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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