Habits of the Mind: The foundations for how students think, feel and behave

Michael E. Bernard, Ph.D.
Professorial, Melbourne Graduate School of Education
Emeritus Professor, California State University, Long Beach
Founder, You Can Do It! Education

YCDI IcebergWhat strikes you about this picture of an iceberg? 

It was designed to depict something that is unobservable but which exerts an enormous influence over the thinking, feelings and behaviours of young people today; namely, Habits of the Mind. We have discovered that young people develop from an early age two sets of Habits of the Mind – positive and negative. Even children of very young ages develop habits in the way they think. These “Habits of the mind” have a tremendous impact on their emotions, their behaviour and as a result their school achievement, relationships and emotional wellbeing.

Those young people who consistently achieve while forming positive relationships and enjoying positive health and wellbeing have well-developed positive habits of the Mind and possess fewer negative ones.

Many of you who are familiar with You Can Do It! Education know we emphasise in all our programs the teaching of five social-emotional skills: confidence, persistence, organisation, getting along and resilience.  What is, perhaps, less well known is that in You Can Do It! Education we also believe that in order to bring out the best in young people and eliminate the worst, we also need to teach positive Habits of the Mind and eliminate the negative. 

Habits of the mindHabits of the Mind are the beliefs people hold about themselves, other people and the world. They determine how young people interpret and evaluate the world around them. While people are often unaware of their Habits of Mind, they nonetheless guide the way young people think about what happens which, in turn, largely determines how they feel and behave. In the picture, you will notice there are five “levers” representing five of the twelve Habits of the Mind we teach in You Can Do It! Education. You will notice that some of the levers are in the low position showing that the Habit of the Mind is not well developed. Other Habits of the Mind are in the medium or high positions. You will also see that the arms of the boy stretch to control the levels. This demonstrates that young people have the power to strengthen their Habits of the Mind – with the help of parents and teachers.

Positive Habits of the Mind are true, sensible and helpful whereas negative Habits of the Mind are not true (not based on fact), not sensible or logical and are unhelpful.

As you examine each Habit of the Mind below, consider how strongly each of these Habits of the Mind are developed in your students.  Examine the positive and then look below to see the matched negative Habit of the Mind.

Positive Habits of the Mind

Negative Habits of the Mind

1a. Accepting Myself means when I make a mistake or someone is mean to me thinking that I am not useless or a total failure, I am still me. I accept myself no matter what.

1b. Self-Downing – thinking that I am a total failure or useless when I have been rejected or have not achieved a good result.

2a. Taking Risks means preferring but not needing to be successful and thinking that it’s good to try something new even though I might not be able to do it.

2b. Needing to be Perfect – thinking that I have to be successful in everything important I do and that it’s horrible when I’m not.

3a. Being Independent means preferring but not needing the approval of others and thinking that it’s important for me to try new activities and to speak up even if classmates think I’m silly or stupid.

3b. Needing Approval – thinking that I need people (parents, teachers, peers) to approve of what I do and that, when they don’t, it’s the worst thing in the world.

4a. I Can Do It means thinking that when learning something new, I am more likely to be successful than to fail

4b. I Can’t Do It – when I have not been successful at something, thinking I am not good at anything and never will be; thinking that when someone I like or respect seems not to like me, there is nothing I can do to make things better.

5a. Giving Effort means thinking that the harder I try, the more skilled I will become and the better my success will be.

5b. Giving Up – thinking that I have no control over what happens to me (good or bad) and that there is little point in trying anything because I’ll never be successful.

6a. Working Tough means preferring but not demanding that things be exciting and never boring and thinking that to be successful, I sometimes have to do things that are not easy or fun.

6b. I Can’t Be Bothered – thinking that life should always be fun and exciting, and that I can’t stand it when things are frustrating, boring, or uncomfortable.

7a. Setting Goals means thinking that setting a goal can help me be more successful at a task.

7b. Having No Goals – thinking that it’s pointless to have any goals associated with being successful for anything I do.

8a. Planning My Time means thinking about how long schoolwork will take to get done and planning enough time to get it done.

8b. Planning Time Poorly – thinking that it’s pointless to plan my time; thinking that things will somehow get done; thinking, ‘When is the latest I can start?’ when approaching some chore or task that isn’t fun.

9a. Being Tolerant of Others means preferring but not demanding that other people are fair and considerate; when someone is mean to me or different from me, thinking that he or she is not a totally bad person.

9b. Acting Without Thinking – this Habit of the Mind can be defined by the absence of reflection about different ways to handle interpersonal conflict, the consequences of different course of action, and how someone else will feel after you have chosen to act in a certain way

10a. Playing by the Rules means thinking that by following school rules, school will be a better place to live and learn.

10b. Being Intolerant of Others – thinking that people should always treat me fairly and considerately and in the way I treat them, and when they do not, I can’t stand it and they are totally bad.

11a. Thinking First means thinking that when someone treats me badly, I need to think about the best way to act.

11b. Being Intolerant of Limits – thinking that I should be able to do what I want, that nobody should be able to tell me what to do, and that I can’t stand having to follow rules.

12a. Social Responsibility means thinking that it is important to care for others, to be fair to others, to make sure everyone has the freedom to speak without fear, to be honest, to make sure that I do what I say I am going to do, to respect others and have nice manners, to act responsibly by making good choices, and to understand and include others who are different.

12b. Social Irresponsibility –thinking that I only have to be concerned about me and that it is not important to be a good citizen and to help make contributions to my community. It also means that I do not need to concern myself with others who are less fortunate, nor do I need to be sensitive to the feelings of others, act honestly, and to treat others – especially those from different backgrounds – with respect

In You Can Do It! Education you are encouraged to teach, model and reinforce the 12 positive Habits of the Mind and help students become aware of and eliminate the matched negative Habits of the Mind. The social-emotional curriculum, Program Achieve, has activities dedicated to teaching young people about Habits of the Mind and the choices they have in the way they think.