Is 16 Habits Too Many?


By Nick Bruski, first in a series.

In an educational landscape of rigorous Common Core Standards, NGSS, new curricula, mindfulness, and a never­ending stream of local initiatives, one might ask, “where the heck do I find time to teach Habits of Mind, and how in the heck am I going to get to all 16 of them?” Is 16 Habits too many?

The simple answer is yes, 16 Habits is too many to explicitly teach in the course of a year.

So what Habits do you ditch? None…

Let me explain. At our elementary school in Southern California, we worked hard to put the Habits of Mind into place in our classrooms. We wanted to institutionalize them. We wanted them to live within our walls. We did this through a very uncreative and linear approach. To oversimplify, we have 180 days of school and 16 Habits, so basic mathematics says we can spend 11.25 days on each Habit. It was great! We “taught” every Habit equally and checked all 16 boxes. But the result was lifeless and uninspired lip­service to the great work of Costa and Kallick. Students could match up a Habit with its definition, but didn’t truly know them, understand them, use them, and live them.

We needed a different approach, and Michael Fullan had recently published a book called Focus, which provided a much needed breath of fresh air. He shares that,

“There is too much overload and baggage on the current change journey. The skinny is about finding the smallest number of high-­leverage, easy-­to-­understand actions that unleash stunningly powerful consequences.”

This gave us permission to slow down. We needed to make the Habits our own, so we examined our core beliefs, values, and unique culture and identified five Habits that we wanted to focus deeply on: Thinking Flexibly, Persistence, Listening with Understanding and Empathy, Taking Responsible Risks, and Managing Impulsivity. We became connoisseurs of these five Habits and infused them into everything we did. We explicitly taught them in our classroom lessons and Friday Flag whole-­school assemblies. We sought out connections to literature, characters, historical figures, and various content areas. We opened up our staff PLCs with a focus Habit, asking the adults to model empathy as we worked through tough inter­staff conflict. We thought flexibly when we were met with unanticipated challenges, like the flooding of one of our buildings. We discussed persistence with students in our math classrooms, as students took on rich open­-ended problem solving situations. We asked students to show empathy with their peers when issues arose on the playground.

The Habits became a common language on our campus, and by developing fluency in five, we started to naturally see them everywhere, in everything we did, and the students did to. They’d talk about the persistence they used to finish an assigned reading before a deadline. They could be overheard on the playground encouraging a reluctant friend to take a responsible risk and join a game they hadn’t tried before. It became common to receive an email from a parent, sharing that while at the dinner table, their 6­-year­-old daughter told them they need to manage their impulsivity as they reached for a second helping of dessert.

As we built fluency with the initial five, it was clear how ubiquitous these Habits had become, and how powerful they were for our students and staff to have in their tool bags. The Habits became a lens to understand the world around us, and to empower us to live fuller and more meaningful lives, both as students, and as human beings. With the success of the original five, our staff and students were naturally curious to explore the other eleven.

When the Habits of Mind become pervasive across all areas of the curricula, as well as the social environment, they do not require traditional “teaching.” Yes, we started small at first and primarily stuck to our original five, but we have seven years with our students, and thousands of opportunities to connect what we do to all 16 Habits of Mind in the course of their tenure at our school. By simplifying our approach, we actually learned to do more with the Habits, and use them meaningfully. We do teach all 16, but not in one year and not all at once, and it doesn’t feel like teaching.


Dr. Nick Bruski has served in various positions in education including classroom teaching, coaching, administration, training, writing, and higher education. His diverse work experience includes teaching in inner-city Los Angeles, serving as a principal in both high-poverty and high-affluence communities, extensive training of school administrators in the areas of culture, data, and teacher evaluation, and lecturing on leadership in UCLA’s Ed.D. program.

Read more posts by Dr. Nick Bruski.


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