Special Report
School Climate & Safety

How Schools Use Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 22, 2022 6 min read
Pinecrest Elementary School Principal Laura Mendicino directs students to take their places in preparation for a teamwork activity at the school in Immokalee, Fla. Twice a week, the Collier County district uses activities to teach aspects of leadership.
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Students can lose more than academic ground during school disruptions. They can also lose the foundation of academic habits and routines needed to recoup their learning.

“The structured and orderly environments that schools generally provide are really important to help kids learn routines, these social norms of how do you get yourself prepared? How do you get organized? And the disruptions of the pandemic really threw those for a loop,” said Ronn Nozoe, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “And so we saw and still see kids struggling to get back in the groove and find their way back into the typical operations of the school day and how things should go in schools.”

After two years of fallout from the pandemic—all the school closures, trauma, widespread teacher and student absences, and social distancing—experts say students continue to struggle with academic habits they’ve forgotten, or never fully learned. In a nationally representative survey taken in January and February, 80 percent of educators told the EdWeek Research Center that their students’ social skills and emotional maturity levels are somewhat or much less advanced now than they were in 2019.

But some educators and experts say helping students regain a sense of leadership and ownership in schools can both improve their engagement and help them recover their academic habits.

Collier County, Fla., public schools are among 5,000 schools nationwide that have adopted the Leader in Me program to reinforce skills among students and adults. The program, based on Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, provides training and executive coaching for principals and teachers to support leadership, culture, and academics in school. Through 38 “key concept” lessons for each grade level, each about 15-30 minutes long, teachers model ways for students to first “lead themselves” through personal responsibility, planning, and decisionmaking, then “lead others” through attentive listening, conflict resolution, and teamwork, according to a Harvard University evaluation of the program.

“If you look at the seven habits from a student level, we focus on executive function skills, right? That’s really habits one through three: I’m responsible for myself. I need to set and plan goals. I need to manage my time accurately,” said Meg Thompson, the vice president and general manager of FranklinCovey Education, which runs Leader in Me, and the author of The 4 Disciplines of Execution for Educators. “We have been hearing from a number of our client schools. They feel like they would not have survived the pandemic had the kids not had this [executive function skills] foundation. And now post-pandemic, it’s the structure that they’re using to put themselves back together.”

Covey's 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'

  1. Be Proactive. Take responsibility for your life.
  2. Begin with the End In Mind. Define your mission and goals in life.
  3. Put First Things First. Prioritize and do the most important thing first.
  4. Think Win-Win. Have an “everyone can win” attitude.
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood. Listen to people sincerely.
  6. Synergy. Work together to achieve more.
  7. Sharpen the Saw. Renew yourself regularly.

Source: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen R. Covey

Harvard University’s 2021 evaluation of 33 social-emotional development programs found that across multiple studies, the Leader in Me program was associated with reduced behavior problems and absenteeism, more-positive perceptions of school climate, and higher math and reading/language arts test performance, particularly for Black students.

Schools build students’ identity as leaders

During the pandemic, Collier County has expanded Leader in Me to 25 of its 52 schools, with all grades including a 30-minute lesson two days a week on social-emotional learning activities.

Educators “saw the need for their kids to have structure, to understand a belief in themselves to be leaders, to help their future and their down-the-road careers,” said Kamela Patton, Collier County’s schools superintendent.

The district serves 43,000 students in schools spread across an area bigger than Delaware. About 65 percent of students live in poverty, and 55 percent do not speak English at home—Spanish and Haitian Creole are the most common of the more than 100 home languages.

Patton said twice-weekly districtwide activities help students and teachers build a shared sense of identity. Most recently, students and teachers created building-wide human chains to close a circuit and light a lightbulb as a demonstration of both the electricity and the need for individual members to contribute to a team. “Anything we’re trying to do, we’re trying to do it over a large space,” she said. “So if you don’t have systems in place, you’re not gonna move that needle.”

Pinecrest Elementary School third graders Jose Lito, left, and Elizabeth Ruiz Mateo hold the “energy stick” above their head during the school’s “Energy Stick” activity at the school in Immokalee, Fla. The activity involved students completing a circuit by linking hands to turn on a light and sound a buzzer. It was the first time the students came together in such a way since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Immokalee, Fla., academic disruptions didn’t start with the pandemic—they are a way of life. More than 40 percent of the students in Pinecrest Elementary School live in migrant farmworker families who seasonally travel between Collier County and other farm and packing communities in Florida, Tennessee, and elsewhere. Nearly all of the students are Black or Hispanic, and more than 60 percent are learning English as a second language.

The state had just given Pinecrest a failing accountability grade and threatened the school with closure or charter takeover when Laura Mendicino took over as principal in May 2020, in the teeth of the pandemic. Mendicino, who had successfully implemented Leader in Me at her previous school, Highlands Elementary, prioritized implementing the program at Pinecrest, too.

“Allowing students to really start to make decisions on campus and have that ownership of our campus really impacted the culture of the school, which naturally impacted the academics,” Mendicino said. “Within a year, we went from an F to a C [on the state’s school accountability rankings]. The following year, we went from a C to an A, and have maintained that A ever since.”

Executive coaching helps set culture

Teachers and principals receive executive coaching on the habits, in six to 12 sessions of an hour to 90 minutes each.

“It’s not just training for kids. Teachers are learning better habits, too—being proactive, beginning with the end in mind—in their own personal lives, … because you can’t sit there and reinforce it with kids and not pick it up yourself,” Patton said.

Patton and Mendicino said training, support, and even individual coaching to improve academic habits among principals and teachers are crucial to building a “culture of leadership and responsibility” in schools.

“It truly is a two-year process where [teachers and students] have to live it,” Mendicino said. “They have to understand what it means to set aligned, attainable, and measurable goals and then see how … those strategies and those actions that we do every day are going to impact the goals. We track the things that we’re doing every day, because it should inch us closer and closer to meeting our goal at the end.”

For example, Mendicino said, her teachers have focused on one habit—“thinking win-win”—to help students get back into the habit of working together after years of first virtual, then socially distanced, instruction. “For so long, they sat 6 feet apart. They had masks on; their teachers had masks on. It was such an isolated way to teach students,” Mendicino said. “Thinking win-win,” one of Covey’s original “habits,” involves teaching students to value cooperation over competition when working in a team, and looking for solutions to interpersonal problems that benefit both sides.

“ ‘Thinking win-win’ has been huge with our kids because we’ve had to almost retrain kids how to work together collaboratively,” she said. “So we’ve had to go back to teaching kids how to speak with each other: how to listen; how to seek to understand what their peers are saying, process that, and then reply based on the [peer’s] emotional standpoint, the context, their background understanding—and do it in a way that’s respectful.”

Modeling good academic habits also means being willing to show students your own struggles during the pandemic, Patton said. A self-described “organizational freak,” Patton makes a point of talking with students about how stress and lack of time in the last two years have hurt her own ability to stay organized and how she finds small ways to improve.

“These last two years [my inbox] is a mess all the time. Every day, I’m losing five minutes digging through [it],” Patton said. “So if I’m overwhelmed as an adult, you can guarantee our kids are overwhelmed during these times.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Schools Use Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

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