Stop ‘should-ing’ yourself: Could teaching students about habit formation help with wellbeing?

‘Why is it that we wait until our 30s or older until we start to learn and become curious about habits?’ I said to my wife last night… ‘isn’t funny that within several of our friendship groups we have all started exploring self-help books around the same time… I wish someone would have explained it to me sooner!’

During the lockdown period, like many other people, I decided this could be a great opportunity to focus on developing some healthy habits. So, I hit the ‘healthy lockdown Sadie’ mission hard and meditated, exercised, did yoga, listened to podcasts and read books… for about 6 weeks. Then I begin a rapid decline back to my old ways of not doing those things, or at least only doing them sporadically. My motivation to make these changes had been spurred by some recent health issues, as well as reading books such as Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This motivated me in so far as understanding that the mind and body are connected, and I’d felt first hand the physical manifestations of stress; indeed, my body tends to be the thing that gives out first during stressful times. Anticipating a period of high stress and uncertainty, I wanted to try and get ahead of things, and keep my mind and body in a stable (as possible) state. So even though I wasn’t able to continue these habits with the intensity that I had hoped, I was kind to myself because I understood that my brain was in survival mode, and that meant letting go of expectations and being kinder in my thoughts about myself and what I was capable of at this time. One of the things that helped me to be a little kinder was a Tim Feriss podcast episode with sports psychologist, Dr Michael Gervais. It was discussed in a slightly different context, but the idea that remains transferable is that “we get overrun by external stimulus telling us how we should look, how we should think, how we should… That should-ing all over oneself creates shame and smallness.” This really resonated with me and the inner dialogue that I’d been having with myself about many things during lockdown… ‘I should wake up earlier’, ‘I should do more work if I’m working from home’, ‘I should be using this time more productively’, ‘I should get fitter’, etc, etc. It’s not that there isn’t some value in some of these thoughts, exercising for example really would make me feel better, but in framing it in a ‘should’ sentence, what automatically ensued was a feeling of shame for ‘under-achieving’ and a feeling that I was always falling behind.

To bring back the definition of wellbeing that I have drawn upon in my previous blog posts, Davis (2019, p. 1) defines wellbeing as “the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and ability to manage stress.” One journal article that I would like to bring into this discussion is by Gireesh, Das and Viner (2018) and their paper ‘Impact of health behaviours and deprivation on well-being in a national sample of English young people’. The authors describe a wide range of factors that contribute to adolescent wellbeing which include cognitive and relational factors such as family structures, bullying and relationships, support from peers and school connectedness. Additional behavioral factors also had an influence on wellbeing and included fruit and vegetable consumption, alcohol and drug use, sleep duration, physical and leisure time activity, and sedentary behaviours (See Gireesh, Das and Viner, 2018 for references pertaining to these different areas for more information). The authors explain that (UK based) policy initiatives have tended to target cognitive and relational factors such as developing resiliency, and have not really paid due attention to non-psychological modifiable factors that relate to lifestyle behaviours such as sleep, exercise and reading. The study concluded promoting healthy sleep, reading and healthy eating behaviours may be important future targets for wellbeing-based policies for young people. 

This led me to thinking about the importance of helping students to understand the formation of habits and their inherently fluctuating nature when it comes to issues of wellbeing. In my experience ‘habits’ are often taught in relation to ‘study habits’ which are aimed mostly at examination year groups. This leads me to question why it is that we only teach habits to help students prepare to cope with periods of ‘expected stress’ (the impending doom of exams) which has a clear start and end (study leave, followed by exams, followed by exam results coming out). There is a clear motivation to establish good habits during this time, but could we work with students more effectively to guide them in developing intrinsic motivation for their own wellbeing? The other context when it comes to discussions about habits is the ‘you should do, x, y and z… it will make you feel better’, most commonly when it comes to learning about healthy eating or exercise at school. It’s not that this is wrong, but I would argue that perhaps this is encouraging the same (well-meaning but unintentional) shaming and bullying inner dialogue that we continue to suffer with as adults. 

My question is rather than ‘should-ing’ on students as well as ourselves, could we help to educate them with the tools of how to develop habits, and then empower them to explore and research what habits might be useful to them (and why/how) in helping with their own wellbeing – especially during this period of great uncertainty? Perhaps it’s better to instill good habits early, and encourage students to experience this for themselves now, then have them reach for books on habits in their 30s or beyond, searching for the answers they didn’t get at school. 

I’d love to hear from any schools that have explored habit formation and wellbeing with their students – please send a message or write a comment if you would like to share.

References (and mentions)

Davis, T. (2019). What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/201901/what-is-well-being-definition-types-and-well-being-skills

Gireesh, A., Das, S., & Viner, R.M. (2018). Impact of health behaviours and deprivation on well-being in a national sample of English young people. BMJ Paediatrics Open [Online], 2(1).

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Group. 

The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Michael Gervais (#256)  https://tim.blog/2018/05/30/the-tim-ferriss-show-transcripts-michael-gervais/

*Interesting blog post on habits and education – https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2019/01/27/helping-students-maintain-habits-encouraging-persistence-with-behavioural-psychology/

11 thoughts on “Stop ‘should-ing’ yourself: Could teaching students about habit formation help with wellbeing?

  1. Interesting that you like Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. I read a review on another blog and thought how the book might help, so I’ve just bought it.

    I agree that trauma/powerful emotions affect our bodies and like you, I wished I’d known all this sooner.

    I do think students should have this knowledge about habits, along with emotions and managing them effectively but I’m not sure that teachers are the best people to teach them.

    Have you heard of Mental Health First Aid where you are? I think that professionals should teach the students because they have the knowledge and skills to teach them and teachers have enough to do without having to be psychologists too.

    Just my thoughts.

    1. Hi Caz,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I really appreciate it. I really enjoyed Bessel van der Kolk’s book – it definitely sparked an interest in learning and understanding trauma and how it affects us better – I’d love to know if you have any book recommendations relating to this area that you would be happy to share.

      I completely agree that expert advice and expertise is what we need in addition to a caring community (particularly where there may be a absence of that at home). I agree that teachers are overloaded but I hope that my blog spoke more to teaching or guiding students to understand how we build habits (such as the advice given in books like Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit) and perhaps that could be weaved into the curriculum – whether it could be discussed in an English, PSHE or PE lesson (just as an example). The focus would be on how can we get young people to create healthy habits that they identify would help them to feel more ‘stable’, rather than to address and deal with harmful habits such as drinking and other risky behaviours (which I agree is better dealt with by qualified professionals) that may follow a stressful period – the hope would be that teachers could help students understand preventative tactics rather than reactive tactics to wellbeing. This could even be weaved into lessons (or parts of lessons) that incorporate mindfulness and meditation.

      Unfortunately where I am located, school staff often have to wear many different hats in the absence of qualified professionals – especially as many students are not native to Thailand so psychiatric help is available but sparse, and operates differently to the UK – social services for foreign families doesn’t really work the same way here. I have heard of the Mental Health First Aid courses but will definitely endeavour to find out more.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write and I completely agree with what you are saying, it’s just that in my experience International Schools may need to take parts of this best practice and fit it within the culture and the available services around.

      All the best.

      Sadie

      1. I thoroughly enjoyed the few posts that I had time to read, but I will be back to read some more Sadie.

        Ah ha, so you’re in Thailand, wow, I’m jealous. I can imagine the standards of care are a bit behind the UK. So who are your student, if you don’t mind me asking? Are you staying there for a while?

        Yes, please do look up MHFA England or Australia, which is where it started, and it’s now in over 50 countries. I was an Instructor before I was medically retired. and I loved teaching it 🙂

        Yes, I get what you mean about the International schools needing to use other resources. You might be able to use some of the MHFA slides? But don’t tell them I told you lol.

        Nice meeting you Sadie and I’m sure we’ll talk again. Caz

      2. Thanks so much Caz, that’s really kind of you to say 🙂

        Yes it’s definitely very different here – it’s really interesting to see things through a different cultural lens and how that impacts and shapes ideas of wellbeing and communities (which can lead to different sorts of opportunities/challenges).

        Yes I hope to be here a while – I’m based in Chiang Mai so it really is beautiful. We have a mixture of nationalities but predominantly Thai, half Thai (often Thai/British, Thai/American), Korean and Chinese students.

        Thank you for the tip on the MHFA slides – that’s very handy indeed!

        Nice to meet you too Caz and I’ll look forward to reading your blog as well 🙂

        Have a great weekend!

        Sadie

      3. Hey Sadie, I bet it is beautiful and I’ve still to visit Thailand, it’s on my list. And you’re right to be staying lol.

        You have a good weekend too and we’ll be chatting again soon no doubt. Caz 🙂

  2. Hi Sadie,
    Reading the article above, it occurred to me that you might find Motivational Interviewing interesting…….
    ‘ Summary: MI is a collaborative conversation and counseling style centered on an individual person and used to strengthen that person’s own motivation for change. A key concept of MI is the exploration and resolution of ambivalence to- ward changing behavior’
    I’ve used it in groups…..mainly with teenagers….also in drug/alcohol rehabilitation centres…..and also with individuals…..to good effect. Learning about this changed and improved the way I work with people.I’m also aware that it has been put to excellent use in classroom settings.
    This article……. http://www.exercise-works.org/latest-news/2011/12/11/motivational-interviewing-and-empowering-patients-to-make-li.html
    …is written for health professionals but is largely relevant to anyone.
    It was developed by the authors of this book:
    https://www.amazon.com/Motivational-Interviewing-Helping-People-Applications/dp/1609182278

    There are many relevant articles on Google.

    all the best
    Chrissy

    1. Hi Chrissy,

      Thanks so much for your message – I really appreciate you taking the time to read my blog post! It’s really interesting that you mentioned about MI – I’ve started to read around MI quite recently and my first blog post provided a brief discussion/outline of a book I read during lockdown on the use of MI in schools!

      Thank you for sharing the articles – I will check them out too 🙂 Perhaps facets of MI is what could be incorporated in schools both for staff and students… I’ll have to get reading to dive into it a bit more!

      I hope all is well!

      Sadie

  3. Hey Sadie,

    Love that you have started to do this and so excited about reading future posts! I am the KS2 behaviour mentor at my school and have also taught Year 6 for the past 6 years, so I’m really interested in the kind of content you’re writing about.

    I currently use the Matthew Syed ‘You Are Awesome’ programme with my behaviour group. It teaches the kids to reflect on their behaviour choices and to understand the impact that their current actions and habits will have on their lives in the long term. It teaches them about goal setting and – in my personal favourite session – talks about the GB hockey team and their ‘gold’ attitude towards everything in the lead up to the 2016 olympics. During this session I like to share my photo of me standing with Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh posing with their medals!

    I also think it helps to have a set of no more than 4 core values or virtues to use as a foundation in schools when developing life-long healthy habits. We use responsibility, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and collaboration. We refer to these regularly throughout the day. For example, if a child flicks back in their book to a previous lesson to help them in a current activity then we would point out that that is not only great reflectiveness but that they are also being independently resourceful. Similarly, say a child accidentally snaps a school ruler but admits to it and apologises without trying to shove it down the back of a unit or hide it somewhere, we might point out that though they damaged something, they have been responsible for that action and praise them for that. Of course there are lots of other examples but I’m aware I’m turning this comment into a bit of a mini blog myself so will leave it there!

    Can’t wait to read more!

    1. Hi Kim,

      Thank you so much for your message – there is so much good stuff in what you’ve written! It sounds like a really interesting programme that you are implementing – I just googled it and the Matthew Syed’s book on this looks really interesting so I’m definitely going to check it out (thank you!) 🙂

      I’d love for you to contribute an article either for this issue or a future issue if you’d like to (I imagine you need a proper holiday after the last few months). I think it would be great to include more content from primary teachers and staff as I tend to mainly interact with staff from ‘big’ school haha.

      Please let me know if you’d like to contribute at some point that suits you and thank you again for taking the time to read my blog and share your thoughts and experiences!

      Enjoy your break!

      Sadie

      1. Hi Sadie,

        I would love to contribute! We are in wedding countdown at the moment (29 days!) with still some organisation and prep to do for our day but would certainly like to write something at some point over the summer. Let me know what kind of thing you’re after because I’ve got a lot to say about a lot of stuff to do with education and teaching!

        Kim

      2. Hi Kim,

        That’s so exciting – sending you lots of good vibes for your big day! Will send you a message about the article – excited to hear your thoughts 🙂

        Sadie

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