the barriers, we need to do our best to remove or at least minimize them. This concept is applied when trainers recommend that their clients sleep in their gym clothes to begin a morning workout routine. Additionally, good and bad habits can be initiated by a visual or auditory prompt. How quickly do students gather their belongings and run out the door when the bell rings? The same can be achieved through the use of hand signals or the sound of a chime to indicate to students what is expected of them next.
- Rewards work. Internal motivation is important, but don’t forget that extrinsic motivators can also be very effective to motivate children and shape positive habits (adults too!). Whether it is a prize, experience, winning a competition or earning extra privileges, jumpstarting habit formation via rewards can be really effective! This can be especially true for students where home dynamics may not align with what is being asked of them in school.
- Practice, practice, practice! Consistency over time is integral to longterm success.
- Last but not certainly not least…infuse joy. Have fun! To the extent that you can, try to set the conditions that bring joy to the process of creating new habits and routines. Children thrive when they are having fun. Using silly songs or chants for younger students or incorporating fun competitions and silly awards for those who are older can be very effective. Think hard about what could make your routines more interesting and exciting for students, and try to incorporate fun as best you can!
Happy New Year,
Bob Szybist and Jennifer Faustman
P.S. Remember it’s never too late in the year to start over and re-establish classroom routines. Check out this article from the folks at Responsive Classroom that illustrates one brave teacher’s journey of resetting in the middle of the year.