Practice Makes...Habit

Posted by Evan C. Crist, Psy.D. on 1/21/15 12:47 PM

This is the 7th of a 12 part series on Evidence Based Principles.  Subscribe to our blog and get the series delivered right to your inbox.

Principle 4: Skill Train with Directed PracticeEBP Principle Skill Training

Ever wondered why you continue with bad habits even when they serve no purpose other than to create pain? Human nature is frustrating. Sometimes it seems like we are just one big compilation of habits, good and bad. That is partly true.

Most correctional professionals agree that behavioral change starts with acquiring new skills, however we often do a particularly poor job implementing this principle. It is not for a lack of trying. Without a solid foundation in the neuropsychology of habits and behavior change, we typically start with a false assumption. That assumption is that a lack of information is central to the behavior problem. When your assumption of the problem misses the mark, your intervention will too.

There are two primary types of learning. Declarative learning involves information that can be verbalized (i.e., declared). For example, WWII ended in what year? Who was the 16th President of the United States? What does a red stoplight mean? In each case, you can access your memory and respond with the answer. Declarative learning is vital to a variety of tasks, but behavioral change isn’t one of them.

There is a big difference between learning facts, figures and declarative information and learning processes. The process of learning processes is called procedural learning. While there is certainly information involved, it can rarely be verbalized. It must be demonstrated or experienced. For example, you can read a book about learning to play golf. It will discuss hip action, hand-eye coordination, swing trajectory and many other important ideas. Once you’ve completed the book, head directly to the golf course. What are the chances you will injure a person nearby?

For some processes, declarative information is not helpful. In fact, sometimes it can actually get in the way. Processes can only be learned through experience. Procedurally learned behavior that gets practiced often become "overlearned." When that happens, the brain switches on the autopilot. Our autopilot does not think and is hardly aware of what it is doing. It performs automatically, without the value or burden of declarative information. While the automatic nature of the autopilot may seem dangerous, consider the value of it. Olympic and professional athletes perform at their highest level when their autopilot takes over.

Extraordinary musicians do not think while performing. They let their autopilot take over. Complex processes that have been "overlearned" trigger the autopilot to take over. Driving a golf ball is a process. Driving a car is a process. So is driving a nail. Guess what else is a process?? Coping skills. Problem solving. Social skills. Emotion management. In other words, personality.

There is a down side to the autopilot. A behavior learned in one situation may be completely inappropriate for another situation. The autopilot is not sensitive to environmental or situational differences. What happens when the autopilot takes over and performs a process that is not a good match for the current situation? Starting to sound familiar?

Overlearned behaviors become habits. While those habits may be life-saving in one situation, in another they can be life threatening. We all have bad habits that we tolerate. However, when those habits result in criminal activity, it is not a nuisance but a recipe for personal and societal destruction. While a comprehensive discussion of procedural learning would threaten the "simplified" nature of this article, there are two important concepts to remember.

  • Feedback tends to take control away from the autopilot and return it to the thinking part of the brain

  • Competing behaviors require experience and practice

Information: Information does not necessarily translate to new behavioral learning.

Role Playing: When real life experience is not an option, role playing is the next best thing.

Feedback: Observe, practice, feedback. Repeat.


In our next blog in this series, we will address Principle 5a, Establish Structure and Behavioral Accountability. Subscribe to our blog and get the series delivered right to your inbox.

Evidence Based Principles: Simplified White Paper

This a 12 part series. Here are all 12 blogs in the series:

  1. An Introduction to Evidence Based Principles (EBP)
  2. EBP: Building the Therapeutic Relationship
  3. Community Corrections Interventions Must Begin with Assessment
  4. To Be or Not to Be: Framing Offender Motivation
  5. EBP: How Good is Your Aim?
  6. Discovering Values in Collaboration
  7. Practice Makes...Habit
  8. Structure & Accountability Still Matter!
  9. Catch Them Being Good!
  10. It Takes a Community to Transition an Offender
  11. What Works Anyway? Prove it!
  12. Feedback Please!
To request more information or schedule an online demonstration of our Community Corrections Software, click here. We offer integrated software and support services for Probation/Parole, Residential and Reentry programs. Our Program Foundation Platform and twelve robust modules were designed by community corrections professionals to guide organizations toward a powerful EBP implementation, relieve them of strenuous paperwork and manual processes, and enable them to focus on what matters - people! 

Topics: Community Corrections, Evidence Based Practices, Practices

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