Make Joy a Habit

We are creatures of habit. Will Durant (paraphrasing Aristotle) wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” It’s a mantra that reminds us: We are not what we do once in a while; we are what we do every day. For years as a mother and teacher, I’ve wondered how can we use the power of habit formation to bring more joy to our lives and the lives of children?

While the popularizing of habit formation is not new, many of us struggle to stick with healthy habits. We know exercise, even a little of it, can make us happier and healthier, but it can be hard to stick with it. We know that we are what we eat, physically and psychologically, but choosing apples over cookies is hard.

A new field within the science of happiness is looking at habit formation and the power of habit stacking. Essentially, add a new, healthy habit to an already existing one and you increase the likelihood that you will stick with the new habit igniting a sense of pride and greater happiness in the process.

For example, want to read more and encourage reading in your children? Commit to it as a habit by stacking reading on to an already existing habit as a part of your morning or evening routine. For example, while having your morning cup of coffee read for five minutes with your children on the couch. You and your child gain connection and you model the value of reading as a habit to start your day.

Habit Stacking At Home

There are countless ways to bring more joy to our lives through habit stacking. Here are a few ways to make a joy a habit in your daily routine:

-Waking up: Start your day by writing down an “I Am” affirmation. Try not to repeat yourself. Be specific.

-Morning coffee or tea: Read on the couch with your child. Let them choose what you read. Alternate pages if appropriate. Our family favorite is Calvin and Hobbes.

-Brushing your teeth: Think of three things you are looking forward to that day.

-Driving somewhere: Add joy by listening to audio books–our family favorites are The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett, The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Instead of asking, “Are we there yet?”, my boys now ask “Mom, can you please put on the story?”

-Making a meal: Listen to a podcast (my favorite, On Being) or by letting children be DJ (Space Unicorn seems to be the song of the summer in our house).

-Relaxing before bedtime: Write down three good things from your day and something you wish you’d done differently.

Habit Stacking In Our Classrooms

In our classrooms, we can use habit stacking to bring more joy to students as a part of their daily routine by design.

-Morning Arrival: Invite students to write “I Am”, “I Can”, or “I Did” statements on chart paper while you take attendance. Watch your affirmations grow as a class all year long. Invite one or two students to share what they wrote each day.

-Gratitude Practice: Alongside learning objectives, write down one thing you are grateful for each day. Invite students to turn and talk about one thing they are grateful for before you launch into a daily read aloud or mini-lesson.

-Transitions: Before transitioning to the classroom rug or back to individual seats, invite students to take three deep breaths or to do a power pose to nudge body–mind connections.

-Partner Work: Encourage students to compliment their partner as a habit at least once during their partner time.

-End of the Day: Invite students to write down one good thing from their day that brought them happiness before they pack their belongings.

The Simple Joy of Sidewalk Chalk

No directions. No prompting. No explicit instruction needed.

When I handed a group of fourth and fifth graders a big box of chunky sidewalk chalk, they simply started to write. Dream Big. Anything is possible! Dreams come true! This is what hope looks like.

If you haven’t held a piece of sidewalk chalk lately, I recommend it. It may reignite in you a sense of possibility or maybe even a gnawing sense of doubt. What do I write? Who will see it? Is it any good? The roots of our biggest hopes and deepest fears all rise to the surface with that chalk in our hands. But, what chalk really represents is the sense of freedom that comes from writing or creating anything. Seeing your mark on the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a box of sidewalk chalk in your trunk or a little baggie of chalk in a bag you carry. It’s a simple way to spark joy when waiting for a sibling to finish an activity or in between errands.

Pair sidewalk chalk exploration by reading aloud books like Peter Reynolds’ creatrilogy The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color. This trio of texts celebrate the freedom and pride that comes from making your mark where there is no guarantee. For an extended read aloud, try Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Chalkbox Kid. This early chapter book is ripe with possibilities for discussion about finding hope in unexpected places.

If you are a classroom teacher, stock up on sidewalk chalk for spontaneous days this fall when you take learning outside. Watching what children do with sidewalk chalk gives us enormous insights into the literacies young people feel most comfortable using. Who draws? Who writes? What words do they use? How do they spell them? Who partners together to create? Who asks for help? Make chalk available throughout the year during recess. This also allows students who just want to create a chance to feel as proud on the playground as the student who wins the foot race.

This summer, pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and see what comes to you. Draw. Write. Dream. Play. Then, carry that joy and energy with you into your life with children.

Better My Brave

“Mom, every day I want to better my brave.”

Jack, age 9

To our sons, the world is a playground. They climb trees (even on field trips when they’re told not to–sorry, Mr. Schwartz). They scale walls. They jump over garbage cans. Watching them, it seems like they have unparalleled energy and unimaginable courage. Over the years, I’ve learned to bite my tongue and erase “be careful” from my lexicon. I’ve learned to trust that they know their own bodies. They know what they can handle. And they will look to me for when they need help.

When our son, Jack, was in second grade his big goal was to climb on top of the monkey bars and stand up on them. Understandably, school wasn’t thrilled with his attempts at this. He came home declaring that all he was trying to do was better his brave. It’s hard to argue with that kind of dedication to self-improvement.

Based on our Jack’s idea that every day we should try to better our brave, we’ve created a summer family challenge (or really, my husband, Chris did–wish I could take credit for the idea). We are each choosing a physical challenge and a mental challenge to “better our brave” over the next few months.

Designing this website and starting this blog is my mental challenge. I’m not particularly comfortable with self-promotion, but I am a big believer in idea promotion. And, I think I have some ideas to share. Mostly stories. Tidbits that may provoke new thoughts for you. Details from my days.

Each week, I’ll be posting brief musings that offer insight into one of the seven pillars I write about in my forthcoming book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.

The seven pillars are simple, research-based concepts to help you find more happiness in your life and to help children create more happiness in theirs. Together, the seven pillars can help you embrace a life philosophy, teaching philosophy, and parenting philosophy to start with joy whenever and wherever you can. Collectively, these blog posts will offer entry points for you to think about the seven pillars in your own life. Which are strongest? What represents a challenge for you? How can the pillars help you and the children in your life to live a happy life? The seven pillars are…

Connection. Choice. Challenge. Story. Discovery. Play. Movement.

Oh, and my summer physical challenge–go camping.

To better your brave and the brave of those around you:

  • respect that challenges will differ for everyone
  • catch yourself saying “be careful”–if anything, it distracts children from doing what they believe they are capable of doing
  • create your own personal or family challenge this summer to better your brave
  • listen to the words of children with care–“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”-Mary Oliver

© Katie Egan Cunningham 2019