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Helping Kids Create Positive Habits

I started this year wanting to get back on track with my regular daily meditation practice. I had fallen out of the habit, as can happen. It can be challenging to fit in everything I want to do in a day. I often have a to-do list with such big plans and ideas that are way bigger than the number of hours in one day. I seem to be very talented at underestimating how long things will take, and often forget about things like transition time and important things like showering (apparently “shower” needs to be added to my list in order to schedule around it). It's also completely normal to have peaks and valleys in motivation. I have managed to add back in an 11-minute meditation every day now for 40 days straight (and a shower every day). When it comes to healthy habits, we would love to have our kids develop good healthy habits as well. We hope to help them see the value of things like showering every day, brushing their teeth, eating healthy foods, healthy movement, and putting their toys away. I’m even training the dog to put her toys away. She’s actually getting the hang of it. When we start to think about how to help kids build these habits, though, it can start to get sticky. Maybe even a little triggering. Especially since we know as adults that we often have great intentions about new habits and struggle to keep them going. In the long run, we understand that the lives we imagine for our children depend on the quality of the habits we help them create. We might even take a few lessons on that with us. I know that as a parent and as a teacher, I have to take a look at some of my own habits so that I can try to model the values I want to share. It is very easy to underestimate the power that making tiny changes each day can have. We often put too much importance onto the big defining moments in our lives when the most lasting, powerful lifestyle changes often occur through tiny incremental shifts. My 11-minute meditation for instance. Tiny shift, big impact.

I’ve read quite a bit about habits – from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to research on the neuroscience of habits, and many books and studies over the years about motivating kids. I've also worked with many kids to create positive habits. Here are my big takeaways for ways to encourage kids to create healthy habits (and parents, too).

1. Prompts

The prompt is like a cue that checks the box in our brain which sets off a chain reaction or routine. Sometimes we have built in prompts (you wake up your child or their alarm goes off which is the prompt to get the morning routine going). Other times, in order to create a new habit, we have to set up the prompt. This can be maybe that as soon as afternoon snack is finished, this is the prompt to do homework. James Clear calls this habit stacking. It is incredibly valuable for setting new habits. Whatever new habit you want to add in immediately follows something that you already regularly do. The crucial part is to make sure that the prompt is a very specific event, and everyone involved knows when it has occurred and what will follow.

2. Consistency

After the prompt, the steps that follow need to be consistent. A routine series of steps. To continue the snack prompt example, this means that it must be feasible that every school day after snack, the routine begins. Snack – get out books—get out pencil and paper or computer—complete homework—have homework checked by parent. Anything that doesn’t fit in the sequence needs to be done either before or after. Need to change out of school clothes? Before snack or after homework. Dog needs to go out? Before or after. Consistency is key. Stick to your rules for the routine. Follow through is the most important part, even if it is very inconvenient the first few times. Make sure when you set up the routine that you have balanced the need for practicality and convenience so it will work for your family and then stick with it. Build in some margin to absorb the things that will inevitably go wrong (this is where I often get tripped up!!). Someone will spill their water at snack time, someone will throw up, or the Chromebook battery ends up dead and needs to be charged. Build in buffer time. And find a way to make it fun. Whatever that means for your family. Do they like soft music while they do homework? Fancy pencils or erasers? It doesn’t need to be a full production, just a little fun.

3. Reward

Lots and lots of debate about this one in the world of education. Here’s what I’ve found. The reward is what helps our brain decide that a particular routine is worth committing to memory. However, the reward is not the biggest piece of the puzzle. It is not, and should not be, the focal point. If the reward is too big or if it isn’t something that can be done consistently, then the habit will not get ingrained. It will eventually leave as soon as the reward is gone. If a child thinks they can’t possibly get to the reward, then it also won’t work. I have learned and re-learned this one. The most effective rewards are often smaller, consistent, and anything that you can actually deliver on. Trust is an important part of the process. Stickers, some other kind of token, stars, stamps, game time, etc. I’ve seen a simple star drawn on a mini-whiteboard work WONDERS. I even give myself a star for new habits. It’s a star! Stars are pretty cool. Whatever it is, make sure you can come through on it rain or shine. With time and consistency, the reward becomes no longer needed and intrinsic motivation can set in.

Pulling it all together

· Pick the prompt, routine steps, and reward

· Gently guide your kids through the steps of the routine for the first few days. Sometimes the first few days are exciting, other times there is resistance. Keep calm and stay the course. It will get easier as the routine becomes settled in.

· Catch your child following the routine and acknowledge it. It doesn’t need to be a big deal here, or overly enthusiastic, just point it out that you noticed it and thank them for the effort. It also helps to show how it has helped them. (I noticed you started your homework right after snack, now you have more time to play before dinner!)

· Mention their little victories every chance you get. Especially if something else is not exactly going according to plan. Playing with their food during dinner? Mention how great they did getting their homework started on time.

· Make sure you are providing enough support that their success is possible. This might be rearranging other routines, or adding in steps or prep. For example, making sure that pencils and paper are readily available and easy to find when it’s time for homework.

· Slowly phase out the reward. Only phase out after some time has gone by (usually a month or more), and it seems naturally no longer needed.

· Believe it can happen. Believe that your kids can be successful with the new habit. Believe you can be successful. Belief is POWERFUL. Your kids will feel it, even if you think you’re not showing it. You will feel it, even if you think you’re fooling yourself. Believe, believe, believe!

What new habits are you working to create with your family? How’s it going? What has been helpful?

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