Helping Students Form Positive Habits for the New Year
“Daily habits—tiny routines that are repeatable—are what make big dreams a reality. Dream big, but start small.” —James Clear, Transform Your Habits
Are you and your family already thinking about resolutions for the New Year? Whether you just want to cut down on sweets or your kids want to improve their grades, there’s something you all should consider. Most New Year’s resolutions fail because they focus on large goals rather than the small steps needed to reach those goals.
To keep those goals, Stanford psychologist B. J. Fogg says that instead of focusing on the larger goal, you each need to identify the steps you need to succeed and then automate those steps – transforming them into “tiny habits” you practice daily. But first, it helps to understand how routines change the brain.
How Habits Are Formed
You already know that habits are formed when you repeat a certain behavior over and over again until it becomes automatic—like brushing your teeth at the same times every day. But did you know that these repeated behaviors over time create actual pathways or neural circuits in your brain? According to neuroscientists, these pathways allow you to perform daily routines automatically, freeing your brain’s energy for other, nonroutine activities. That’s the upside.
The downside is that those neural circuits also make it hard to break bad or problematic habits. They’re like a mental rut that’s hard to dig out of through willpower alone.
Fortunately, you can use this knowledge to help you “wire” a completely new habit or “rewire” a bad habit by replacing it with a better one. Perhaps more important, you can use it to help your kids understand early on how they can take charge of their own habits and behaviors.
Making Habits Work for You
According to Fogg and other researchers, every habit follows a three-part pattern or loop: the cue that triggers the habitual action, the routine actions that make up the habit, and a reward that causes us to repeat the habit.
For example, let’s say it’s your habit to drink a soda at the end of each school day or workday. Your trigger may be turning off your computer. Your reward is the sugar boost from the soda or the relief you feel in marking the end of that day’s work.
To break this habit, you have to recognize the trigger (turning off your PC) and substitute a different routine that offers a similar reward¬¬ (like eating fruit or taking a walk instead). Basically, you’re “hijacking” the old habit to form a new, healthier habit.
To form a new habit “from scratch,” you can also consciously define an entirely new trigger and reward to support it.
Practiced over time, these new or substitute routines become habit—creating their own neural pathways.
Four Steps to a New Habit for a New Year
“Plant a tiny seed in the right spot and it will grow without coaxing.” —B. J. Fogg
So how can you use this knowledge to help your kids keep their New Year’s resolutions?
Let’s say, for example, that the resolution is to improve their history grades next semester. You could help them:
- Identify the smallest new habit(s) or habit change(s) needed to boost their grades. With your encouragement, they observe their study habits. Perhaps they realize they always put off reviewing their notes until the day before a test. Their new tiny habit: reviewing their history notes for just five minutes each day. (Remember, the new habit must be small and doable. They can always do more, but they’re committing to do no less.)
- Establish a cue that triggers them to perform the new habit. For this step, it’s easiest if they “piggyback” on an existing routine as their cue. So you help them identify several routines they perform automatically every day, for example, brushing their teeth, walking the dog, watching a TV program at a certain time. Of those routines, they choose which one will become their “cue to review” their notes. When they’re just starting with the new cued habit, you simply provide a gentle reminder as needed.
- Reward themselves each time they exercise the new habit. Encourage your kids to pat themselves on the back, have a healthy snack, take a walk, or do a little dance. It doesn’t matter so much what the reward is so long as it reinforces their desire to continue exercising the new habit.
- Repeat the new habit daily.
You and your kids can adapt these steps to any habit and any resolution or goal. If you happen to miss a day, don’t worry. Just keep trying. None of us has to be perfect; we just have to persevere. So, go ahead. Dream big, start small, and have a wonderful New Year!
What resolutions has your family made to help students improve academically in the New Year—and how will you support them? Share your best ideas in the comments.