Updated: May 20, 2021
If you watch our classroom in action, you'd notice that habits are often a topic of discussion. Hardly any redirection occurs without a brief understanding check of the expected routines. Consistent routines and expectations form habits and these are the foundation of our self-directed learning environment. When children know what to do, they can self-regulate their behavior. When children make an unwise choice, the reminder or redirection can be linked back to our routines and expectations. Consistent emphasis on routines creates habits-- a powerful motivator, and gone are the days of clip charts and prize boxes (more on intrinsic motivation for another blog)!
A 2006 Duke University study found that more than 40% of actions people perform each day aren't actual decisions, but rather are habits. Habits are defined as the choices we deliberately make at some point, but later stop thinking about, yet continue doing each day. The brain is efficient. It converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine through a process known as chunking. This process can be considered as a three-step loop. First, the brain searches for a cue that tells it to go into automatic mode and which pattern to use. Next, it completes the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Then, there's arguably the most important part of the loop-- the reward, which helps your brain determine if this routine is worth remembering or not.
During our first 6 weeks of school, we embrace the Responsive Classroom approach which emphasizes routines over content. I often talk to the children about our brains being a muscle. We practice our routines in order to train our brains to meet classroom expectations. Habits are so critical to our self-directed classroom that 'do-overs' happen all of the time. For example, let's say a child runs over to line up for outdoor play. I will ask the child to return to the place from which they came and to walk over and join the line. This 'do-over' is more powerful than merely saying "walk next time" because the body has muscle memory and the habit of walking in our classroom will be formed the more we practice it. The same can be said for running. Habits occur because we have stopped making a choice and the behavior has become automatic. Therefore, we are careful about which behaviors we exhibit in the classroom, knowing that automaticity will occur. Once a habit emerges, the brain stops participating in decision making. One must deliberately fight a habit by creating new routines, thus our 'do overs'.
Habits never really disappear and old habits can emerge with the right cue and reward. To change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. Continuing with our example--if I allow the student who ran to be in the front of the line, I am inadvertently rewarding the behavior of running in the classroom. A 'lecture' on walking next time does nothing to curb the habit because the cue and reward are in place. The brain cannot tell if a habit is 'good' or 'bad', it's just looking for the right cue and craving the reward. To overpower a habit, we must recognize what craving is driving the behavior. One thing I love about being a teacher is how honest children can be. Often any protest to the redirection, gives a hint to what they're craving. In our walking example, many times a child may complain that "now they will be last in line". This tells me what reward they are craving and, therefore, I must make sure that the reward is never associated with an unwanted behavior such as running in the classroom. Craving is an essential part of creating new habits. It doesn't always happen perfectly in an educational environment. The child who is slow to put on their coat may always be near the end of the line, but if they walk, at least they won't have to suffer the aggravation of lining up twice *smile*.
Lastly, belief transforms a habit into a permanent behavior. Another thing you will often hear in our learning environment is six simple words, "I know you can do it." I use those words with a calm tone and kind smile as the postlude to almost any tense situation. Whether a student is frustrated with their work or frustrated with me because of a redirection or natural consequence, those words create belief. It creates an opportunity for another outcome in the future. We set expectations in our classroom and we hold firm to those. When we fall short from time to time, we believe that we can meet the expectations next time. For a habit to remain changed, people must believe change is possible, and possibilities are infinite at Marva Collins Cottage School!
Read one of my favorite books to learn more about how habits can influence what you do in life and business!