The challenge of changing behaviours

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? How’s it going?

If your resolution fell by the wayside weeks ago and you’re feeling a bit guilty about it, then it might reassure you to know that perhaps as many as a third of resolutions have already failed by the middle of January (Campling et al., 2017).

Changing behaviour is hard.

We probably all want to change something about our lifestyle, perhaps to eat more healthily, exercise more or quit smoking. But wanting to change our behaviour isn’t enough. A desire to change doesn’t appear to determine whether people fail or succeed in achieving their resolutions (Norcross, et al., 2002).

Given the complexity of human behaviour, we shouldn’t be surprised (perhaps even relieved!) to find few quick and easy answers on how to change it. Within medicine – where behaviour change may literally save lives – there have been concerted attempts to examine and synthesise the cognitive, social and behavioural factors which may successfully support such changes.

However, the science of behaviour change is complex and sometimes contradictory (just like people). The scale of this complexity is evident from Michie et al. (2011) who identified 128 theories and approaches to this topic across different domains of psychology and behavioural science.

So, there are lots of challenges and almost as many ideas about how to overcome them. Let’s dive into one example – the role that habits and routines play in changing and sustaining new behaviours.

There are circumstances which cause us to quickly change our habits and routines (an obvious example is having a baby). However, for the most part we struggle to adopt and maintain new behaviours. Part of the reason for this is that our behaviour is often driven by established habits. As Leahy and Wiliam (2009) point out, this is as true of our classroom practices as it is in our personal lives:

"In implementing any professional development model, we have to accept that teacher learning is slow. In particular, for changes in practice as opposed to knowledge to be lasting, they must be integrated into a teacher’s existing routines, and this takes time. Many of those involved in professional development are familiar with the experience of encouraging teachers to try out new ideas, and seeing them being enacted when they visit teachers’ classrooms, only to learn shortly afterwards that the teachers have reverted to their former practices." p7.

How long does it take to successfully adopt a new habit? In a study looking at attempts to establish new habits around eating, drinking or physical activity, Lally et al. (2009) found that the time taken to establish a habit varies considerably (anywhere between 18-254 days).

"In implementing any professional development model, we have to accept that teacher learning is slow. In particular, for changes in practice as opposed to knowledge to be lasting, they must be integrated into a teacher’s existing routines, and this takes time."

- Leahy and Wiliam (2009)

The complexity of the habit appears to influence this. For example, simple habits like drinking water were adopted more quickly than complex habits like exercising. Research in this area has identified some other factors which could help people to change their routines (Gardner et al., 2012):

  • Involve people in choosing target behaviours themselves: Progress towards a self-determined behavioural goal supports a sense of autonomy and helps to sustain interest. In education it’s often assumed that to improve, teachers should work to develop the weakest aspects of their practice. Leahy & Wiliam (2009) argue that for most teachers the greatest benefits may come from becoming even more expert in their existing strengths.
  • Break complex tasks into smaller steps: Even small changes can have an important impact and they are easier to habituate. Success with a small change can boost sense of self-efficacy (belief in our ability to succeed in a similar future situation) which may help support further changes in the long term.
  • Practice in the same context with as little variation as possible: Whilst variety is the spice of life, it’s effortful and appears incompatible with development of automatic behaviours.
  • Reassure that it gets easier with time: It’s helpful to be clear that it’s normal for a new behaviour to take a while to become second nature. Working on a new behaviour gets progressively easier, and maintaining motivation is only necessary until a habit forms.

There’s an interesting comparison between the factors which appear to help people to form healthy habits and some of the components of instructional coaching. For example, Bambrick-Santoyo’s (2016) 6-step-model for coaching interaction includes an emphasis on a teacher and coach working together to identify small improvements to behaviours which will be rehearsed, practised in context, and supported by regular, weekly observations and feedback until they become integral to the teacher’s regular behaviours.

Of course, effective habits and routines are only one part of becoming a more expert educator – there are many instances in which we need flexibility rather than predetermined automatic behaviours. But if we want professional development to make a genuine difference in schools and classrooms, we should attend to the evidence on how to support educators to change their habits of practice.

Who knows, it might also help us to keep our New Year’s resolutions!


Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016). Get Better Faster: A 90 Day Plan for Coaching New Teachers (1st ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Campling, J., Andrade, J., Kavanagh, D.J, & May, J (2017) Are New Year's resolutions a waste of time? The Psychologist, 14 December 2017. [Online] Available from: [Retrieved 01 March 2019]

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12x659466

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674

Leahy & Wiliam (2009) From teachers to schools: scaling up professional development for formative assessment. Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 2009, San Diego, CA

Michie, S., van Stralen, M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6(1). doi: 10.1186/1748-5908-6-42

Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.

Nick Rose, Learning Design Fellow, Ambition Institute
Ben White, Research Lead, Ashford Teaching Alliance

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