Practice Makes… Better: How to Help Kids Improve in Home, School, and Life
Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. Coaches demand constant repetition until their players execute without error. The same goes for teachers, tutors, directors, musicians, and any other professional whose role is to shape their students’ habits. The hardest part of change happens in the beginning. Brains like to keep the status quo. Once those neural connections are made, it takes a bit of effort to break them or create new ones. However, neuroplasticity research has taught us that brains can improve and change with effort, consistency and motivation.
In this article, I will discuss how you can help your children develop new habits or change any unwanted habits:
1) Start small: Dramatic changes can be overwhelming and even paralyzing to children and adults. By starting with small changes, the first step doesn’t seem too difficult for their brains to adapt to. For example:
- Diet - cut out one unhealthy item (i.e., soda) Exercise - walk the dog for 5 minutes
- Homework - do the first 3 problems
- Screen time - screen free time while eating
2) Use an athlete mentality: Athletes are always improving by challenging themselves. For example, while training for a marathon a runner will increase how many miles they run each week. You can take the same approach with children. If you want your child to be able to do all of their homework without World War III erupting, start small and increase the amount over time.
3) Include them whenever possible: Buy-in from the child is as important as consistency from the adult. Decide with your child, when appropriate, what changes they can begin to make. Give them a few choices so they don’t feel like they are being told what to do.
4) It's easier to replace than terminate: Replacing behavior has been shown to be more effective than trying to quit the behavior that has been rewarding the brain. Take for example a child who feels stressed or bored during homework. They might want to check social media to alleviate those negative feelings, but then end up wasting valuable time on the phone for longer than planned. Help them find more effective stress relieving activities that are also adaptive and helpful. Some examples are:
- Changing to a different subject
- Changing their location
- Working with a friend
- Going for a walk
Good habits formed in childhood often last through adulthood. However, the same goes for bad habits. Our role as parents has changed since the advent of technology, increased academic demands, 24-hour news cycles, and blurred lines in traditional hierarchies. With baby steps and consistent practice children can learn new habits that will lead to better outcomes. To quote Benny Urquidez, “What you practice, is what you’ll do.”