Something Has Got To Change! Creating Habits for School Success

It is natural to put a lot of energy into the transition back to school. Don’t forget that it is just as important to develop good habits throughout the entire year. Consider that many of the things that you do on a day-to-day basis are not well thought out decisions, but habits. This is as true for your teen as it is for you, and can have a big impact on how well your teen does in school.

As the newness of the school year wears off, families begin settling into new routines. How are things going so far? Try completing the following sentence, “Now that the school year is underway….”

  1. Everything is going great!
  2. My teen is already behind!
  3. I feel like all I do is nag!
  4. My teen seems stressed out!

New routines or habits are established in the first few weeks, and can impact on how or what your teen does in school.  Don’t forget that it is just as easy to develop good habits, as it is to develop bad ones. Without some consideration, we can even absent-mindedly fall back into old habits. If you notice that certain things are not working, it is time to reprogram that habit!

How are habits formed? Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to the basal ganglia, the part of our brain that plays a major role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, however, are made in the prefrontal cortex.  This portion of the brain helps us think through situations with logic.  Once a behavior becomes a habit, it is automatic and the prefrontal cortex goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

When does a behavior become a habit? In the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg attributes habit formation to what he calls the habit loop.  Even though this book was written for businesses to boost effectiveness, the concepts in the book are easily applied to individuals and families wanting to create habits that increase workability and success.

The habit loop is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Cues trigger the behaviors that we engage in for some kind of reward by kicking our brain into automatic mode. These cues can be internal, such as thoughts or feelings, or external such as time of day or spending time with a particular person. Routines are the behaviors themself. Routines can be physical (having a snack when you get home), cognitive (remembering to do homework), or emotional (feeling anxious). Rewards are the things we like that help are brain remember the habit loop in the future. Our behaviors become automatic when we crave the reward.   Like routines, rewards are also physical (I’m no longer hungry), cognitive (I gained new information), or emotional (I feel more relaxed).

What are your habits? It can be helpful to look at your own habits before you evaluate your teen’s habits.  What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you walk half awake to the kitchen and make coffee…staring at the machine until the coffee comes out? Do you crawl out of bed and get straight into the shower?  Regardless of your answer, it’s not likely this is something you decided to do; it’s a habit.  Now, whether you make coffee or take a shower first probably doesn’t make a real big difference in how your day goes.  However, other things like whether you go for a run when you get home from work, or eat dinner in front of the television can have a bigger impact on how you live your life and your overall health and well being.

What kind of habits can impact your teen’s school performance? While these will differ from family to family, here are some of the big ones are:

  • Staying healthy: Getting good rest, eating healthy, exercising
  • Getting organized: Writing assignments, projects, and tests in a calendar
  • Creating structure around homework: Having a time and place to study
  • Being prepared: Having all necessary materials available
  • Having support systems in place: Asking parents and teachers for help
  • Creating balance: Managing activities, homework, chores, and leisure time
  • Limiting distracting activities: Watching television, gaming, texting or being on Facebook
  • Staying positive: Maintaining a positive attitude about school and learning in general

What are your teen’s habits? You may notice that your teen has missing assignments, texts while doing homework, is late for school, doesn’t get enough rest, or appears completely stressed out. If something isn’t working, consider helping your teen change his/her habits. According to Duhigg, habit change involves keeping the cue and the reward the same, while changing the routine.  To do this, help your teen:

  • Believe that change is possible and within his/her control. This can be challenging when many things are black and white to teens. You may have to help your teen generate options.
  • Identify cues and be on the lookout for them. For example: “I text a friend when I get stressed or frustrated with my homework. Then, I can’t concentrate on homework.” 
  • Notice the rewards. For example: “My stress goes down when I talk to my friends instead of doing homework.”
  • Substitute a behavior that provides a similar reward. For example: “My stress goes down when I take a five minute break and then go back to work.”

Sounds easy enough, right? But, we all know that change can be hard! How do you help your teen recognize that something isn’t working to the point that they need to change?  Listen for and help your teen see ambivalence. Explain that being unsure, having mixed feelings, and feeling one way and thinking another are all signs of being ambivalent, and usually means that something needs to change.  Also, make sure your teen knows that we all feel ambivalent when we are faced with change.  Using our previous example, a teen may express her ambivalence around texting while doing homework like this: “I want to get my homework done quicker, but I also want to be there for my friends when they need me.”

Next, listen for and ask questions that get them talking about change. Asking questions like the ones below can help draw out the meaning your teen gives a particular change.

  • Desire: Why would you want to make this change?
  • Ability: How would you do it if you decided?
  • Reason: What are the three best reasons?
  • Need: How important is it? and why?
  • Commitment: What do you think you’ll do?

Using our example, a teen may say things like, “I want to finish my homework quicker so that I have more free time!” or “I could tell my friends to text me after 6:00.” Or, you could ask questions like, “How important is it to you to get your homework done quicker?” or “Why do you text your friends while you are doing homework.” Asking these kind of questions can also give you more information about the rewards for certain behaviors.

Having a  conversation about what is not working, and giving your teen a voice in the decision can be empowering. When your teen is empowered, he/she is more likely to cooperate and create workability for you and your teen.  Remember, the more you’re your teen wants to change the more likely it is to stick!

Happy Parenting!

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Comments
3 Responses to “Something Has Got To Change! Creating Habits for School Success”
  1. Sandra says:

    Although good study habits are crucial to academic success, parents shouldn’t get caught up in focusing solely on their teen’s grades. Instead, support your teen in embracing the learning experience as well as developing a love of learning and the strength of character to persist beyond failures.

    The following tips will help parents minimize their involvement and allow teens to take the lead in maximizing their own educational experience.

    Learning Style:
    People learn differently. Some learn from listening to lectures or reading, while others learn best with visual aids or hands-on projects. If a teacher’s style doesn’t match your teen’s learning style, students can supplement learning by using flash cards or sketching diagrams to aid in memorizing new material.

    When taking notes, it may be useful for your teen to draw a sketch of something that helps the information stick in their mind. During class, students should listen for key words or phrases the teacher emphasizes, write them down, and highlight them so they are easily recognizable when reviewing their notes.

    Planning:
    It is important for teens to understand their homework assignments and write them in their phone notebook, daily planner or notepad. Include specific details about what is expected and the assignment due date.

    If your teen devotes enough time to do good work, they’ll have greater means to succeed. Estimating how much time is needed to read a book, write a paper or prepare for an exam will help your teen establish an effective study schedule.

    Organization:
    Organizing study notes helps students find information quickly when preparing for exams. This can be accomplished with highlighters, colored pens and post-its. Flagging information while reading makes it easy to return to. Highlight or write important topics, phrases or terms in a new color pen so they stand out.

    Nobody benefits from completing an assignment, but forgetting to turn it in. At this stage, teachers have little patience for the excuse, “I left my homework at home.” After homework is finished, teens should put homework in their binder or backpack, and set it next to the door so they can grab it and go the next morning.

    Communication:
    If your teen can develop a good relationship with each teacher, they’ll feel more comfortable asking questions and clarifying expectations, even if they don’t personally like the teacher.

    Study Space and Time:
    Some people prefer a quiet study environment while others benefit from listening to soft music. A comfortable study space should reflect the student’s style, but it should also be free of distraction. I recommend that cell phones and social media be off limits during study time.

    If, as time goes on, your teen expresses continuous feelings of helplessness or hopelessness this could mean a couple of things:

    • They need assistance beyond the time spent in class to understand new information, and thus a tutor may prove helpful.
    • They may have a learning disorder that needs to be better understood like ADD, dyslexia, or a sensory processing disorder. (There are tests as well as treatments designed to help address these challenges.)
    • They could be struggling with depression, bullying, low self-esteem or even substance abuse.

  2. As a self-acknowledged guinea pig for many of his dad’s theories, Sean Covey is a living example of someone who has taken each of the seven habits to heart: be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first; think win-win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; and sharpen the saw. He includes a comical section titled “The 7 Habits of Highly Defective Teens,” which includes some, shall we say, counterproductive practices: put first things last; don’t cooperate; seek first to talk, then pretend to listen; wear yourself out… Covey’s humorous and up-front style is just light enough to be acceptable to wary teenagers, and down-and-dirty enough to really make a difference. (Ages 13 and older) –Emilie Coulter –This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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