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7 Keys to Classroom Habits That Stick

Last week, in the 1 Big Secret to Good Behaviour, I looked at how habit is at the heart of good behaviour in schools. Students, particularly those from the most challenging backgrounds, suffer from depletion of their self-control. Each bit of stress they face, every time they resist temptation or make a challenging decision, their ability to deal with the next challenge diminishes. This means that sometimes they just don’t have the self-control to delay gratification and make good decisions.

Habit is the solution to this problem. Habits bypass decision-making and go straight to action. Regardless of the state of self-control, habits get to work and manage your behaviour.

Classroom habits that stick
Good behaviour in lessons is largely about classroom habits. Classroom habits govern all those routines and behaviours you want students to display in the room, such as entry and exit routines, holding whole class discussions, listening to explanations, using mini-whiteboards, etc. I’ve recently been working to add habits for silent work and practising grit to the mix as well. But it doesn’t matter what the habit is, if you want it to stick, you need to set it up right. Here are 7 keys to doing just that.

1. Plan meticulously
And I mean meticulously. This is where you shape the routine of the habit cycle (see this post if that’s unfamiliar). Vague plans let unintended behaviours creep into the routine. A meticulous plan gives you complete control. Here’s an example of a vague plan for an exit routine:

      1. Complete exit question on exit card
      2. Close folder, put pencil case, planner and homework in bag
      3. Put folders in the cupboard
      4. Stand behind chairs
      5. Dismissed table by table

This is a meticulous plan:

      1. Three minutes to complete exit question in silence. Timer projected on the board.
      2. At the end of the timer: close folder, put pencil case, planner and homework in bag. Sit upright and wait.
      3. Once the whole table is ready, teacher instructs tables (one at a time) to put folders in the cupboard.
      4. Return and stand behind chairs silently.
      5. Teacher dismisses table by table.

Map out your transitions: know whether they happen automatically or whether an instruction is required.
Plan your environment: know if you’re expecting silence, quiet or talking.
Prepare your red lines: know what behaviour is breaking the routine so it can be challenged immediately.

2. Design the cue
What is going to prompt students into this routine? A cue doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be consistent. If you’re going to rely on a verbal cue, make sure you use the same sentence or phrase every time. Better still, incorporate other aspects of the environment into your cue. Think about the physical elements – for example, always standing in the same place, or including an action like opening the door, or closing your laptop lid. Visual elements can also be useful. Before using mini-whiteboards I have a slide with a picture of a whiteboard and a 15 second countdown. The more immersive the cue, the more clearly it will be heard.

3. Design the reward
What happens at the end of your routine? The reward is just as important as the cue for making a habit stick. A reward doesn’t need to be significant, but it does need to be reliable. A good exit routine could end with:

“Have a great afternoon, and thank you for working so well on those exit questions. Now I know what your best work on this topic looks like I can make sure your next lesson is designed right for you.”

Recognising that the routine was completed well and reminding students of its benefits will often be enough.

4. Teach it
Students won’t get the habit by osmosis, they need to be taught. Set aside some classroom time to explain the cue, routine and reward. Explain the rationale (helps with the reward later on), and all the steps you meticulously planned. Know that students won’t remember all the steps the first time, so have them written up as a guide and gradually remove them over time.

5. Practise to consistency
This is for both you and the students! Students will need some practice when you first teach the routine; enough to be able to follow it next lesson with a bit of prompting. Build practice time into lessons until the habit is embedded and the routine becomes automatic. This is a necessary and worthwhile investment. Time invested at this stage will save much more time later as your class runs smoother, behaving perfectly out of habit.

You’ll need to practice as well. Practise your cue so that it as consistent as possible. Mentally rehearse the classroom situation so that you know exactly what you are expecting. Think up situations where the routine goes wrong and rehearse your response. Your behaviour needs to be as reliable as possible for the habit to stick. An Assistant Head once told me that you can get students to do absolutely anything, as long as you ask and enforce consistently. They were right!

6. Do It Again
This is one of Doug Lemov’s top techniques from Teach Like a Champion. If students haven’t followed the routine properly, get them to Do It Again until they get it right. As soon as you allow some sloppiness into the routine, you’ll let sloppiness into the habit. Your meticulous plan needs to be followed to the letter every time, otherwise it just won’t stick.

7. Don’t give up
Do not give up on a habit because it doesn’t work at the start. Research suggests that habits take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form – with the average taking 66 days. Easy habits take the least amount of time, but we’re still looking at a good few weeks. As a rule of thumb, you should wait at least a half term before adjusting something because “it’s not working”. You’ve probably just not had enough practise.

Further Reading
Joe Kirby on using habits to build school ethos
Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) on how habits work
Doug Lemov on academic habits

The 1 Big Secret to Good Behaviour

Good behaviour is all about self-control. It’s about the self-control to delay the gratification of having a chat/staring out of the window/arguing with Mr Smith/stabbing Jamie with a compass, in favour of the much less immediately appealing orderly learning environment. Students with self-control can resist these temptations to follow rules and learn.But self-control isn’t that simple.

It’s not a fixed trait that you either possess or don’t. Self-control is more like the power in a rechargeable battery: it empties with usage, before replenishing when plugged in. One ingenious experiment showed this by getting university students to attempt some impossible geometry puzzles. However before the puzzles they sat in a waiting room, and on the table was a bowl of radishes, as well as a bowl of freshly-baked chocolate cookies. Some students were allowed the cookies. Others were instructed to resist the cookies and eat the radishes instead.

The cookie-eaters attempted the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes before giving up. The cookie-resisters only held out for 8 minutes. Resisting the cookies used up their self-control.

Stress depletes self-control.

This means that a salesman who was stuck in a traffic jam will be less able to deal with a tricky customer, or a parent with a wailing baby will be less able to deal calmly with an overly playful child. It also means that often we will face students whose self-control is already significantly depleted by the time we see them. This might be because it’s the end of the day, and Period 4 French used up the last bit; or it might be because home is a chaotic hothouse of stress at the moment, and there’s no space to recharge. Either way, their ability to make good decisions has been depleted.

Depleted self-control means poor behaviour.

The tragedy is that the students who most need to value each minute of their education are often those whose self-control has depleted the most. Yet they will be the least able to resist temptations and behave well. It’s not that they don’t have self-control – they’ve just used it all up.

Students need to bypass the self-control system.

There’s no way of fixing their depleted reserves of self-control. They need to bypass the decision-making system, the one that sets up two options and asks them to choose. This system demands self-control, and there’s none of that left.

Habit is the cheat that unlocks good behaviour.

When you act out of habit you don’t need to stop and think, or to weigh up options and make a decision. You just act. Habits are driven by a different part of the brain (they’re tucked away in the basal ganglia, just above the top of the brain stem), and by a different neurological system. If students behave out of habit, then depleting self-control stops being a problem.

Habits are formed of cues, routines, and rewards.

Charles Duhigg’s book, the Power of Habit, teaches us about the habit loop. He says that every habit starts with a cue from the environment, is followed by a routine of behaviour, and culminates in a reward for completion.

For example, a habit of entering the classroom might begin with a cue of being greeted at the door by your teacher, followed by a routine of fetching your folder and immediately beginning the Do Now, and then finished with a reward of being verbally recognised and of completing the first task successfully. A student could choose to do this by using up self-control, or they could launch into autopilot as soon as they are greeted at the door – when habit kicks in and takes over.

The 1 Big Secret to good behaviour is to build habits.

In all schools, but particularly the most challenging, students will come to you with their self-control depleted. They will choose a course of bad behaviour, unless they have a habit of good behaviour that takes over. But there is no one habit called good behaviour – it’s a set of lots of small habits that deal with different cues.

One type of habit is the classroom routine.

Unless you work in an exceptionally well-organised school, you build this yourself. Decide the routine you want the class to have, then decide on a simple and clear cue as well as an appropriate reward. Once established, this habit will make sure your students perform standard tasks just as you wish, regardless of their self-control situation at that time.

Another is the ‘coping strategy’.

Because school isn’t all about predictable situations, students need habits that give them routines for the unexpected. A classic example is ‘counting to ten’ (cue = anger, routine = stop and count to ten, reward = increased calm/reduced risk of regretting a rash action). These are harder to design and teach, particularly for the lone teacher. However if done well they are the most transferable habits, and most useful for students’ futures.

Self-control depletes, habit rescues.

The more stressful situations a student has been through, or difficult decisions they’ve had to make, the lower their self-control will be. This makes it harder for them to behave well if relying on them to make good choices. It is this phenomenon that lies behind much bad behaviour. Habit can rescue students from this problem. It takes over their behaviour, avoiding the need for delayed gratification or tough decisions. If the right habits are in place, depleted self-control is no longer a problem.

How to build habits of good behaviour – coming soon…

Next week’s blog will be on building habits for classroom routines. Then in the coming weeks I’ll cover some different behaviour habits for more general situations, to help students around school and outside of it.

For more reading: