How Habits Help Teach Morality

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Five Strategies for Thinking and Acting Morally


With the limited time we have in religious education to teach our students morality, our focus tends to be on teaching the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule. Our goal, though, should be to help students integrate what they understand about these moral principles in their heads with the way they act. We want to teach them to think and live in a moral way with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Living out the Beatitudes and Ten Commandments is made easier with the virtues, or the “habitual disposition to do the good.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (quoting St. Gregory of Nysa), “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (CCC, 1603).

How do we help form that habitual disposition to do good and become like God? Recent popular research about habit formation can help us in this area. For example, in The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes habit formation as having three elements: the cue, the action, and the reward. An action is triggered by a specific cue and also is motivated by a reward. As the action is repeated, it becomes a habit that is hard to break. The only way to change a habit is to remove the reward from the action or connect a new action to the cue. 

How can we apply this to catechesis? Take the Ten Commandments, for instance. After teaching what the Ten Commandments are, we can teach how to actually live them by anchoring each one to a specific cue that triggers an appropriate right action. It means not only teaching students to honor their mother and father, but also giving them specific circumstances (cues) in which to actually carry out that commandment. It means that instead of teaching students the concept of “love your enemies,” we give them specific situations in which loving their enemies is important (cue) and remind them of the reward they will experience when they do so.

How exactly can we accomplish this shift in the way we teach morality? Here are five strategies you might implement this year:

Moral Scenario Journal and Discussion 

Write out or describe for the students a specific moral scenario or situation they could encounter at their age: a confrontation with a friend, a temptation to sin, for instance. If you are teaching the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, link the scenario to a specific commandment or beatitude. Next, have students write out both a good and a bad response in that situation (cue and action) and what would happen as a result (reward). Finally, give the students time to discuss what they wrote, either in small groups or as a class.

Moral Scenario Skits

Take the above activity a little further: Have the students gather into groups and act out the scenario in front of the class. The extra time to think through what to say and how to act will help solidify their ability to transfer what they think in class to the way they act in their daily lives.

Backward Brainstorm

Start with the commandment, beatitude, or moral teaching and then work backward. Have the students identify specific life situations in which they will be tested to live out each moral principle in their daily lives. Brainstorm this list individually and then in groups or as an entire class. Have students think back in their lives to identify specific times when they did live out a particular virtue and then share that story with the class.

Examination of Conscience

One of the reasons that an examination of conscience can be so powerful is that it anchors the Ten Commandments (or whatever lens is used for the reflection before confession) in actual actions. Have the students use an examination of conscience tool to identify specific “cues” that cause them to act on sinful desires. Help the students recognize that the “reward” is not worth the feelings of guilt for harming others and God.


Remember those WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets from the 1990s? It may have been just a fad, but the method works. The idea is that wearing the bracelet will remind you to ask the WWJD question every time you encounter a moral decision. You imagine what Jesus would do in that situation and take action based on that line of thinking. Make or buy bracelets for your students and bring back the fad. Even without the bracelets, you can practice asking the WWJD question in moral scenarios or discussions about bad behavior.


JARED DEES is the creator of and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator.


This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, January 2018

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