School Blog

September 15, 2016

Like a Fire: Charlotte Mason and Habit Formation at SCCS

Julia Wickes
A PreK-3 class in spring, absorbed in their handiwork.


“Habit is like a fire, a bad master but an indispensable servant.”
– Charlotte Mason

We are five weeks into the school year and the inevitable start-of-school wrinkles are being ironed out. I could be suffering from selective memory or a romanticized view of the past, but when I think about last year, it is hard to remember the bumpy beginning. By spring, so much growth will have happened.

As I reflect on this fall-to-spring transformation, I realize that it is not magical or automatic, but is the result of a lot of hard work by our teachers–the hard work of habit formation. Last year I watched the fourth grade class at the same time of day for one hour each month. It seemed like it would be a hard gig, because I had to take them from recess, where they were going full throttle, into the classroom, where they were to transition straight into a half-hour of total silence for read-to-self. I was always amazed that my time with them was actually incredibly easy. The transition was so automatic for them, they did it by muscle memory. Their teacher (Ms. Harbaugh) had obviously done the hard work of forming a habit until it was ingrained, and everyone benefited.

The before-and-after effect in habit training is even more dramatic in the littlest among us–our three-year-olds. I work next door to the PreK-3 classroom, so I almost have a front row seat to their day. As the ambient sounds of their class reach my ears, I sense the growing pains taking place during the first weeks of school. They are learning for the first time what it means to be at school. Not accustomed to the novelty of being part of a group, some will bolt out of line in the hallway toward an object that catches their attention. Some will get up during the middle of lunch and try to pull out the box of toy dinosaurs, leaving their lunch box contents sprawled on the table. Some will simply lie back during circle time while the teacher is talking and literally roll away (true story).

I am always amazed at the patience of our teachers, Ms. Joy and Ms. Maggie, as–over and over again–they draw the wandering three-year-olds back on track. Before transitions they sing a sweet melody with the words, “Feet are still…mouths are quiet…eyes are watching…hands are empty…and ears are ready to listen.” It will take many, many times before everyone in the class has developed the awareness and willpower to actually empty their hands and so forth when they hear this song, and that is okay.

By the spring, the PreK-3 class will be unrecognizable from what it was these first few weeks. They will stick together and know better than to wander away when it’s time to sit on the rug for a story. They will automatically close up their lunch boxes with gusto, throw their trash away, and grab the spray bottle or dust pan at the end of lunch to help clean up before they move on to play. Later in the school year, the teacher will not have to expend so much energy on giving reminders. This creates the space to go deeper into learning–to practice handiwork like sewing or weaving, to really hear and absorb the story and music of Peter and the Wolf, or to identify trees according to leaf shape.

Needless to say, the hard work required to instill habits in kids would be exhausting without adequate motivation– the inspiration of a high ideal and promise of a real reward. We draw a lot of this inspiration at SCCS from Charlotte Mason’s writings on habit formation. Her insights into habits are challenging and sometimes daunting, as she frames the issue in very either-or terms: “Each of us has in our possession an exceedingly good servant or a very bad master, known as Habit.” The question for Charlotte Mason is not whether we will have habits, but which ones we will have.

Charlotte Mason was a very clear thinker and writer, and although she was writing from the vantage point of Victorian England, her insights are sometimes amazingly ahead of her time. She shrewdly draws a connection between habit formation, repetition, and the brain, saying, “The fact is, that the things we do a good many times over, leave some sort of impression in the very substance of our brain; and this impression, the more often it is repeated, makes it the easier for us to do the thing the next time.” While it is interesting to explore the latest scientific studies on human habit and the brain (like this one conducted by MIT scientists using lab rats), and see how Charlotte Mason’s assertions stack up, I like to think of the real proof of her seemingly old fashioned advice as lying in plain view in our classrooms. We witness it, sans lab rats and brain scans, in the (eventual) smoothness of our school days and in the
growth we see in kids.

I asked Katelyn Haist, a first grade teacher, to describe how habit formation works in the classroom from her years of experience at SCCS. She said the following:

Throughout the school year, I see the importance of instilling good habits in children in the ways that their character begins to unfold. The month that we practice the Habit of Courtesy, I see children pushing in others’ chairs, or helping up a student that fell at recess. The months that we practice the Habit of Responsibility, I see the children relying less and less on me to take care of their belongings, but instead realizing that they are the keeper of their things. Instead of hearing, “I’m so mad my mom forgot my water bottle,” I hear them saying “I’m sad I forgot my water bottle today.” They begin to see and understand that they have been given the ability to care for themselves and they have the tools to care for their things as well. As we practice the Habit of Attention, students are more aware that they need to listen the first time, because the directions are only teacher-stated once. It only takes a handful of times of missing directions before the Habit of Attention, fixing one’s mind and body on the matter at hand, is of the highest importance. As we learn and practice new habits, children are like sponges. I see this in the way they absorb and practice from month to month with gentle reminders. Charlotte Mason says it better than I can when she says, “Above all, ‘watch unto prayer’ and teach your child dependence upon divine aid in this warfare of the spirit; but, also, the absolute necessity for his own efforts.”

Our older kids learn the value of good habits by name (neatness and order, courtesy and punctuality). But their learning is action-oriented, not abstract. For example, instead of just teaching them, “Honesty is good; be honest,” they are mentored and encouraged in the habit of truth-telling, especially in sticky situations in which a lie might be easier. Action–not abstraction–is the path to real change and character development.

Rae Gibson, a third grade teacher’s assistant at SCCS, says that in her experience children want to grow and look for the guidelines that will show them how to navigate their day. Several times she has had third graders come up to her when they were not sure of what was expected and ask things like, “Is it okay to have a drink of water right now?” This may sound a bit over-scrupulous, but it’s clear that children feel most safe when they know that there is a time, place, and order for how things are done.

Charlotte Mason compared the work of habit formation in children to laying down train tracks that ensure a smooth ride “toward the unexplored country of the child’s future.” Although this work can feel weighty at times (especially for parents, who carry the largest part of the responsibility), it is really just an ongoing process that we make manageable by tackling a little at a time. Reading Charlotte Mason’s teachings on the formation of habits in children can leave the alarming impression that it is a do-or-die, all-or-nothing scenario. Maybe she really thought this, or maybe she was using hyperbole to drive her point home. Whatever the case, the reality we see at SCCS is that habit formation is a process that involves a lot of perseverance, self-correction, grace, back and forth, and dusting ourselves off after we fall. If habits are a fire, we are aiming for the cozy fireplace, the campfire, the controlled burn. Any work we do in this area will not go to waste, but will clear the way for smoother days, nurturing moments, and learning that will amaze us.

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For further reading on Charlotte Mason and habits, we recommend Laying Down the Rails: a Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook, by Sonya Shafer.