Breaking Bad Habits, With Neuroplasticity

faceplant“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Bad habits are hard to break.”

“A leopard can’t change its spots.”

Seems as though hundreds of years’ worth of sayings, adages and conventional wisdom tells us that once we’re set in our ways, change is practically impossible. When it comes to academic behaviors, such as disengagement in class or not turning in completed homework, bad habits can seem to be overwhelming obstacles to student success — for the teacher, as well as the student.

But what if our brains aren’t actually hard-wired that way? What if, with the right guidance, they can turn bad habits into good? Our friends at Sentis created this brief video to illustrate how our brains are constantly forming new connections and pathways that make it possible for us to create new patterns in our minds and lives. It can help your students get a metacognitive perspective on how their brains work. Check it out:

Recent research in neuroscience has revealed that the human brain has neuroplasticity — that it’s actually dynamic, changing almost constantly. Habits are just sequences of actions learned over time; our working memory can’t pay attention to every detail about the things we do, so habits are the brain’s way of creating automated routines and reactions that can run in the background. Instinctively switching on a light when you enter a room, looking both ways before crossing the street, and even checking your phone too often are just a few habits many people perform every day.

However, due to neuroplasticity, the brain is also capable of altering, adapting, and re-organizing neural pathways as a response to changes in the world. And with deliberate practice, you, and your students, can use this remarkable habit-forming capability to your advantage: creating new habits, and even replacing the bad ones.

In fact, using your brain to create and maintain new, positive academic habits, such as active listening in class, strategic help-seeking, and doing work even when you don’t feel like it, is highly achievable; every time you practice a good behavior, you strengthen the neural pathway associated with it, making it easier to repeat that behavior  until it becomes a habit. Nonprofit EduGuide’s evidence-based online activities provide a consistent way for students to learn and build the habits that will help them reach their goals and make learning easier.

What self-defeating academic behaviors do your students have? How might they benefit from thinking differently about how their brains, and habits, work? Let’s discuss in the comments.


11 Responses to “Breaking Bad Habits, With Neuroplasticity

  • Joyce Foss
    8 years ago

    As Scott Geller from Virginia tech points out, students have learned helplessness. They struggle with the message in their minds that repeats, “I can’t.” Before they can change the bad habits, they have to understand that they CAN. I’m looking forward to showing this clip to my classes. I think it will help them start to imagine positive change.

  • allison edwards
    8 years ago

    Very informative and enlightening. Anything is possible.

  • Rosemary Taylor
    8 years ago

    In a world bombarded with so much negative activity, this is indeed very positie and uplifting news – not only for the students but their teachers as well…..I will try harder now to break my own bad habis knowing there is light around every neural pathway……………….Rosemary Taylor

  • As an At-Risk teacher, the students I encounter have the baggage they claim can not be undone. They believe that is the way they are, and other teachers as well tag those kids as unchangeable. With the possibility of change, maybe the at-risk population will not be as large at the high school level if these tactics are employed at the younger levels.

  • Nina Nelson
    8 years ago

    This totally makes sense to me. We are what we think -what we think we are. But to take it a step further to heal a body like this chiropractor did—Wow!

    I see this thinking and changing could help students. I wish this interview were more something students could get, but the 1st video will work with the students. Let’s try it.

  • William H.
    8 years ago

    Isn’t it amazing that the beliefs and experiences, that vocational teachers tried to tell the academic teachers about, have now become “new ideas” and a PhD thesis ? Didn’t Piaget and Jeung bring this concept to light in the last millennium? Why does it take so long for the scholastically educated to get the common sense idea of re-programing the brain, when occupational teachers have been doing it for so many centuries? Is it because “bottom-line” educators don’t have the time to document their data while they teach students the time consuming practical knowledge concept, while others teach to the test? Isn’t ethnographic research more valuable in “real world” situations. When will the scripturally educated listen to the ones that have lived in the real world and understand that survival skills are needed prior to an individuals interest in life long learning.

    I have been a vocational teacher since the early 70’s. It has been my experience that the “shop teachers” have the ability to “turn kids around” with more success than the academic teachers, because they put the “bad kids” in the shop classes (Pendleton, 1996, Sitlington, 1986, Greer, 1986). Prove this statement wrong. Now we put those students into a special education program because we get a lot of federal money and vocational education cost a lot of money. The dollar runs our education system, not the success of our students after graduation. Allowing the brain to productively reprogram is expensive, time consuming, and requires an active teaching role. The price of not doing this places our economical system in a dependent state of other countries. The proof is the events that are happening today.

    EduGuide needs to put more of these concepts on the internet; however, as others have done, we describe the problem, but give no analysis of what a solution. More emphasis should be put on occupation education. Read the book Making High Schools Work by Gene Bottoms (1992). Occupational education brought up all of the academic scores. If you need data, it is in the book.

  • I am so glad this video is available to share with students! I have been reading a lot about this very topic in Dr. Joe Dispenza’s book “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself” – Thank you for sharing this!

  • Margarita Arzate
    8 years ago

    Excellent material to share with the students!!!! and discuss in class.

    • Joyce Foss
      8 years ago

      I agree! I’ve shared the video with my students, and I plan to refer to it frequently as I encourage creative and critical thinking.

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