After the summer break, I was always filled with good ideas and good intentions. Inspired by workshops and readings about teaching language arts, I was ready to try new strategies. I’d set goals like:

  • Send positive communications on postcards to my 125 students
  • Get students to fall in love with reading
  • Create interactive, real-world grammar activities

And then the grading and planning would pile up, a crisis would distract me, or students would respond to my nifty new grammar plans with yawns and rolled eyes. Around December, it would hit: I was not going to achieve my goals.

I know now that I set myself up for failure. Those goals were so big, they quickly became overwhelming (by about the 17th postcard). Research shows that to actually follow through on goals, we need to break them down into specific, concrete steps that are time-specific. Psychologists call these implementation intentions, but I prefer the term when/then statements, because it helps me remember to keep them focused.

When I first learned about when/then statements, I was skeptical about how well they worked, so I decided to try them out in my yoga class. I set my intention—when I’m between poses, then I’ll do a sit-up—and went to class. At first, I just caught myself not doing a sit-up. But within just a few days, I was regularly doing sit-ups between poses, and after a few weeks, it became routine. Now, I don’t even have to think about doing them; I just find myself doing them. The when/then statement helped me first notice what I was doing (or not doing!) and then—finally—to change the behavior.

Take my big goal of providing positive communication. By breaking it down into the behavior I wanted to achieve (send postcards to all students) and adding the how and when I could achieve it, I could actually be successful. Here’s what it would look like:

When: At the end of each day,

Then: I will write two postcards to students and their families about their achievements

That’s much less formidable than the idea of writing 125 postcards!

We believe in the power of when/then statements to help change behaviors—and we’ve made them a part of our new online program, Instructional Support Strategies for Teachers. Your small steps can add up to big improvements in your Instructional Support interactions.


Editor's Note: This blog was originally published in September 2014, but has since been revised to keep the content relevant and accurate.