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Classroom Management Habits of Mind

Jordan Catapano

The term “Habits of mind” was popularized by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick in their 1996 book “Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series.” These “Habits” represent 16 different mental attributes that, once possessed, are likely to ensure the owner of a successful life replete with positive contributions to oneself and one’s world. These attributes are mental skills that enable a person to appropriately process and respond to the variety of situations life will throw at them. While schools focus on classroom management to teach students about core academics such as reading, history, mathematics, and science, it is important for instructors to also use classroom management to consider what universal mental attributes they are encouraging in their students.

Classroom Management: The Habits

Here is the complete list of habits of mind, as published by Costa and Kallick, with my own explanations when necessary.

  1. Persisting. Does a student possess that stick-with-it attitude and orient that attitude towards appropriate tasks?
  2. Managing Impulsivity. We all have impulses, but these are often our more animalistic or superficial responses. Students need to learn to keep a cool head.
  3. Listening with Understanding and Empathy. We can “Hear” others all we want, but it’s essential students learn to listen with their hearts and put oneself into someone else’s shoes.
  4. Thinking Flexibly. The world doesn’t play by our rules, and students need to learn how to make adjustments when a wrench gets thrown into their expectations.
  5. Thinking about Thinking. Yup, this is a skill. Students can strengthen their thinking by becoming more aware of what’s going on in that noggin of theirs.
  6. Striving for Accuracy. It’s not enough just to go through the motions of a task. Students must be encouraged to have targeted thinking, recognize errors, and make improvements.
  7. Questioning and Posing Problems. Humans are curious … at least, they ought to be. How can we nurture a spirit of authentic inquiry that leads to further learning?
  8. Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations. This is so vital. Students should not think of information as only being relevant for a unit or a test. All knowledge could be applicable anywhere, any time.
  9. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision. We all have thoughts and feelings, but so much of our path is determined by how well we actually articulate them to others.
  10. Gathering Data Through All Senses. Our society is increasingly digital and increasingly rushed, causing students to give less heed to their full range of senses. But senses are the only way we can gather information, so it’s essential students attune their minds to what their senses collect.
  11. Creating, Imagining, Innovating. History is what teaches us about the past. Imagination, however, is what helps us build the future. When students embrace these as tools, they are equipped to build a better world.
  12. Responding with Wonderment and Awe. That special feeling is a huge clue that students are learning and finding something that excites them. We should encourage students to embrace that feeling and continue to seek it out.
  13. Taking Responsible Risks. Playing it safe doesn’t get you anywhere. Ludicrous risk-taking doesn’t either. There is an art and science to taking risks that leads to worthwhile improvement.
  14. Finding Humor. Life ought not be so serious. One of the greatest tricks is to recognize the twists, quirks, and ironies of life, even if laughter is not our first reaction.
  15. Thinking Interdependently. We segment subjects in school, but real knowledge and thinking involves a beautiful collusion of disciplines.
  16. Remaining Open to Continuous Learning. No matter how much a person knows, they never know it all. Students must genuinely take an interest in lifelong learning and be humble enough to accept ongoing input from a variety of sources.

What Do We Do With These?

OK, so we have a list of important mental habits. But what should we do with this list? How do we go beyond the academic curriculums of our classroom and encourage these internal attributes?

School often asks students to memorize certain content and then take a test to demonstrate “What they know.” There is relevance to this … to an extent. But I’m far more interested in what my students do when they don’t know something. How do they respond when there is ignorance standing between them and their goal? What steps do they take – not just as a student, but as a person – to achieve a positive outcome?

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Arthur L. Costa writes in “Learning and Leading With Habits of Mind,” “These habits of mind transcend all subject matters commonly taught in school. They are characteristic of peak performers in all places: Homes, schools, athletic fields, organizations, the military, governments, churches, or corporations. They are what make marriages successful, learning continual, workplaces productive, and democracies enduring. The goal of education, therefore, should be to support others and ourselves in liberating, developing, and habituating these habits of mind more fully.”

Here are four broad ideas for educators to consider how they can incorporate these habits of mind into their school.

1. Discuss the Habits Openly. It doesn’t have to be a secret that we are interested in students developing these habits of mind. Post them prominently in your classroom and hallways, and openly discuss what these habits mean. When students demonstrate these habits, lavishly praise them. Model for them when you’re demonstrating these habits as well. Avoid bogging down your classroom by overusing these terms or attempting to test or measure them. The point is that these are idealistic skills, impossible to perfect but continuously pursued.

The more these habits are embraced throughout your school culture, rather than just by one individual teacher, the more likely your students are to begin living in that culture. Consider how all staff – from the principal to the custodian – can leverage their relationships with students to encourage these habits. Does your school have a forum – such as a homeroom or a weekly assembly – where aspects of these habits can be discussed more widely?

2. Actively Encourage the Habits. As you openly discuss the habits of mind, it’s important to not relegate them to a poster, or an isolated discussion here and there. These habits are part and parcel of how humans succeed in all areas, so actively integrate them into the work you’re doing in your classroom. When students demonstrate persistence, tell them so. When they are thinking flexibly, praise them. When they need to apply past knowledge to a new situation, guide them in doing so.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t limit the application of these habits to your classroom’s curriculum, but encourage a well-rounded interconnectedness between these habits and all elements of life. Discuss how these apply in a multitude of situations. Apply them in your school’s extracurriculars, too: Athletics, clubs, competitive activities, and community events.

3. Facilitate Reflection. We don’t have to just charge through a curriculum and hope that students come out the other end of it as smarter people thinking and learning are very dynamic, human qualities that deserve attention. When we facilitate self-reflection, we are giving students permission to evaluate their performance and assess the work that has gone into their own learning. Students can ask themselves, “Have I been persistent?” and “What areas do I need to improve in to become a stronger person?” Such questions help students think about themselves in ways that go far beyond their grade on a recent test.

4. Offer Opportunities to Demonstrate. It’s one thing for me to say, “We should be thinking and communicating with clarity and precision!” It’s another thing for me as a teacher to provide adequate opportunity for students to realistically demonstrate such a quality. If we have expectations for student thinking and behavior, then it is vital that we also facilitate the mediums through which students practice, learn from, and showcase those qualities.

Real Learning

Real learning – and real success – consequently does not occur in a nicely designed lesson that trimly fits into a predetermined timeslot. Learning happens with maturity, with a growing understanding of oneself, with an ongoing commitment to show up and dig in, and with that day-in day-out slog through the struggles and triumphs of life.

As educators, we are fortunate enough to be at the ground zero of student development, standing alongside them each day and giving that nudge towards these habits of minds that equip them with the skills they’ll need to gain a lifelong positive experience.

How would you use classroom management to teach students about habits of mind? Share with us your experiences in the comments below!


Jordan Catapano taught high school English for twelve years in a Chicago suburb, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.