Help Students Fine-Tune Their Habits During Social Distancing

May 4th, 2020

Make the Most of Distance Learning

Social distancing has been such a significant shift because, at a basic level, it’s meant that so many habits in our personal and professional lives have changed. As the novelty of the situation wears off, we may find that some of the new habits we’ve developed are troubling, while others are a pleasant surprise. In both cases, however, our habits don’t have to be things that just happen to us. Instead, we can take more control of our lives if we know how to engineer our habits and treat them like the impactful repeated decisions they are. Help your middle or high school students better understand the shifts in their habits they’re experiencing during social distancing: use these free lesson resources from Alliance for Decision Education to teach them how to continue nurturing the new helpful habits they’ve formed and crush the problematic ones.

How Habits Operate

Habits are behaviors that become automatic because we do them over and over again. They come to define who we are. We can better understand how this happens when we’re familiar with the habit loop, a diagram that became more widely known through the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg:

A habit loop starts with a cue, which can be anything that reminds us of doing a habit, like a certain feeling (emotional or physical), a time of day, a place, people we’re with, or what we did just before—or some combination of those things. The cues prompt the behavior that defines the habit. A behavior becomes a habit because it provides some sense of satisfaction.

For example, during social distancing, Jane has formed the helpful habit of getting chores done before logging on to teach her classes. Here’s how that habit loop operates:

The cue of going downstairs in the morning to make coffee prompts Jane to engage in the behavior of looking around the house to see what chores can be completed in the thirty minutes before getting to her desk. This behavior leads to the satisfaction of feeling productive and enjoying more free time after work. Jane wants to find a way to continue nurturing a similar habit when she’s back at school in the fall.

Problematic habits operate somewhat differently. A problematic habit provides satisfaction too, but it’s usually characterized by instant, fleeting gratification and followed by negative side effects. For example, during social distancing, James has formed the problematic habit of doing excessive online shopping because he has extra time that he previously filled with completing administrative tasks and chatting with his students and colleagues. Here’s how that problematic habit loop operates:

Extra time in between tasks and classes is the cue for James to engage in the behavior of buying sale items on the websites of his favorite clothing brands. It provides the satisfaction of feeling like he’s improving himself (and eliminating boredom). However, it leads to the negative side effect of going over his budget, so James wants to crush this habit right now.

It can be difficult to avoid the cues that start a problematic habit loop if you’re unable to change your environment or circumstances (which is typical under social distancing restrictions). In those situations, the easiest way to transform the problematic habit into a helpful one is to use the same cues to prompt a different behavior that provides a similar satisfaction—but doesn’t come with negative side effects. So in this example, instead of defaulting to online shopping whenever he has a few extra minutes, James could try to substitute the new behavior of doing some sort of exercise, like lifting weights or taking a short walk.

Student Assignment

These free lesson resources from the Alliance for Decision Education can help middle and high school students observe how their habits related to stress management, physical health, productivity, money management, and relationships have changed during social distancing. They include background information on the habit loop, prompts to help students crush problematic habits now and continue nurturing new helpful habits after social distancing restrictions ease, and reflection questions for deeper thinking and discussion. Just download the files to Word or “Save a Copy” in Google Docs so you can add them to your students’ online learning space.

Take It Further

As you finish out the school year, consider extending your students’ work on their habits with the full HabitWise program for grades 7-10 from the Alliance for Decision Education. Access is completely free. The program contains materials to structure independent habit projects, along with six lessons that include:

  • Engaging animated videos that make it easy to introduce the concepts.
  • Structured worksheets that tap prior knowledge, check comprehension, and help students connect the concepts to their own lives.
  • Multiple extension activities that deepen students’ understanding of how habits affect our personal lives and society.

Our habits are in the spotlight right now because of social distancing, but HabitWise is appropriate for regular classroom instruction too, especially within subjects that focus on Character Education, Social and Emotional Learning, Decision Education, study skills, or health. At any age and under any circumstance, we benefit from reflecting on the ways our habits shape our lives. Teaching your students how to structure and fine-tune their habit loops is a skill that will help them achieve greater satisfaction in their lives now and throughout adulthood.

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