Always a Reason: Understanding Habits to Help Students Change Them

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Changing a habit is difficult to do for adults, and helping others change habits is even more chal­lenging. Add to that the com­plexities of the individual you are trying to help—a student between the ages of 4 and 14, and one of the many students you interact with daily—and this challenge may seem nearly impossible. While it certainly can be challenging, helping students change habits can yield positive results, for both the student you are helping and the group the student belongs to. To help students change habits of behavior that are disruptive or neg­atively impact the learning environ­ment, we must maintain empathy, create a replacement behavior, teach the necessary skills and strategies, and reinforce the gains observed.

Maintaining Empathy

In a 2002 study, participants re­corded once per hour what they were thinking, feeling, and do­ing. The data collected showed that about 43 percent of actions performed were habit, behaviors that were performed regularly, re­peatedly, and usually in the same context (Wood et al. 2002). Once a habit is established, the behavior is conducted subconsciously and the repetition reinforces the likelihood that the pattern will continue, es­pecially when the context is similar (Gardner & Rebar, 2019). This idea is powerful when we see individuals stuck in patterns of behavior that re­sult in a negative impact or outcome. Knowing the behavior is habit due to context and is being performed subconsciously empowers us to remove the personalization of the behavior and examine the behavior for the root cause. Through care­ful observation, the function for the habit will emerge: the student is try­ing to gain something, avoid some­thing, create a sense of belonging, or meet a need for significance. De­personalizing the pattern of behavior by way of seeing it as a habit allows us to maintain empathy, focus on the habit itself, and alter the context in which the behavior is performed.

Create a Replace­ment Behavior

Once we know what the function of the be­havior is, it is important that we provide a replacement be­havior that will lead to the same result (Minahan & Rappa­port, 2012). When we see students stuck in patterns of behavior we want to change to produce more pro­ductive outcomes, we must keep in mind that the habit is being per­formed due to its effec­tiveness, and therefore any replacement behavior we teach and expect must provide similar results.

We can think of this in the sense of a student who exhibits a pattern of calling out. The result the student receives is that the teacher immedi­ately says, “That’s correct, next time raise your hand.” The function of this behavior is that the student has an increased sense of significance: by calling out, the student is the first to share the answer, their voice is heard, and the teacher directly acknowledges the student’s correct re­sponse. However, if the teacher then teaches a replacement behavior of a student raising a hand to be called on, and the teacher does not call on the student each time they raise their hand, the student will default back to the habit that was meeting the need: calling out. But if the teach­er provides a replacement behavior of a student showing a signal to indicate knowing the correct answer (for example, quietly holding up a piece of yellow paper) and the teacher immediately acknowledges the signal through a nod or thumbs up, the student will continue to use that behavior because their sense of significance is being met.

When identifying a replacement behavior, it is important to work with the student outside of the context of the patterned behavior. In doing so, you will be able to think carefully about the function of the habit and the outcome it results in, and then identify a replacement behavior that is effective in meeting the need for the student. In addition, you will be able to approach the behavior from a neutral stance, engaging empathy as you consider replacement behaviors and identify what the context for the pattern of behavior is.

Teach Necessary Skills/Strategies

When we intervene to stop a behavior and then put the student back into the same situation re­peatedly without taking time to teach the lack­ing skills, strategies, or competencies, we cannot expect different results: the student will continue to repeat the habit if they do not have other skills or strategies to try when they are in that context. Instead, focusing on what the student is lacking and going back to the root cause and function of the habit will provide insight to what skill or strategy must be taught, refined, or strengthened. Once taught, the replacement behavior will be­come habit as the individual becomes more confi­dent and competent with those skills or strategies.

It is important to note that in many situations students are missing several skills and strat­egies and that they cannot all be taught in one day, nor can the expectation become that a stu­dent will implement a new skill after learning it for the first time. Shifting habits takes time, as does learning, and both require repeated practice to make the behavior subconscious within a set context. Taking time to examine how the behavior is compensatory provides opportunities to teach the student new skills or strategies, resulting in a change of habit.

Reinforce Gains

As a student automatizes a new habit, it is essen­tial to reinforce their progress through specific words to encourage continued effort and focus. When a habit is a function to meet a need for significance, taking time to privately acknowl­edge their growth builds a new context with which the behavior is associated and motivates the student to repeat the behavior. An effective way to encourage repeated behavior is through pointing out approximations toward mastery—as soon as the smallest step toward the new habit is exhibited, acknowledge it through words, facial expression, and positive body language (Responsive Classroom, 2013). The student receives immediate feedback on their success and is then able to build upon that success until a new habit is in place and the result meets the need of the student in a productive and positive way.

By maintaining empathy, identifying replacement behaviors, teaching skills and strategies that are lacking, and reinforcing small gains, we help students create new habits to replace old ones. Students want to do well and are constantly doing the best they can, given their life situation and circumstances. One way we can support students is by providing them opportunities to re­place less desirable behaviors with those that will lead to healthier and more productive outcomes.


  • Gardner, B., & Rebar, A. L. (April 2019). Habit formation and behavior change. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/ 9780190236557.013.129
  • Minahan, J., & Rappaport, N. (2012). The behavior code: A practical guide to understanding and teaching the most challenging students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  • Responsive Classroom. (2013). Naming what children can do. Retrieved from naming-what-children-can-do/
  • Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281–1297.