Dyan Branstetter | November 2019

The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Habits of Mind

“While we are interested in how many answers individuals know, we are even more interested in how they behave when they don’t know — when they are confronted with life’s problems the answers to which are not immediately known.”  – TeachThought 

Have you ever heard someone tell you that it takes 21 days to form (or break) a habit? Well, scientific studies have found that to be unfounded. When it comes to something easy, such as grabbing a coffee at your local Starbucks on your way to school, it might take only a few days for a habit to form. But if it is a habit that is challenging, studies have shown that the 21-day myth may actually more like 66 days. Or for very challenging habits, it could take up to a year! 

Habits of Mind are thinking habits that push us far past simple answer retrieval. They change our pattern of thinking to help us gain success when we don’t know the answer to a question or problem. Nearly all successful people, regardless of their profession, have mastered these habits. This makes teaching the Habits of Mind crucial as we strive to teach the whole child. Since they are cross-curricular, they can be applied to all subjects and grade levels.

These habits are not as easy to master as that daily Starbucks stop, so it is important that the language and mindset is woven throughout instruction. This way, students have an opportunity to practice frequently to help them become automatic. Additionally, it results in resilient students who are able to tackle real-world problems without giving up.

Below, you’ll find resources for introducing or extending each Habit of Mind using Pixar video clips. In addition, we’ve provided a free, no-prep, student doodle-workbook to accompany the lessons. It provides space for students to record their thinking with words and doodles. Students are also able to reflect on habits that come easily and set goals for habits that are more of a challenge. 

Many versions of Habits of Mind for students have been researched and published. 

In the mid-’90s, Robert Marzano’s Dimensions of Learning was introduced to many educators. Without a doubt, it was a very effective way to approach and break down the components of teaching a unit. Productive Habits of Mind, or “Thinking about One’s Thinking” was the fifth of his 5 Dimensions of Learning. Furthermore, Marzano broke these habits down into three categories: Self-Regulated Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Creative Thinking. 

In 2003, Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero unveiled eight Studio Habits of Mind. (Develop Craft, Engage & Persist, Envision, Express, Observe, Reflect, Stretch & Explore, Understand Art Worlds). These are habits that artists use but they can also apply to all subject areas as well. 

Although it is not called “Habits of Mind”, I think that Carol Dweck’s 2007 work on Growth Mindset can be placed in the same category. Her book, Mindset: The Psychology of Success kicked off a Growth Mindset movement in many schools, empowering students to reframe their thinking by teaching how the brain grows from doing challenging things.

While all of the above habits overlap and set students up for success, this article provides specific resources to teach the 16 Habits of Mind based on ASCD’s book Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success by Costa and Kallick, 2008. They can easily be adapted to include the other Habits of Mind. You will notice that there are many intersections since regardless of the type of habit, they all relate to metacognition.

How Can I Squeeze This Into My Already Packed Curriculum?

We know time is the enemy, and we try to teach more and more content. I have found that just a few minutes of routine Habits of Mind thinking a day is very beneficial. Not only is it quick, but it reaps great rewards because students who apply the habits are more successful in your content and activities. 

Moreover, this quick routine works well as a series of Morning Meetings, or as a quick introduction at the beginning of class. This way, students have a habit in their mind as they work through your lesson. As you notice students using habits of mind, point it out, explain what you see, and how it may connect to future successes and praise them. 

This will help students to notice them on their own and will encourage them to use them more often since they will start to recognize the pattern of success that they bring. Habits of Mind are also good to point out if you notice that things are starting to fall apart during a lesson or activity. Stop and point out the challenge you’re observing and relate it to a habit of mind that is not being utilized. Then, the following day, start with a mini-lesson on that Habit of Mind. 

Remember, forming a challenging habit takes lots of repetition, so the more real-time examples student can see, the better. Use common language and be very specific when you point out examples, and you will notice that students will begin to do the same. Then, students can be more intentional about applying the habits across subject areas. 

In Action: 

This technique helped me tremendously during problem-solving sessions when teaching 3rd-grade math. To help students persevere through challenges, students participated in an activity we deem, “Brainsweat”. During this “brainsweat” time, students had 7 minutes to grapple with a challenging word problem. The goal was not to necessarily finish the problem in that amount of time, but to spend that time ONLY focusing on the problem and possible ways to solve it. Students could also mark it up with questions they had, what was “stumping” them, and words they needed to clarify. When the time was up, students were assigned groups where they could share ideas, come to a consensus on the answer, and determine which strategy was the most effective in finding that answer.

The first few times were a challenge for a number of my students, especially those who were on the autistic spectrum or who were high achievers and used to getting an answer quickly. I clearly remember one of my students getting very frustrated because he kept getting the same answer over and over. The rest of the group was patiently trying to explain that he had forgotten to double one of the numbers in the problem, but he couldn’t “see” the problem in any other way in order to solve it.

This was a perfect segue into the Habit of Mind, Thinking Flexibly. The following day, we started class with a video clip and discussion about why this is an important habit for success. Then, we tried our “Brainsweat” activity again. At the end of the activity we debriefed, and instead of just focusing on the answer and process to get to that answer, students also pointed out when they had noticed a group member using the Habit of Mind. “Tommy was frustrated at first, but then he did what the llama did in the video and got an idea from Hala.” 

Teaching the Habits of Mind with Pixar (and similar) Shorts

One way to teach the Habits of Mind is through quick video clips or picture books. This list provides at least one video clip to match each of the 16 Habits of Mind at the elementary level. I’ve included student workbook to accompany these video clips for your convenience that you can download below.  Middle and high school teachers can find alternative video clips in the resources at the end of the article.

Also in the resources, you will find a link for free Habits of Mind Cards that work wonderfully as a bulletin board display. Having these resources on the wall and within the student workbook will undeniably help students to see the Habits of Mind frequently, helping them to form the habits more quickly. Resource visuals on the wall are not as effective without an explicit mini-lesson on each, so make sure to pair your bulletin board with the instruction.

The 16 Habits of Mind 

Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success by Costa and Kallick


Sticking to task at hand; Follow through to completion; Can and do remain focused.  Class Dojo’s Big Ideas has a fantastic video series on Perseverance. You can share and discuss them all at once, or spread it out showing one video clip a day. https://ideas.classdojo.com/b/perseverance

Managing Impulsivity:

Take time to consider options; Think before speaking or acting; Remain calm when stressed or challenged; Thoughtful and considerate of others; Proceed carefully. 

You can find a great lesson plan for this habit here. Then, the Pixar short For the Birds is a great non-example of impulsivity. After viewing, generate discussion on how managing impulsivity could have helped. For the Birds: https://youtu.be/LI92DLRdKYE

Listening with Understanding and Empathy:

Pay attention to and do not dismiss another person’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas; Seek to put myself in the other person’s shoes; Tell others when I can relate to what they are expressing; Hold thoughts at a distance in order to respect another person’s point of view and feelings. 

This video clip from the movie Inside Out demonstrates listening with understanding and empathy. (Note: an ad plays before the clip.)

Thinking Flexibly:

Able to change perspective; Consider the input of others; Generate alternatives; Weigh options. 

Relatable topics for students: Don’t continue to make the same mistake, look to others for help, use your resources, take a break to clear your head 

The picture book The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires is a fantastic example of Flexible Thinking.

Video clips: Bulldog Can’t Fit Bone through Door 

Caminandes 1: Llama Drama – Blender Animated Short

Thinking about Thinking (Metacognition):

Being aware of your own thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions; Knowing what I do and say affects others; Willing to consider the impact of choices on myself and others. 

The first minute of the Inside Out trailer is an introduction to emotions. Identifying these emotions in ourselves and others is the first step to understanding. See this EducationCloset article for more on this topic.

Striving for Accuracy:

Check for errors; Measure at least twice; Nurture a desire for exactness, fidelity & craftsmanship. 

Topics for student discussion: Relate to detail-oriented processes like sculpting, mosaics, composing, long division, advanced multiplication, subtraction with regrouping, editing a writing piece, simply checking over any work before it is hastily turned in.

Video clip: Watch making

Questioning and Posing Problems:

Ask myself, “How do I know?”; develop a questioning attitude; Consider what information is needed, choose strategies to get that information; Consider the obstacles needed to resolve. 

Discuss how the Pixar short, Soar, demonstrates this habit.

Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations:

Use what is learned; Consider prior knowledge and experience; Apply knowledge beyond the situation in which it was learned. 

Watch the Pixar short, Piper, and discuss how the sandpiper learns from watching and applies information and adjusts thinking until he gets it right.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision:

Strive to be clear when speaking and writing; Strive be accurate to when speaking and writing; Avoid generalizations, distortions, minimizations and deletions when speaking, and writing. 

This video clip provides tips for clear communication

This video clip provides a NON Example of clear communication

Gathering Data through All Senses:

Stop to observe what I see; Listen to what I hear; Take note of what I smell; Taste what I am eating; Feel what I am touching.

This video clip of Ratatouille shows how one can slow down to observe. 

Creating, Imagining, Innovating:

Think about how something might be done differently from the “norm”; Propose new ideas; Strive for originality; Consider novel suggestions others might make. 

This clip from the movie Wonderpark demonstrates this habit.

This clip from the movie Apollo 13 shows how one person comes up with an out of the box idea, the group trusts the idea, and it is successful. Note: Pause at 1:25 due to mild profanity.  

Responding with Wonderment and Awe:

Intrigued by the world’s beauty, nature’s power and vastness for the universe; Have regard for what is awe-inspiring and can touch my heart; Open to the little and big surprises in life I see others and myself. 

Taking Responsible Risks:

Willing to try something new and different; Consider doing things that are safe and sane even though new to me; Face fear of making mistakes or of coming up short and don’t let this stop me.

Finding Humor:

Willing to laugh appropriately; Look for the whimsical, absurd, ironic and unexpected in life; Laugh at myself when I can. 

  • Ellen DeGeneres is a great example of laughing at one’s self. On this clip of Game of Games, her contestants laugh at themselves.

Thinking Interdependently:

Willing to work with others and welcome their input and perspective; Abide by decisions the workgroup makes even if I disagree somewhat; Willing to learn from others in reciprocal situations. 

This Pixar short, The Power of Teamwork, demonstrates this habit.  

This clip from The Incredibles demonstrate trust in a group decision. 

Remaining Open to Continuous Learning:

Open to new experiences to learn from; Proud and humble enough to admit when don’t know; Welcome new information on all subjects.

Code.org has a terrific video clip discussing the hurdle of learning something new. 

The ClassDojo videos on Growth Mindset discuss what it takes to learn new things.


Habit Cards for Download:

Alternative Video Clips and Ideas:

Need more? Both of these websites have a video clip for each of the Habits of Mind. So if you need an alternative to better match your grade level, or if you need more practice, check them out!

Habits of Mind: 

Forming New Habits: 

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.