It's the beginning of the year (semester, quarter) - let's set some goals!
Have you done this with your students? If so, how did they do with their goals? Did they achieve them? Or, as happens with so many adults, did they try really hard for a few days and then kind of forget about them?
Why do we have difficulty achieving goals? As adults, we often fail to stick with the actions needed to get us there. Or we set goals that are 'too big' or require an incredible change in our behaviors. And it's hard to change behaviors! I'm not going to pretend to be an expert in behavior and change. But according to sources I've read and listened to lately, our brains resist change - they really want to keep us in the same patterns, with the same behaviors, because it's comforting and safe. If that's the case, then it's a little easier to understand why students have difficulty too. If their young brains also want to keep them in the same patterns because it's comforting and safe, how can we, as teachers, help them to break out of those patterns to meet new goals?
Systems in the Classroom
I recently read about the idea of not focusing on goals, but on systems. Systems help us change our habits. Systems are the small actions that can lead to the achievement of goals. As teachers, we have systems, or routines, for the way our classrooms run. Routines help your students understand how to function in the classroom - what to do when they arrive for the day (like unpack, go to locker, gather specific materials, sign in, work on morning work or daily challenge, etc) and what to do at the beginning and end of each class.
Systems/routines helped me meet two of my basic goals at the beginning of each day: 1) help students be prepared and focused for the day; and 2) make sure taking attendance was easy and completed.
If I had simply posted the 'goal' for the students (be prepared and focused for the day), prepared and focused would have looked incredibly different for each student. But creating a system (small steps) helped my students meet it.
As for attendance - my goal of remembering to take attendance was always met (ok, almost always...I did get caught up and forget a couple times a year:-). The students were part of the system (they signed in on a clipboard in the front of the room); watching them sign in every morning made it very hard for me to forget to check the clipboard and record the attendance on the computer.
We have many more systems in the classrooms that help students - how we write the assignments on the board and how students write them down. We help students with systems for how to remember what to take with them to each class and what materials to take home for homework. But do students have systems when they aren't in our classrooms?
Systems Outside the Classroom
While the systems we create in the classroom help students find success, many students have no systems when they're outside the classroom. How can we help students create systems of their own? According to James Clear, in the book Atomic Habits, there are a few 'laws' we can follow to develop and maintain good systems (routines, habits): Make systems obvious, make them attractive, make them easy and make them satisfying. In his book, he shares specific strategies for each law, which I'm not going to go into, but let's apply a couple of these laws to the context of completing homework regularly (often an issue for some students). Think about those students who frequently miss homework…not because they are refusing to do it, but because they ‘forgot,’ or ‘didn’t have time,’ or ‘they left it in their locker last night,’ or whatever the reason may be. How can they use these laws to establish a homework system (so they can eventually meet the goal of missing no homework)?
I have a couple ideas:
1) Attach the idea of doing homework to something they already do, which is called habit-stacking ('make it obvious' law). Help students find something they do every day – maybe they have dinner at home every day. They can attach doing homework to dinner, and do it during dinner prep or right after they eat. Or, if they watch t.v. or play a certain game, they can attach homework to that, doing one right after the other - they're more likely to do the new habit (homework) if they attach it to something they like and do every day.
2) Create a visual to help them maintain the system. Students can track homework completion on a calendar with a smiley face or checkmark, and try not to break the streak ('make it attractive' and 'make it satisfying' laws...it's motivating to see those smileys and each one is like a little reward).
System for Studying
Many students need a system for studying for tests. They may want to get an A or B, or maybe they just want to pass! But many students don't quite know what to do to get the result they're after. What type of system can they use to reach their goals?
1) Pair studying with daily homework completion ('make it obvious'). When the homework for that subject is done, they can add on just 5-7 minutes of studying.
2) Set up a system for the 5-7 minutes:
What system do students need help with?
Creating systems/habits will help put students on the path to success. Some students can do this on their own, but others need guidance. Think about the struggles your students have or the goals they want to achieve and what systems might look like for those areas. Once they begin to establish systems, hopefully the idea of focusing on systems instead goals will carry over into other areas of their lives!
In what areas do you think systems would most help your students?
To Read Next:
Hi, I'm Ellie! My mission here is to support teachers as they work to provide engaging, meaningful experiences for their students. I've been in education for 25 years, teaching all subject areas at both the elementary and middle school levels, and am here to share what I've learned through those years, as well as what I continue to learn. I hope you'll find some ideas or resources here to help you out!