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79. How to Instil Habits in our Students

You know when your student asks where to hand in their homework for what feels like the thousandth time? As teachers, sometimes it feels like we’re repeating ourselves over and over again. One way to reduce repetition is to instil and solidify good classroom habits in our students from the beginning of the school year.

In this week’s The Balanced Educator podcast and blog, we’re teaching you exactly how to instil habits in your students by working with how their brain functions to create habits.
Once you understand how to use James Clear’s 4 laws of behaviour change in your instruction, your students will catch on to your classroom rules and procedures much faster, allowing you to spend less time repeating yourself and more time teaching.

How to Create Habits that Stick

If you followed our 5 part series on how to avoid teacher burnout, you understand how the brain forms habits and how to work with your brain to create habits that stick. 

If you haven’t read or listened to those posts yet, we suggest that you check them out. They will open your eyes to a new way of approaching everything in your classroom! Here’s a list of those posts so you can go back and check them out.

  1. Avoid teacher burnout: How to Create Good Habits that will last Throughout the School Year (Part 1 of 5)
  2. Avoid Teacher Burnout: How Being Mindful of Your Thoughts can Change Your Experience in the Classroom (Part 2 of 5)
  3. Avoid Teacher Burnout: How to Manage Your Emotions in the Classroom (Part 3 of 5)
  4. Avoid Teacher Burnout: Shift Your Perspective to Feel More Calm, Balanced and Joyful in and out of the Classroom (Part 4 of 5)
  5. Avoid Teacher Burnout: 10 Self-Care Practices to be Your Best Self in and out of the Classroom (Part 5 of 5)

How to Instil Habits in our Students

When we’re teaching routines and procedures in the classroom, the intention is to keep the classroom organized, to reduce time spent on transitions and to help the day run smoothly. It can feel really frustrating when after a couple months with our students, they’re still struggling to follow the routines and procedures we have in place and we feel like we’re repeating ourselves over and over again. This can be a huge energy suck in our day, not to mention a waste of precious class time.

Let’s start working WITH how the brain forms habits when we’re teaching our classroom routines and procedures.

If you follow these 4 laws of behaviour change that James Clear outlines in his book Atomic Habits, you’ll see your students catching on way faster and you’ll gain back time and energy in your school day.

Law 1: Make it Obvious

When our brain is forming a new habit, it needs an obvious clue that indicates “it’s time to play out this action habit”.

Repetition is incredibly important, really it’s THE most important factor in creating habits that stick. So when there is something you want your students to do automatically in your classroom the cue has to be the same every time and it has to be clear, distinct and obvious.

For example, if you want your students to clean their work area before moving to the next activity there has to be an obvious sign that NOW is the time to clean and that cue need to be consistent. 

The cue could be shutting off the light, playing a song, ringing a bell, a song that you sing together. Anything that disrupts what they’re doing and clearly indicates that NOW is the time to start the cleanup routine.

It’s also very important that it’s obvious to your students what they are meant to do to have success. Just saying instructions out loud isn’t enough. Having a cue that uses more than one of the 5 senses (ex: visual AND auditory), will be really helpful in instilling habits in your students. It is always a good idea to have clear instructions written or symbolized up in a place that is easy for your students to see and follow.

Law 2: Make it Attractive

When the brain is forming new habits, it’s always asking “what’s in it for me?!”. If an action takes a lot of energy but doesn’t give an equal or greater reward, the brain simply sets it aside and deems it not worth doing again.

If an action is fun, interesting, challenging (in a good way) or gives your students a sense of accomplishment their brains will be more likely to make that action an automated habit.

The challenge here as a teacher is that each of our students are motivated by different things. Some students might enjoy cleaning up because they like working in a tidy space so cleaning gives them a sense of accomplishment and they enjoy doing it. Some students just aren’t motivated intrinsically to clean.

Your task as the teacher is to find ways to make the habit you want to instill in your students fun for them. There are lots of ways to do this, play fun music or sing a cleanup song during cleanup time if you have students that like to move and dance. Cleaning can become a fun movement break that they look forward to.

If you have a competitive group of students, they might enjoy a little friendly competition to see which group cleans up the fastest. Assigning students different tasks during cleanup time and then rotating so they get a new job after a couple weeks can give them a sense of ownership and also some variety to keep things interesting.

Be creative to see how the habit you want to instill in your students can be something their brain deems as “worth the energy”.

Law 3: Make it Easy

If you confuse, you lose. If the steps that lead to success are not clear for your students, the habit you are trying to instil in them will not become automatic.

Make the expectations clear and easy to follow. Do lots of pre-teaching and modeling. Use clear instructions, checklists and visuals.

Colour coding bins and having a consistent system for handing in work makes it more obvious to your students where they should be putting their assignments. If you’re always changing the location that you want them to put things, you confuse them and you lose them.

Make it clear, make it consistent, make it easy. Don’t underestimate the power of labels!

Law 4: Make it Satisfying

If you want to instil a habit in your students it has to be satisfying for them. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment, joy, enjoyment or pride in the task they completed.

Focus on the positive, thank and praise your students that are modeling the habit you are teaching them. As teachers, we’re often quick to correct and notice the negative. Pointing out the negative is not satisfying for your students and that makes it less likely that they will create the habit you want to instil.

Be generous with your appreciation and over time you will see more and more students automatically and habitually following the classroom rules and procedures which will make your life easier!

Instil Habits in Your Students to Reduce Transition Time and Teacher Stress

Using the 4 laws of behaviour change when we’re teaching classroom rules and procedures means that we are working with our students’ brains instead of against them. Following these 4 laws will make instilling habits in our students easier and quicker.

Law 1: Make it obvious

Law 2: Make it attractive

Law 3: Make it easy

Law 4: Make it satisfying

Making Mindfulness a Habit in the Classroom

Making mindfulness a part of your daily classroom routine helps prepare students for learning and creates a calm learning atmosphere. We have an excellent resource that makes teaching mindfulness in your classroom as simple as pressing play!

With Educalme, you get a full year of ready-to-use audio, video and printable mindfulness lessons for the classroom. No prep required!
Try it for free!

Educalme Classroom Free Trial

To go even deeper on this topic, listen to our episode on The Balanced Educator Podcast below.Be sure to subscribe to the Balanced Educator Podcast so you don’t miss our upcoming episodes as we continue to teach how to avoid teacher burnout. iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play

Share this post on Pinterest so other educators can learn concrete strategies to form healthy habits this school year.

Let us know in the comments, how will you implement what you learned today?

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