How Habits Work — and Can Work for Our Work with Refugees

I was in Northern Tanzania in a refugee camp called Nyarugusu, the second largest refugee camp in the world. We were working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who run schools in the camps, to explore ways which we could use mobile technology to increase the use of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL covers areas such as stress management, brain building games, positive social skills, positive discipline, etc. The aim is for teachers, parents, and youth leaders to integrate these SEL activities while working with young children between the ages of 6 and 14.

During my visit, it was my job to explore how we could develop appropriate mobile tools for the teachers, parents and youth leaders to get them to start using social and emotional learning in their daily practice with children. For that reason, I relied on habit theory to guide our human-centred design research.

Teachers being interviewed in one of their homes, Nyarugusu Refugee Camp

What’s Habit Theory?

I’ve been reading a range of work on habit theory, but for the context of the work I was doing, there were two habit models that I relied on the most. The first was Charles Duhigg’s Habit Loop popularised in his book How to Build Habit Forming Products. He talks about habit cycles, which include a cue, a routine and a reward. All our habits are made from these three pieces. His theory states that when you are trying to change the habit, keep the cue and the reward the same but change the action.

For example, if you find yourself eating biscuits and you want to stop eating them to watch your weight, but are struggling to stop, you can stop to figure out what cues the desire to eat biscuits. Is it the time of day? A bad meeting? Once you have nailed that, look at what the reward gives you: does it make you feel satisfied or happy? Or is it getting some time out? To change the habit (reaching for biscuits), use the cue to give you the same reward with a new action. If the reward is getting a break and the cue is the time, take a walk around the block instead at that specific time instead.

Habit Loop by Charles Duhigg Source:

Another similar framework is the behavioural model from Stanford’s BJ Fogg. He talks about Tiny Habits®. Tiny Habits® consist of triggers, abilities, and motivations. Something has to trigger the behaviour, you have to have skill to do the behaviour (ability) and you have to have the motivation to perform the behaviour. Triggers only succeed if both the motivation and the ability are sufficient. Charles Duhigg’s cues are the same — they only succeed if the routine and the reward are sufficiently motivating.

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model Source:

I posed some research questions to explore what are the existing habits that teachers and parents are displaying — what are the triggers in their day? For example, what’s their morning routine like? How could we use one of those triggers to introduce a new habit? If a mother’s habit is to get up, have porridge and then send the children off to school in the refugee camp, could we trigger a habit while they are waiting for water to boil? Could we leverage this to create a new Social and Emotional Learning habit?

To find common habits, we investigated the teacher’s routines and how they spent their breaks and started their lessons. We designed interviews and co-design activities to dive deeper into what the habits were, knowing that individuals differ.

Teachers engaged in a co-design activity in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp

We found a few common habits. For example, teachers start the school day with a register and recapping their previous lessons before starting their next one. Teachers have certain techniques for responding to events, or triggers, in their classroom. One teacher said, “If children aren’t listening I clap and everyone claps to get student’s attention.” So if we have these common events or triggers, wouldn’t these social emotional learning activities be easy to trigger to address student’s attention? That’s where we tried and make the connections.

Of course. it wasn’t always that easy. The nuances of habits needed to observed: many habits aren’t known to the person so an interview alone doesn’t suffice. People often don’t know themselves in that way, or aren’t forthcoming about the details. If I had more time, I would have sat in on more classes to see if we could match what was said in interviews to the behaviours in class time. We are working with the IRC who manage the teachers, and as such, even in an observational context, we can still see bias as we are seen as reviewers of their teaching ability.

Teachers reading SMSs in a co-design workshop in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp

We had an idea that we could use mobile technology to send alerts at specific times of the day to serve as triggers, such as the mornings or break times. We tried to send them messages at 7am but with no success. This was due to unreliable networks, poor internet access and the fact that RapidPro, the tool we used to send the messages, requires a stable internet connection, which was unavailable. This meant that the messages didn’t go through or that they went through late,or even the next day. This meant, we couldn’t rely on time-based messages.

So what are we going to do? We can’t rely on the SMS to be the trigger, so we need to rely on other event-based triggers. e.g. when the children aren’t focusing. We are investigating how to integrate mobile as a support tool to remind users to integrate the SEL activities that they’ve learnt to develop their own SEL habits.

We’re continuing the research in Nyarugusu over the next couple of months, with an aim to run a randomised controlled trial test for this project in the new year.

By Pippa Yeats, Head of Strategy & Experience Design,

Project Dandelion is an interdisciplinary design research project led by the IRC in partnership with, made possible in part through the support of the Intel Foundation.



The Airbel Impact Lab designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster. Our aim is to find the most impactful and cost-effective products, services, and delivery systems possible.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Reach Digital Health

We use technology to solve some of the world's largest social problems. Follow our curated magazine MobileForGood.