By Shannon Anderson, author of Mindset Power: A Kid’s Guide to Growing Better Every Day
As teachers, at the beginning of the year we have the important mission of building a kind and compassionate classroom community. From getting-to-know-you icebreakers to lessons on making good choices, we try to set the stage for a successful year. This is especially important—and challenging—while we’re all still navigating a pandemic and its many effects on children’s social and emotional well-being.
Maybe your class got off to a great start this year, or maybe the start has been rocky. Many kids are stressed, anxious, or traumatized by changes in their lives over the past months. Many students have learning or behavioral challenges that need support. And all kids have social-emotional ups and downs. A combination of these factors—along with the novelty of the new school year wearing off, more relaxed relationships among students, and some forgetfulness—can result in the need for a reboot. We want the social and emotional learning strategies we teach to become regular behaviors. When behaviors become unconscious actions, they become habits. The right kind of habits make a big difference! Our goal is to build the healthy, helpful habits and guide students away from behaviors that disrupt learning for themselves and for other students.
Helpful habits. There are bound to be some wonderful habits your students have adopted in the first few months of school. These habits are useful because they make learning, getting along with others, and maintaining good mental health better. Examples of healthy ones could be productive study habits, practicing mindfulness, or consistently using strategies like “pause, notice, and choose” before reacting to a situation. Naturally you want to do all you can to encourage and support habits like these.
Not-so-helpful habits. On the other hand, you may have noticed students who have developed some habits that lead to less desirable behavior. Perhaps you have a student or two who automatically raise their hands for help and need to work on building their problem-solving muscles. Maybe there are students who forget to stop and breathe before allowing a situation to cause them anxiety. When these unhealthy habits form, it can be hard to break them.
Mid-year is a good time to revisit goals from the start of the school year and make adjustments to promote positive growth and learning for everyone in the months ahead. Actions that are repeated become automatic. Students need to really be cognizant of a habit to be able to replace it with a more useful one. Here are some strategies you can use to help your students strengthen helpful classroom habits and redirect and reboot to healthier habits where they’re needed.
1. Reveal Your Helpful Habits
Share some of your own habits with students that help you to be more productive, improve your health, or bring more joy into your life. Do you meditate? Do you create a daily to-do list? Do you journal regularly? You probably have changed, or are working on changing, some habits of your own. Share an example of this with your students. Tell them what you’re doing to try to turn an unhelpful habit into a helpful one. For example, let’s say you are trying to break the habit of hitting your snooze button several times each morning. You could hold yourself accountable and be a role model by sharing your steps to make a new habit of getting up the first time your alarm goes off.
2. Review Classroom Agreements
Many teachers start the year by working with students to set five or six key classroom agreements. These might include ideas like “Everyone is welcome,” “Treat people kindly,” “Keep your hands to yourself,” or “Listen and wait your turn to speak.” Make or review your list of classroom agreements with students. Post them in a prominent place.
When we are teaching social and emotional skills in the classroom, it is important to have the core of the lessons centered around skills or character traits that reflect positive social behavior. In other words, if we make compassion, kindness, self-control, responsibility, and other key skills the focus, then every decision we make can be pointed back to those. Since values like these are likely to be reflected in your classroom rules or agreements, children are able to recognize and be reminded of what behaviors are expected. For example, maybe someone is in the habit of blurting out answers a good deal of the time. Blurting isn’t in line with your core values or with classroom agreements focused on self-control or kindness. You can remind the student of the agreement and help them see that blurting is an unhelpful habit—one that keeps them from holding to agreed-upon class behaviors.
3. Help Students Reboot
In the case of a child who blurts out in class, talk with the student about setting a goal to exercise self-control when you ask the class a question. From there, prompt the student to figure out clear, simple action steps. Maybe the steps would look like this:
- Be aware that the teacher asked a question for the whole class.
- Think about the answer.
- Raise my hand if I want to share my answer.
- Wait to be called on.
4. Make It a Habit to Talk About Habits
Encourage all your students to reflect on their good habits and on habits that keep them from their goals. Have students think about what helped them be successful with developing helpful habits and how they can apply that to creating more of them. Goals and good habits are related. Students can look at their goals and ask themselves what action steps it would take to get there. They can then intentionally plan those action steps as part of their routines and behaviors. Repeating these actions can lead to habits that help them reach their goals.
Have students journal about the habits they hope to create and that they hope to break. The thing about habits is that we often do them automatically, without much thinking. If we can set aside time to think about them, we’re more likely to stick with the good ones and abandon the ones that keep us from our goals. A daily practice of journaling can help with this.
5. Track Habits
Another way to be more intentional about habits it to create a habit-tracker. Kids can write the habits they want to track on a chart. They can use tally marks to see if they are increasing the helpful habits and decreasing the unhelpful ones. If they’re still having trouble changing the habit, help them think of action steps to follow. Have them tally times they remember to follow the steps.
6. Celebrate Success
You can help kids choose a positive reinforcement when they reach a desired number of tally marks over a period of time. Maybe they can visit a “Celebrate Success Table” and launch a Nerf rocket or play a celebratory noisemaker when they make progress. Maybe you can make a positive phone call home, write a congratulatory note, or have the principal announce a goal achievement during morning announcements.
7. Showcase Habits
An enjoyable activity you can do with your class is to study the habits of successful people. These people could be famous or everyday people in your lives from home or school. Have kids create presentations independently or in pairs. They can highlight:
- Why did they choose the person?
- What success is the person known for?
- What habits does this person have that are helpful?
- What habits did this person have to break to get to their goals?
By learning from other role models, kids can see the way helpful habits play out in real people’s lives. Students focus outside themselves and discover more about the value in developing the right kind of habits.
Congratulate your students on making it halfway through the school year. Review your classroom agreements, set some goals, determine action steps, and put those steps on repeat to form helpful habits. With this intentional focus on habits, you and your students can prime yourselves for a smooth, productive, and enjoyable second half of the year.
One final word: If you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed with how your school year is going, don’t forget about your own social and emotional well-being. Are there some new habits you can implement to feel more calm and grounded? Would a reflective journaling practice help you? Can you carve out fifteen minutes for a daily walk? Or a minute here and there in your day for deep-breathing breaks?
Be sure to celebrate your successes and the valuable work you are doing for your students. Instead of making celebratory noises and launching Nerf rockets, maybe you can treat yourself to a massage or simply enjoy some quiet time. You deserve it.
Shannon Anderson has taught for 25 years, from first grade through college level. Her career highlight was being named one of the Top 10 Teachers who inspired the Today Show. Shannon is also the author of many children’s books and a national speaker. She was named the JC Runyon Person of the Year for her work helping kids with social and emotional issues through her writing and speaking. To find out more, you can visit: shannoisteaching.com.
Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:
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