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Keystone Habits: Unlocking Success for our Students and Ourselves

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Charles Duhigg is a champion writer. Through years of deliberate practice, he's attained a level of excellence that makes the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Times bestseller list possible.

In his book The Power of Habit, you begin to see how Duhigg reached this level of success. Yet, more importantly, you see how we can teach our students, and ourselves, to do likewise.

Why my students don't turn in their homework

The full title of Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Businesscontains the book's central question: why do we do what we do?

That's something I'm interested in knowing, but from a slightly different angle: why do my students do what they do?

I teach fourteen-year-olds that I genuinely love, but that doesn't mean their actions don't often frustrate me. I've got my fair share of “Wow, these kids are amazing” stories from this year's crop of kids (and every crop before), but I'm much more intensely interested in why they don't do as well as I hope they will.

Too often as educators, we slip into one of two modes when thinking about students:

  • super positive at the expense of considering negative realities,
  • super negative at the expense of considering positive realities.

I commend a third way: super grounded in a balanced reality. In general, we ought to strive for a view of students that is fervently committed to their potential for long-term flourishing and therefore relentlessly facing the brutal facts so that we can make adjustments toward what works.

I'm not interested in negativity or positivity — instead, reality + a single-minded devotion to the goal. And my goal, as a freshman teacher, is to help my students develop the academic and character strengths they'll need to succeed in the long-term. (For more on why the freshman year is so pivotal, click here.)

So back to Duhigg's book: can it tell me why my students don't turn in their homework?

In a word: habits

The thing with habits is that our brain basically turns off when we enter a habit loop. It goes like this:

  1. We experience a cue
  2. We complete a routine
  3. We receive a reward

The majority of my students who don't do their homework do not lack the desire to be successful. The problem is that, even though they are visualizing in class how and when they'll do their homework, that visualization doesn't succeed against their home-from-school routines.

For many of them, it goes something like this (feel free to switch out “video games” with cell phone, Internet, etc.):

  1. They sit down to do their homework and experience the desire to play video games.
  2. They tell themselves they'll just play for a minute.
  3. They feel awesome because video games are really fun; they end up playing for longer than a minute.

My students are not stupid — no more so than the guy writing this article who knows he needs to eat less sugar yet still seems to eat an unnecessary snack each day — but they are also not immune to the immense power of habit. (Hence the name of Duhigg's book.)

So the question is, how do we help students change their habits? How do we help ourselves change our habits to do the things we've always dreamed about doing?

Keystone habits: little big things

It's hard for me to pick a favorite part of a book like Duhigg's — that genre of explanatory journalism is so fun to me; it's right in the same vein as Paul Tough's How Children SucceedDuhigg tells stories of brain-damaged patients and the Indianapolis Colts and aluminum manufacturing companies, and the whole time he's building this story about the power of human habits, and I just can't help but be enthralled.

But here is probably my favorite part of the whole book: the concept of the keystone habit.

Why aren't more of us physically fit?

Physical health is a near universal goal, yet few of us have it.

Take me: I eat too much junk food, don't really exercise, and don't consistently sleep as much as I should. Yet I want to be healthier — so why don't I do the work to get there?

It's the same reason that many of my students don't do their homework! Success in school is like being physically fit — it requires this whole set of tiny behaviors to happen on a consistent basis, day in and day out.

Here's how keystone habits come in

The good news is that researchers have found that not all habits are equal. For example, with physical fitness, they've found that if you just develop one small habit, the rest are much more likely to follow — that one small habit is exercising for a few minutes a day.

Jonathan Fields explains it best in this guest post over at ZenHabits:

Every morning, you wake up and power walk around the block or do 5 minutes of Sun Salutations. The commitment threshold is so low, you don’t dread the behavior the way you would had you committed to 45 minutes out of the gate. Then a funny thing happens. You hit 5 minutes and you figure, hey I can go for another minutes or two, I’m already here.

Over a period of weeks and months, the behavior becomes more automatic and the repetition begins to build facility and ease that allows you to do more, work harder, suffer less and smile more. So, without even thinking about it, you end up expanding 5 minutes into 25, then 35 and 45. And along the way, something else begins to happen.

You begin to exercise long enough and at a high-enough level of intensity that your brain begins to change. Your mindset becomes much calmer and the stressor hormones that seemed ever-present start to fade. Your prefrontal cortex stays better fueled and lets you self-regulate with far more ease. You also start to become stronger and maybe even start to lose a bit of weight and become more physically capable, which makes you feel better emotionally.

With that emotional shift, you start to need sugar, cigarettes and alcohol less and less, because the exercise is giving you the psychological boost those things used to give you. So without even forcing it, your diet begins to change. You begin to eat healthier foods and take an interest in foods that’ll allow you to fuel your exercise better. That in turn leads you feel stronger, prouder of your choices, healthier and less pained, which leads to more exercise, better nutrition, less abusive compensatory behaviors and more weight loss and strength gains.

Your single commitment to 5 minutes of mild exercise, over times, begins to unlock a waterfall of follow-on behavior shifts that, done in a ritualized way become their own habits.

So, after you go out and take that five minute walk, come back and let's talk about what this keystone habit idea has got me thinking about success for our students and for us.

How do keystone habits help our students and us?

Here at Teaching the Core, I think we're all pretty comfortable with the idea that hit-every-last-standard approaches to teaching don't get the job done; instead, we aim to reduce our work, be it literacy instruction or character development, as much as possible, aiming at those 20% of standards or strategies that might yield 80% of the results.

So obviously, this concept of the keystone habit is highly intriguing to us. It also promises to make us better at our own lives and jobs.

It makes me wonder: what are the keystone habits of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking? What's the keystone habit of developing things like grit and self-control? I'll be talking more about that lattermost bit in the weeks to come, as I have a very fun announcement to make next week.

But for today, I just want to end by putting the question to you, my colleagues:

What are the keystone habits for success in school? For reading, writing, speaking, and listening?

Which habits are most likely to create a “waterfall” of further behavior shifts, thereby solidifying our students' chances of long-term success?

I've thought a lot about this in the last week and have some theories. I shared one last week during a keynote at the SSDA conference in Sactown [1], and I'll share it with you in my next post.

What's your gut tell you in response to the questions above? Let's talk about it in the comments section below.


1. I'm not kidding — that is what folks nearby call Sacramento, CA. There's even a fan website for Sacramento's NBA team called Sactown Royalty. Thank you to my friend Angela Quinteros for letting me in on this beautiful nickname.

26 Responses to Keystone Habits: Unlocking Success for our Students and Ourselves

  1. Twins Happen March 14, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    Thanks so much for this post, Dave. I have missed your more frequent posts lately, and I really enjoy the positive attitude and encouragement that you offer for teachers! You also reminded me of something really important: that when you want to make BIG CHANGES, start with something small. When I got back into exercising after having twins, I did it by setting the goal of at least 20 minutes, three days a week. And that was small enough to seem managable, yet big enough to make a difference, and quickly got me exercising 4-5 days a week, most weeks. Now I need to figure out how to do it for other things in my life. Thanks for the book recommendation! I will have to check it out!

  2. Rho March 14, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

    I am looking forward to the next post. The last few years I have seen my kids’ bad habits really take a toll on their success. Even when we are reading something they really like, they believe that we should just read it in class, that if they don’t feel like reading they should just listen to it on a CD, and don’t connect the lack of reading just a few pages (5-10 at most) for three or four nights a week to their desperate search for something–anything–to keep from failure for the grading period. I have them write short responses to the assigned reading when they come to class the next day–over and over again they fail the little quizzes. When I ask if they read the assignment, I get “some of it” and shrug their shoulders at any attempt to encourage them to please try to change the habit. If they don’t read more, they don’t get better at it, and it hurts ALL of their subjects such as science and history. So frustrating to see them so turned off so young.

  3. Dana Kline March 15, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    At the risk of scapegoating, I would have to say that there are just too many really exciting distractions to homework specifically, and even old-fashioned listening and attending in class. In a land where teachers are encouraged to make everything “hands-on,” and use blogs/ipads/computer applications/all the bells and whistles we can find with a blind faith in all things technology, it seems that we’re considered entertainers-as-teachers. Daily I watch as some students tune out before the lesson’s even begun, but once I put on a youtube video their heads swing to the screen as if they are marionettes. I don’t want to be the evil “technology BAD, old fashioned communication GOOD” teacher, but when you compare me to Grand Theft Auto, I lose in entertainment value. Entertainment seems to be the goal here.

    • James Rigney Jr March 15, 2015 at 11:46 am #

      Agreed with this sentiment. I had considered a few years ago trying to write a journal article comparing good game show hosting with teaching. Dave, you’ve got some great points: we need to find that third-way attitude between positive/negative, but we must also remain humble and realize that what we do–teach–only happens with students who are willing to be taught.

      I think that’s another key part of the habits issue. To become ‘educated’ or to adopt new habits means one has to accept that they can be improved. In a society struggling with acceptance of any and all behaviors, how can we help students realize they need to improve? I know I’m supposed to operate from an ‘asset mindset’ and all that, but at some level, realizing I need to do my homework, I should pay attention in this class, or I need to adopt this habit is an admission that I can/could be improved.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that education as entertainment simply reaffirms the status quo. The most important thing I can teach my students is that they can always make themselves and their world better. Those habits of mind and perspective are integral to this.

      • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:57 pm #

        James, I am fully with you in the place of wondering how to help students flip the lightswitch from non-ownership — “I am good enough.” “Things will work out.” “School is lame.” — to ownership. Effectively, I want them to truly live out the fact that this is their. life. that they are currently living, right. now.

        I haven’t found the silver bullet for that one yet, however. With you in the struggle!

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

      Dana, I do have to say that you are remarkably less entertaining than Grand Theft Auto 😛 But seriously, you are right — the entertainment options available to students and adults alike today are a huge challenge. Modern video games are fine-tuned into addictive delights, and this is just one of many streams that offer seemingly infinite hours of losing oneself in Choose Your Own Adventure style entertainment.

      There is a reason that Silicon Valley types send their kids to schools like Waldorf with its distinctive lack of technology. How many of us took an iPad class growing up?

      I know those are extreme questions; I guess I’m partially in a provocative mood. I just feel your pain, Dana, and we educators need to continue to try to help our students develop the perseverance and focus necessary to succeed even when something is immediately entertaining.

    • Debra Ehara March 28, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

      Dana, I totally agree with your thinking. At first I started feeling like the bad teacher who doesn’t like technology, but what I’ve found is that technology is really distracting. I did try the “hands-on” and “bells and whistles” approach, but I didn’t get effort that I do when I do “good old fashion” teaching. It’s not that I don’t have trouble with students doing their reading and assignments. I just see more improvement. One of David’s suggestions as a book to read was Focus by Mike Schmoker. He advocates for teaching without all the bells and whistles. One of his main ideas is to get back to the essentials of reading, writing, and discussing. Students won’t get better at any of this without a lot of it. I’ve been trying to keep it simple in my classes, and I’ve even convinced our admin. to use the ideas from Focus as the core of our PD. I’ll have a better idea of how it works this time next year.

      • davestuartjr March 30, 2015 at 4:31 pm #

        Debra, I’m so glad Focus was helpful! I love that book.

  4. Thomas March 15, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    I haven’t read Duhigg’s book about the Power of Habit so I’m kinda taking a stab in the dark here. First, I teach high schoolers. All my kids are immigrants learning English. I teach history and ESOL classes. The main habit that I wish my students would develop is curiosity. I’ve seen it over and over. The student who always asks me questions that are rooted in her/his curiosity is the student who learns English and all other subjects fasters and better. I try to get my kids to be curious. When I can, I encourage their parents to help the students to constantly ask questions. The more questions they ask, the more answers they’ll get and maybe more questions too. That means they learn more. Too often, however, my students are overwhelmed with too much language and content that they can’t comprehend so they begin to just endure their time in school without being curious. So… as far as I’m concerned, the keystone habit that I want kids to develop is to be actively curious. Constantly ask, “Why?” or “What does this mean?” When they begin to do that, they begin to learn more and to care more. That is a great foundation for further learning.

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

      Thomas, great concept here — the keystone habit of asking probing questions, or simply asking “Why.” Thank you for your email, also!

  5. Julie Silverio March 15, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    I teach reading to students who have dropped out of high school to earn their GED. We have focused on goal setting to try to get them to take on tasks that will help them achieve the goals faster. After working through BJ Fogg’s “Tiny Habits,” I realized the importance of starting with a very small the task, attaching it to an already established routine, and celebration. I am finding more success in having students read for 5 minutes when they get in bed. I am still working on a celebration that fits.

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

      Julie, you are really getting into the science of habit formation and alteration — I love it. Your students are blessed to have you teaching them how their minds work.

  6. Tiffany ODonnell March 15, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

    I am a principal of a small rural school. We are grappling with instilling habits and attitudes for more healthy, successful students.

    One tool that has helped significantly is “The Good Behavior Game.” Teachers who play the games and use the “kernels” have students who are focused, controlled and confident. I have a first grade teacher whose reading class can play for 45 minutes!

    To me, the GBG is a ver promising practice. I hope to build on it, along with our cooperative learning structures. We have a lot of strengths we can build on, and great kids. It’s keeping our chins up that can be hard. What can we do in 30 minutes to build our team and recharge our energy?

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

      Tiffany, this is a new concept to me — it sounds very promising. What a great way to build growth mindset in kids. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. Dana Kline March 15, 2015 at 6:42 pm #

    My email was a bit negative, and I want to explain a bit:
    1) I am exhausted from lesson planning and grading essays for 95 seventh graders.
    2) (You know #1 as well as I do!)
    3) PARCC testing starts tomorrow and we are short on computers for our 310 seventh graders who will all be tested concurrently.
    4) You also know #3 well.
    5) Trying to stay positive and love this job I’ve done for ten years now! I really do like it!

    • Amy in TN March 16, 2015 at 6:47 am #

      Hang in there, Dana! Spring Break is coming! We all feel tired, overwhelmed, and negative at times. Sometimes a breather is all we need to get back at it. I teach 7th grade ELA as well. I feel ya, sister!

      • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

        Me too! I am very thankful for Spring Break as part of our annual teaching journey. To me, it’s the most needed break of the school year!

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

      Dana, during times like this I can’t recommend Steven Pressfield’s War of Art heartily enough. Our love for this job is generally a love for the art of it; Pressfield helps me keep that in perspective.

  8. Donette Dalcin March 15, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

    This was an interesting post. I have read Duhigg’s book and have recommended it to others. As a special education teacher, I am constantly talking to my students about the habits they have now and the ones they will need in the future. I emphasize that they cannot wait until graduation day to establish habits that will push them forward. They must start now. This is especially true of the 8th – 12th grade students I work with. Too often, the habits they have now, will not serve them in college. I like the questions you wrote at the end. I plan to share these with some of my students as we discuss what habits they will need to reach their goals.

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

      Thank you, Donette — let me know how the questioning with your students goes.

  9. Angela March 16, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Thanks for the shout out friend. 🙂 I’m glad it served a purpose. Now on to a more serious note…I truly believe and have seen with my own eyes that ONE possible way to change habits in students is to present that opportunity to change/develop new habits will probably not happen if only one teacher on campus is leading the effort (except maybe in elementary where the students are with that one person all day). In the secondary environments we must work together, agree on the keystone, and consistently reinforce the desired habit. With that said, homework is probably the hardest to tackle because it happens away from school (in most cases). But just like 5 minutes of exercise a day can lead to longer term, larger changes such as eating healthier, and being more aware of one’s health, I believe that changes that happen within the confines of the school setting can and will trickle out into the student’s lives outside of the school setting. An example that I have seen and this is in large part thanks to you, would be the dramatic shift in awareness for students at a continuation school and their use of foul language/lack of respect when speaking. After a concentrated effort by the majority of staff members to require and enforce appropriate language as well as an effort by the majority of the staff to incorporate PVLEGS and daily speaking opportunities, I am happy to report that not only do you not hear an f-bomb in every other sentence but you will also hear students speaking more respectfully both on and off campus because the STAFF (not just one teacher) made a concentrated effort to focus on those two areas and were consistent with all students as they traveled from class to class. I hope this makes sense. Sorry for the long post but I wanted to get the idea out there that changing students habits will require teamwork! 🙂

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

      Angela, I love it. I do think that speaking delivery (especially when it’s simplified using Palmer’s PVLEGS acronym) is a great candidate for a keystone habit of schooling — thank you for bringing this up! 🙂

  10. Darice March 16, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

    I loved this post! I read it after I met w/my high school advisory students and talked to them about habits and their rippling effects. I stretched them and asked them to think about themselves in the future as parents of teens–would they want their own teens demonstrating the habits they presently demonstrate? That’s a tough question for some kids, particularly kids who are not successful. I’ve been talking to them about taking ownership of their learning, and the fact that earning a diploma is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of commitment and hard work. I think we can apply the same principle to our colleagues. I’ve heard so many teachers who are stuck in the rut of blaming students for their lack of success. To switch that thinking, I started asking, “What if…” questions. “What if you had 10 min of 1:1 time with a student–would that change anything?” (the possibilities are endless). I also like to ask teachers this question that we’ve all heard before–would you want your own child to be in your class? Or better yet, if your own child were in your class, would you do anything differently? I firmly believe that the ability to reflect on one’s own behavior demonstrates a person’s willingness to grow. It may sound sappy, but it’s the truth!!

    • davestuartjr March 16, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

      Darice, the things you’re getting at remind me of a key mindset successful, sane teachers tend to have: focus on what we can control. We cannot control what our kids do at home, but we can control the time we spend with them and the earnestness with which we aim to teach them the most important things. I can control if I try another tack toward getting more homework turned in or if I just resign myself to the fact that it’s always going to be this way.

      I also love the question, “If your own child were in your class, would you change anything?” So convicting.

      • Hugh March 20, 2015 at 10:21 am #

        Hi Dave,

        Love your work. I have implemented both pop up debate and traditional debate in my classes thanks to your blog, your starter kit, and your videos. In fact, we are having a bracketed “March Madness” debate tournament as we speak.

        On the topic of “keystone habits,” we recently watched this video:


        At minute 4:50, the speaker recommends that we should make our bed every morning in order to set the right tone for the day. Do you think this qualifies as a keystone habit?

        • davestuartjr March 30, 2015 at 4:31 pm #

          I do, Hugh — especially the way he’s framing it. I love that commencement address!

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