Triggers, Routines, and Rewards: An Escape from the Dumpster Fire

The past two academic years have been rife with challenges. There has been tremendous amounts of learning, to be sure, but educators have also spent the last ten months managing loss, chaos, disruption, overwhelm, and fear. While things seem to be moving in the right direction, we’re not out of the woods yet. Moreover, exhaustion, burnout, and disillusionment have set in for some. How can we help ourselves and our colleagues make it through the rest of the year?

One answer: finding growth and small wins through habit change. Making a change in our routines and habits has been positively correlated with improvements in mental health, perhaps because it improves our sense of efficacy and control in a chaotic world. Certainly, making a change to habits can begin a virtuous cycle or domino effect, as we wrote about in last week’s blog post. We make one small habit change, which we’re proud of so we make another, and another, and another. Next thing you know, we’ve achieved something great and feel good about it. Bottom line: helping teachers and leaders (and ourselves) make changes in habits is a great way to increase their well-being in this mess of a time.

Helping Teachers With Habit Change

According to Charles Duhigg, there are three key components of a habit: a trigger or cue, a routine, and a reward. The trigger is whatever initiates the performance of the habit, the routine is the action we take, and the reward is the outcome that leads us to repeat the cycle over and over. To make a change to habits, we have to think about each part, after first identifying the habit itself:

  • Identify the habit: What does the person want to change? You could explore the person’s goals, or the challenge that is keeping them up at night. Find the pain point that is most getting them down. And then dig into, what’s one action that you could start, stop, or change that would start to make things better? Or, in the words of Gary Keller, “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” 
  • The trigger: To add a new habit, we need to identify an clearly identifiable event that will remind us to do the new routine. This is a great place to support a teacher with a classroom observation. Once the teacher has identified the habit, serve as an extra pair of eyes in the classroom to suss out possible triggers. What natural triggers could we select that could cue rehearsal of a beneficial habit? Examples might include students entering the room, a student raising their hand, a certain point in the lesson. To drop a habit, we need to identify the trigger and look for ways to minimize its occurrence if possible. What seems to be triggering the bad habit? Can we put our finger on whatever identifiable event happens right before the teacher acts out the behavior they are trying to drop? Note that if the habit pertains to another venue, we could think about observing other events: planning meetings, student conferences, parent phone calls, etc.
  • The routine: To add a new habit, it’s important to identify in clear, concrete terms, the specific action that forms the new routine we’re hoping to add. That new routine should start small and easy to execute – think about the smallest bite-sized version of the new habit. In a conversation, brainstorm possible micro-habits with the teacher. To drop a habit…well, we shouldn’t even think about dropping a habit. We should think about replacing a bad habit with a good one, so it’s all about identifying the routine we want to do instead of the bad habit whenever the trigger happens. Encourage the teacher to visit other teachers’ classes to take note of habits they would like to emulate. Then boil those down to their most basic form to use as replacement habits.  
  • The reward: To add a habit, we need to reward ourselves. That can be as simple as tracking our habits to get that little “boost” of dopamine from a streak of successes. We also need to look for ways to ensure that our new replacement habit brings us a reward on par with what we got from our old habit. Help the teacher identify how they are going to track their success. Our recommendation is through weekly or daily action items connected to the goal in myFolio. They can check off each day or each week they stuck to their habit. As a leader, you can help with other small “rewards”: a kind word or a note, a positive Spotlight or Conversation note in myFolio, or a shout-out in faculty meeting. Success breeds success when it comes to habit change.

What About Habit Change For Leaders?

Leadership, perhaps even more than teaching, is an accumulation of habits. Effective leaders tend to be those who have accumulated the right habits over time: of praise and support, asking good questions, being reliable and consistent, and so on. What are the habits you want to adopt as a leader? Perhaps you’d like to get into classrooms (physically or virtually) more often? Have more check-ins with colleagues? Show appreciation more often? Take more time to reflect, plan, and strategize? These things are not impossible to achieve. Use the trigger-routine-reward approach described above to change your own practice, and then talk to others about your own efforts. Modeling is everything when it comes to professional growth!

Are you interested in taking more of a habits-oriented approach towards professional growth? Drop us a line to talk more!

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