Being classroom teachers, we’ve all had experience in trying to create large scale behavior that will allow us to do our jobs a little more easily and allow the class to function as a whole, doing the activities the way we need them done. We don’t refer to it in this way, but we’re creating whole class habits. We create these routines or habits with our students and when they enter our classroom, they know exactly what to do (after some initial learning). Most students seem to thrive on routine, at least when it comes to procedures in a classroom. We create a habit procedure but we need to practice it with them. After consistent practice, they are able to do many of these procedures or routines almost automatically. Once this kind of automatic response happens, it’s almost magical. Students know what you want them to do, without you having to redirect and remind. What if we started to apply this same concept to our own habit formation?
In the best-selling book Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses the three parts to a habit cycle: cue–action–reward. The cue is what tips us off that we are supposed to do something OR it’s a reminder we create to start a habit. The action is what we do when prompted by the cue and the reward is the ultimate payoff. For example in my classroom, I always cue the beginning of class with a screen slide directing students as to what materials to get out on their desks to begin class. Their routine is to begin getting those materials out as soon as they walk in the door. The reward is that I give the individual student a bonus ticket if they have everything out on their desk, excuse free, when I walk around. I used to do this without the reward and it was really quite a mess. Once I introduced the reward (instead of discipline for students who weren’t prepared), most students now go out of their way to neatly pile their papers, get a book and place their pencil in the desk’s pencil holder. It’s a remarkable difference! I’m not sure I even need to give the reward anymore, but I like to promote the positive behavior and it’s not a high stakes treat every day.
So what does this mean for all of the habits we want to enact or change? Do we need to reward ourselves with bonus tickets or other treats like we do our students? I would say, yes! Absolutely! Why not! We deserve it! However, before you can start doling out rewards, you need to understand how your habit cycle is already working in your life (and how you want it to work).
If you want to change an existing habit….
Think of some habits you already do…this may be a little difficult because most habits are automatic and you do them without really thinking. One habit that I wanted to examine was eating something sweet after I was done teaching for the day. I realized my cue was that I was done teaching, my routine was to reach for something sweet, and my reward was that I felt some relief and did something to make me feel better after working so hard. Now, there is nothing wrong with a treat once in awhile, but this particular habit really started to get out of control. In fact, the reward started to not make me feel great. After the sugar rush subsided, sometimes I felt worse than when I started. This whole habit system was something I did everyday without really thinking about it. Even if my day wasn’t particularly stressful, I searched for something to sweet to eat after I was done teaching.
This was clearly a habit that I wanted changed. So I followed the steps in Power of Habit: the cue and the reward need to stay the same, the routine needs to change. Sounds simple enough, but one thing that needs to be present is that the routine needs to really trigger the reward feeling. I gave a lot of thought to what reward would really work, and I decided to just try different things. What seems to currently work is after the cue of being done teaching, I reward myself by taking a walk, making myself a cup of coffee, and eating a healthy snack that I brought from home (not a random cookie, cake, pie, or candy). The reward is that I am nourishing my physical self by moving throughout my day and eating something that is healthy, not just some random junk that I happen to find or buy.
It was so helpful to break the habit down into cue – routine – reward instead of just being upset with myself and not knowing why I was doing, what I was doing (but not wanting to do it!). So if you have a habit you want to change, see if you can replace the routine, making the whole habit different, yet effective.
If you want to start a new habit….
Starting a new habit follows the same steps: cue – routine – reward. Most likely you see the habit as the “action” you want to implement. So what is the something you want to start doing? Perhaps it’s creating some kind of morning routine, maybe starting with 5 minutes of mindfulness practice, journaling, or beginning your day some kind of light exercise. So what is your cue? It could simply be waking up. It could be brushing your teeth. It could be sitting down in your favorite chair. It could be starting your coffee maker. Your cue will be whatever triggers you into routine. For me, I put the same exact robe on every morning before I sit down to do my mindfulness practice. Each morning, I stumble out of bed, brush my teeth, put on my robe and find myself sitting to do mindfulness practice. It’s become such a habit that it is now truly automatic. That is the great thing about starting good habits, once you create them you don’t need to expend energy doing them. You just do them! So what is the reward? Well, it could be that you are simply doing something for yourself. In addition to the reward of self-care, I usually reward myself with a hot cup of coffee that I can smell brewing as I’m finishing.
So consider what habits you may want to start and set up not just the routine, but the cue AND the reward. This will give you the best opportunity for successfully creating this habit. And if your cue and reward don’t work at first, try, try again!
I’d love to hear your experience with creating healthy habits that help you live a healthy life in both your classroom and personal life! Feel free to comment below or send me an email at Danielle@teachingwell.life.