Making & Breaking Habits
A typical morning routine, which likely feels automatic, is an example of a series of habits that have formed over time. A habit is a continuous loop in which the same steps are taken each time. Habits aid in navigating our world, and doing things automatically frees the brain to focus on other, more complex matters.
When children are included in routines, they learn habits. Growing up in a house where shoes are taken off at the door or having an elementary teacher who requires strict hand-raising to speak in class are situations where adult impositions influence children’s habits. Whether a child automatically removes their shoes or always raises a hand to speak are habitual behaviors informed by their environment. Now is an ideal time to focus on building positive habits. With distance learning and being isolated at home with other family members, children have more time to become aware of their behaviors. They may revert to old habits to cope with changes currently occurring around them, but by being conscious of how habits form and what can be done to manage them, educators and adults can work with students to help them continue to develop positive habits.
The process of forming habits comprises four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. A cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. A craving then provides the motivating force behind the habit. The response follows—the steps taken to achieve the desired outcome—and then the last step, when you receive a reward for completing the desired action (Clear, n.d.-a). Together, these four steps form a new habit by bracketing separate actions into one, seamless behavior.
We can typically break down habits into two categories:
- Foundational. The repetitive, routine actions that make up a person’s day, such as taking a shower, brushing teeth, or driving to work.
- Situational. Circumstantial, possibly deliberate, behaviors that coalesce into an automatic action, such as browsing social media, snacking on sweets at work, or drinking coffee every morning (Huff, 2017).
Habit formation is influenced by many factors, ranging from expectations and behaviors in the home and school, to what friends say and do, to the images in advertising and the media. Children often look to adults for clues and guidance on how to navigate the world, and adult behaviors can greatly affect the habits children form. Good habits don’t just “happen”—a child must be actively taught to form the desired habit. Forming new habits generally takes about 66 days and requires practice, persistence, and patience (Clear, n.d.-b). To encourage positive habits in children, adults can consciously practice the following strategies.
- Modeling. Demonstrate desirable habits for children, which may include having quiet time for reading or writing before dinner, putting dishes into the dishwasher right after dinner, or stretching before bed.
- Creating an environment that allows children to learn good habits. Give children the chance to practice habits on their own instead of doing things for them, even if it means that sometimes the bed doesn’t get made or there needs to be a discussion about brushing teeth.
- Offering effort-based praise and recognition. When children successfully perform an action that should become a habit, be sure to recognize their efforts and reinforce the benefit it brings to them. For example, if a child washes their hands before eating without being told, praise them for remembering and remind them that this habit will help keep them healthy.
- Metacognition. Metacognition is the “capacity to monitor, assess, control, and change how one thinks and learns” (Whitebread & Bingham, 2013). Children should be given time to reflect on new habits. They can monitor the results of various strategies, find ones that work best for them, and consider how their strategies and habits positively influence their lives.
There will be times when less than ideal habits take hold, such as an afternoon caffeine habit or a child’s post-dinner sweet tooth. Although children’s habits and routines are typically established by age nine (Jackson, 2015), habits that may be unhealthy or undesirable can be changed at any age.
It’s important to note that some habits, such as a caffeinated drink or sugary treat, take hold not because they free brain space but because they make us feel good. When engaged in an activity that makes us feel good, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine, which triggers the brain’s “reward center.” Performing that same action repeatedly causes more dopamine to release every time until the brain learns to expect that dopamine rush. This triggering and dopamine rush can set up valuable habits, such as finding an enjoyable exercise routine, but it can also set up harmful routines, such as indulging a sugar craving every afternoon.
When seeking a dopamine rush with little thought about the logical consequences, the reward center overtakes the rational mind, and the brain starts to crave the stimulus of the dopamine release. By continually giving in to cravings, the ability to control impulses and wait for delayed gratification is diminished, and a habit is eventually established (Merluzzi, 2014). The gratification achieved by the dopamine release makes the habit
difficult to break, especially the bad ones.
What follows are some tips for recognizing undesirable habits and the steps to take to change them.
- Recognize the function of the habit. Both good and bad habits serve a purpose. Washing your hands before eating has health benefits. Eating sweets when stressed can bring comfort. Understanding the purpose of a habit can be crucial for deciding whether to keep it or change it.
- Replace the habit. Try to change the undesirable habit into one that is good. For example, if the compulsion is to reach for a chocolate bar at stressful times, try replacing it with fruit or tea, or even a completely different activity, like writing or going for a walk.
- Identify what triggers the habit. If it’s possible to figure out why the habit has been established, it may be easier to break it. Take steps to minimize or eliminate the triggers where possible.
- Find someone to help you remain accountable. Grab a workout buddy or start a journal of your habits—be accountable by writing about the goal and the experiences. For children, adults can practice a good habit with them, or set timers or use music cues so children learn to remember to do the good habit themselves.
- Track your habits. Habits can be hard to break. Try using a habit tracker to help you better understand when you tend to slip up. Tracking your habits and tracing where you tend to lean on that habit will empower you to make changes rather than let the bad habits derail the progress you’ve made.
For some people, a rewards-based system works best, and for others, success comes from avoiding temptation. Replacing old habits with new ones is a highly subjective and personal experience that takes time, effort, and patience; it will come with successes as well as setbacks. Try using this period of time at home as an opportunity to focus on habitual behaviors, reinforce positive behaviors, and work together with your students to replace undesirable behaviors. While it takes time to build positive habits and it can be difficult to change negative ones, the rewards are well worth the effort.
- Clear, J. (n.d.-a). How to start new habits that actually stick. James Clear. Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change
- Clear, J. (n.d.-b) How Long Does it Take to Actually Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science). James Clear. Retrieved from https:// jamesclear.com/new-habit
- Huff, R. (2017, November 29). There Are Two Types of Habits: Foundational and Situational. Medium. https://medium.com/@ realroyhuff/there-are-two-types-of-habits-foundational-and-situational-8398af602abd
- Jackson, R. (2015, February 26). Study finds habit in children take root by age 9. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday. com/us/blog/school-thought/201502/study-finds-habits-in-children-take-root-age-9
- Merluzzi, A. (January 2014). Breaking bad habits. Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/breaking-bad-habits
- Whitebread, D., & Bingham, S. (May 2013). Habit formation and learning in young children. The Money Advice Service. https:// mascdn.azureedge.net/cms/the-money-advice-service-habit-formation-and-learning-in-young-children-may2013.pdf