Habit Training Part 2: The Practice of Habit Training

Jun 19, 2020

Freedom is gained only through discipline. Discipline is regular, continual effort to enact self-governance in some way. Discipline comes in many shapes and sizes, from budgeting to exercise to reading. In each of these examples, one applies oneself to self-govern in order to enjoy a future freedom. We budget in order to enjoy financial freedom. We exercise to be free from health problems. We read to be free from ignorance. Discipline, though, is not easy. The author of Hebrews recognizes this, writing, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11 esv). Wouldn’t it be great if there was some method that made it easy to be disciplined?

Well, there is a way to help others acquire discipline simply and easily. The practice of habit training can be started with young children when they are most pliable and open. A little investment early can reap lifelong rewards. In this article, we will walk through the basic method of habit training as delineated by Charlotte Mason and consider how we can implement her method in our classrooms.

The Method of Habit Training

The heart of habit training is what Charles Duhigg calls the habit loop. The brain creates efficiency of effort by grouping nerves together in bundles, making actions into patterns called habits. Duhigg outlines three steps:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.” (Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, p. 19)

The science behind Duhigg’s three-step loop is compelling. It might strike you, though, as it did me, that this habit loop reduces the human being to a mechanical organism. That is why I found Charlotte Mason’s approach so valuable. She recognized (100 years before Duhigg, by the way) that our neurological structure centered around habits. But she also viewed the child as a whole person, thereby incorporating the spiritual, moral and relational aspects of our being into a more holistic method of habit training.

Take the concept of a reward. We recognize that if we throw a piece of candy to a child, we can probably get them to do any number of tasks. However, the reward isn’t very compelling, and for sustained effort, the child is likely to never acquire the desired habit. If we reframe the concept of reward, though, as a life of meaning, purpose and ease, we now have a compelling reward that supports long-term acquisition of a good habit. I’ve broken Mason’s method into five parts, and after describing each part, I’ll relate it back to Duhigg’s three-step loop.

Let’s pick two very different habits: sitting straight with feet on the floor, and being kind to others. The first I call the ready-to-learn position, the second is just a basic virtue. Both are habits. We’ll consider these as examples through the five parts of Mason’s method.

We begin with an inspiring idea. The inspiring idea is framed by a vision of what is best for the child. Without this key point, habit training is just manipulation; it is seeking what is best for us. Habit training is not merely a classroom management tool, but a way of helping the child to achieve their best for themselves. So I have a child in my class who can’t sit straight with his feet on the floor. My first step is to work with that child to help them see that what is best for them is to get in a ready-to-work position. He will enjoy his work more and accomplish it better and faster if he begins in a ready-to-work position. What about kindness? I might have a girl in class who is unkind to her friends. I see this on the playground every day. My first step is to work with her to see that a better way to gain and retain friends is to be kind. Inspiring ideas can often be drawn from great texts or examples from life. When teaching the ready-to-work idea, I often connect to sports, to help the child see that athletes train themselves to get in the right position to do their best work. Literature abounds with examples of kindness. Lucy Pevensie or Samwise Gamgee come to mind. Inspiring ideas do three things right off the bat. First, the child is inspired to try something new that will make his or her life better. Second, it builds an alliance between you and the child. The child wants to try sitting straight with both feet on the floor or to be kind, and knows that I am willing to help the child all along the way. Third, it expresses the true reward of the habit. More on this below.

After the inspiring ideas, we must give a detailed description of the habit. We need to put in the work of boiling the thing down to its essence. We all know the futility of lengthy lectures, both having listened to them when we were young and from having given them to children who almost immediately revert to standard moments after the lecture. The detailed description should be very brief and to the point. “Every time we start a subject, you should make sure your back is straight and your feet on the floor. Do you think you can do that every time?” “I will try.” “Great, I will help you.” In this example, the habit was detailed in one simple sentence. For kindness, there might be numerous habits to build. I might begin by having the child simply ask another child if she can play what the other person is playing. Later I might add other kindness cues. In each instance, though, I would give specific, detailed instructions that are brief. Going in depth into the reasons why or anticipating all the special different circumstances are unnecessary and belabor the point. It will take work on your part to really boil it down. In addition, it is actually easier to build a positive habit than it is to stop doing a negative habit. That’s why I say sit in a ready-to-work position rather than stop tipping in your chair.

You’ve now set up the habit training with an inspiring idea and a detailed description. Now come constant vigilance. Research is unclear on how long it takes to fully form a new habit. Let’s just say it takes time. In fact, it takes a series of successful repeats to move from conscious effort to automaticity. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits talks about “learning curves” to shift our thinking away from a time-based scale to a frequency-based scale (p. 145). The frequency doesn’t even need to be that great in order to achieve the desired effect. Charlotte Mason envisions minimal effort to acquire a habit. She writes, “It is pleasant to know that, even in mature life, it is possible by a little persistent effort to acquire a desirable habit.” (Home Education, p. 135). But persist we must, or else the weeds creep back in. So we must keep watch. This child is naturally inclined to acquire a new habit since they have been inspired and the instruction are easy. Yet the child is also forgetful and weak. This is where we must be vigilant and strong. We will watch every day for the straight back and both feet on the floor. We will listen for kind words. And we will offer simple and pleasant support when we see forgetfulness and weakness.

As educators, many tasks take our attention. It will be all too easy in the hectic nature of everyday life to neglect our little disciples. So the next step is to accept no half measures. Clear’s learning curve slopes almost to plateau before a habit achieves automaticity. That’s the danger zone. It already looks like the child has achieved success, but in this critical moment the old habits are ready to emerge as strong as ever. The child tips in his chair, and we let it go. We begin to think that perhaps we’ve been too hard on the child. Or maybe we can relax our standards a bit. But then all the work goes down the drain. The child is worse off than when we began, because it will be harder to inspire and instruct a second time. Why is that? Because we didn’t actually believe that this habit would lead to an easier, more fulfilling life for the child. We’ve undermined the inspiration at the worst possible moment. Therefore, don’t accept a half measure. See it through to the end. This is why it’s advisable to select only a few habits to work on at a time. If you have a larger class, group the habits, so that there is a common talking point. Build momentum on one thing and see it all the way through. Notate it for yourself and even schedule out a month or two months ahead check ins on the habits so that you can see it all the way to automaticity.

The final step of habit training is reaping the natural reward of the habit. When we set up habit training with an inspirational idea that seeks what is best for the child, the habit itself becomes the reward. Consider the child who has become adept at sitting in a ready-to-work position. This child is now better able to accomplish his work. There are multiple possible rewards that come with this. Think about the improved self-view the child has attained. The child also gains a better mindset for accomplishing his work. Along with these benefits, the child finishes his work quicker, meaning he can enjoy some extra time to read a personal book or draw. Freedom, autonomy and self-direction are far better rewards than candy or stickers. Choosing a few keystone habits like a ready-to-work position and kindness leads to other habits because they build off of the concept of the natural reward. Similarly, natural consequences reinforce habit training. By not sitting in a ready-to-work position, the child loses freedom, autonomy and self-direction. The child might have to sit by me, while I watch them like a hawk finishing the assignment. This is very different than a punishment, such as a demerit or a checkmark on the board. “I would like to see you enjoy some freedom, but we can’t go there until we both see a ready-to-work position on a regular basis.”

So let’s connect this back to the three-step loop: cue, routine, reward. In terms of cueing a habit, we’ve explored how we can initiate a new habit by inspiring students with a vision of their own best selves. As we describe in detail the habit, we can include certain trigger phrases or even just physical cue, such as a gentle tap on the shoulder, to remind students of the habit we’re working on. Routines are more than just behavioral hacks. Instead, we are instilling intellectual, moral, affective and spiritual practices that have traditionally been viewed as the essence of a meaningful and purposeful life. Rewards as we’ve seen have nothing to do with treats or cheat days. Instead, the concepts of a rewarding life are what we are placing before the eyes of our students.

Hopefully this has given you an introduction to the major concepts in habit training. If you are interested in learning more about habit training in the classroom, check out my free eBook at educationalrenaissance.com, and stay tuned for the final part in this series on habit training on a classical Christian understanding of habit training.

Patrick Egan

Patrick Egan

Patrick Egan is an author, lecturer, and administrator at Clapham School in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of Ecclesiology and the Scriptural Narrative of 1 Peter (Pickwick, 2016). He completed is Ph.D. from the University of St Andrews in 2011. Patrick blogs regularly on ancient wisdom for the modern era at educationalrenaissance.com.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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