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Stop “Should-ing” Yourselves: Teaching Teachers and Students About Habit Formation

By Sadie Hollins
Stop “Should-ing” Yourselves: Teaching Teachers and Students About Habit Formation

Schools are in the business of change. Every day, the interactions between students and teachers are fundamentally underpinned by the notion of change, as they work together to improve academic performance, behavior, and even social skills. Encouraging change in a positive direction makes up much of what we do as teachers.

During lockdown, a lot of the existing systems meant to encourage this change got derailed. The weekly in-person check-ins, the mentoring and tutoring systems, and the everyday interactions that help to nudge students towards change got swapped for Zoom calls, Loom lessons, and Google Classrooms tasks. This is not to say that some pretty incredible innovations in terms of online teaching didn’t grow out of this period of uncertainty, but it definitely changed our known ways of working and forced us to find ways to adapt and cope.

The routine that school had imposed was obsolete, forcing students and their families to re-create new habits around working times, breaks, exercise, and eating that the school bell formerly helped to guide.

For me, lockdown became a bit of a social experiment into looking at habits and change. At the start of lockdown, I set lots of goals related to self-improvement, both personally and professionally. I aimed to start meditating, reading every day, connecting and speaking with family and friends regularly, exercising five times per week… The list went on and on. I thought that I could use the time at home to recreate myself and become the person I wanted to be by focusing on achieving these goals.

I started off strong, but four weeks later I was back to my old habits again. Even with all the best intentions (and time available), I’m sad to say that I didn’t emerge from lockdown with a “six pack” or a brand-new meditation practice.

What I did find (to borrow the term from a podcast discussion with Tim Feriss and Michael Gervais) was that I was “should-ing” all over myself… I should be exercising more, I should be eating healthier, I should be losing weight, I should be working harder, I should be working on those tasks that I don’t get a chance to normally work on… I should be doing more and I should be doing better.  

“Should-ing,” though well-meaning (on some level this inner voice just wants more for ourselves), presents a “deficit-focused” way of looking at ourselves and our lives. In contrast to a strengths-based narrative about ourselves (all our strengths in relation to the things we are currently coping with), it highlights all of the things we’re not achieving due to some perceived fault related to who we are and why we don’t change.

Not only is this outlook harmful, it also doesn’t lead to change… which ironically is exactly the reason for these thoughts in the first place. The problem is further compounded by the fact that we not only “should” on ourselves, we “should” all over others as well.

Last week I had the opportunity to deliver a PD session at our school that was inspired by these lockdown experiences (the presentation was entitled “Stop ‘Should-ing’ Yourselves: Tips for Effective Habit Formation”). Here I will share a couple of thoughts from the presentation that hopefully might encourage some useful discussions for both teachers and students.

In his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear presents a really useful conceptualization of habits and behavior change, explaining that there are three layers of behavior change: outcomes, processes, and identity. Imagine three concentric circles (much like a target), with the outer circle representing “outcomes,” which is concerned with changing your results (losing weight, finishing writing a book, etc.). Most of the goals that we set for ourselves fall within this outer circle.

The next layer of the circle is concerned with changing your “processes,” such as developing a meditation practice or implementing a new exercise program. This is the layer on which most habit change is centered. The innermost circle is related to “identity,” or our beliefs, assumptions, and biases about ourselves and the world around us.

Clear summarizes these layers of change. “Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.” Most of the time when thinking about change we tend to focus on what we want to achieve, even teaching students about SMART targets. We could shift this thinking about habits, however, by starting with who we wish to become.

As teachers that work in the business of change, this feels like an interesting place to start. Clear explains that our behaviors are usually a reflection of our identity, and our behaviors and actions indicate, either consciously or subconsciously, the type of person that we believe we are.

The more deeply we tie a particular thought to our identity, the harder it is to change. I think of the countless number of times students tell me “I’m terrible at Maths,” “I’m so bad at school,” “I’m so disorganized”... These are self-perpetuating beliefs, thoughts that inform our behaviors, which then continue to inform our thoughts, and the cycle continues.

Clear suggests a simple two-step process to changing your identity in relation to change:

1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Deciding the type of person one wants to be is a big question, both for our students and ourselves. It’s much easier to focus on what we want to achieve (whether that be to develop six-pack abs or to get an A grade in a subject) and that’s okay. The next thing to do is to work backwards from there by asking, “What type of person could achieve that outcome?” When it comes to academics, we have to be mindful that this question doesn’t become shaming… it’s a reality that not everyone is or should be an A-grade student, and that’s okay too. Perhaps we reformulate this question to be, “What type of person manages to improve their work?” or, “What type of person is always trying to be better?”

Whether it’s in life or in school, when it comes to the business of change the underlying goal according to Dr. Michael Gervais is to “get better at getting better.” This is the ultimate habit. Rather than focusing on our own or our students' deficits when it comes to change, perhaps it would be more helpful to explore the role that our identity (and our behaviors in relation to this) plays in supporting or inhibiting the change process. We get better outcomes and results by changing, editing, and updating our beliefs about ourselves. Guiding students through this process could be a powerful thing to do.   

Dr. Sadie Hollins is the Head of Sixth Form at Lanna International School in Thailand and is a writer on wellbeing in international schools. She is on Twitter @_WISEducation.

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