Back to School: How to Help Your Children (and You) Form Good Habits.

In the United States, it’s back-to-school time. And that means getting back into the habits required by school.

So many things to manage! Waking up on time and going to bed on time. Packing the backpack for school, with homework, permissions slips, lunch, sports clothes, etc. Doing homework. Showing up promptly throughout the day. Plus, many children have after-school activities, so there’s just that much more to remember.

The question is: how can we help children form habits that will help them handle this load, without our constant nagging and supervising?

I’ve thought a lot about this myself, because each year when school begins, it hits my family hard. We have to work to get back into the swing of routine. Upholder that I am (see below), I relish this routine, but the other members of my family don’t agree.

In my book Better Than Before, about habit-formation, I learned one key fact that many habit experts ignore. There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for habits. The thing that works for me may be the opposite of what works for you. We need to form habits in a way that suits our nature. And the same is true for kids.

In Better Than Before, I identify 21 strategies that we can use to master our habits. So there are many from which to choose, as you try to help your child. Consider, for example:

Strategy of Convenience — this is the most universal strategy. We’re all more likely to do something if it’s easy to do it. So make it easy for your child to stick to a habit. If you want him to hang up his coat, clear out the closet so there’s plenty of room, or put in hooks that are quicker to use than hangers. If you want her to practice an instrument every afternoon, figure out a way so that all the equipment can stay at the ready, instead of needing to be hauled out and put away every time she practices.

Strategy of Inconvenience — likewise, we’re less likely to do something if it’s a pain. If you want him to stop sneaking cookies, put the cookies in a hard-to-open container on a high shelf. If you want her to stop hitting the snooze alarm in the morning, put the alarm clock across the room, so she has to get out of bed to turn it off.

Strategy of Distinctions — people are very different from each other, but we parents often try to make our children form the habits that work for usDon’t assume that because something works for you — that you work best in a space that’s very quiet and spare, or you think most clearly early in the morning, or you like to get everything finished well before the deadline, or you like to have a lot of supervision — that the same is true for your child. Pay close attention to how that child works best.

I made this mistake with my older daughter. When I work, I must be at a desk, and I kept trying to get her to work at a desk, instead of sitting in a chair or on her bed. It drove me crazy. How could she be productive on her laptop, when she was sprawled across her bed? Finally, light dawned. Just because I work best at a desk doesn’t make that a universal law of human nature.

Strategy of Abstaining — this strategy works well for some people, but not for others. Talk to your child, and explain, “For some people, it’s too hard to have a little bit of something, or to do something for a little while. They find it easier to give something up altogether. Do you think that for you, it would be easier to stop ________ [playing that favorite video game, using that app] than to try to do it just a little bit? Or maybe just do it on the weekend?” Your child may surprise you. Maybe not, but maybe.

Strategy of Other People — to a huge degree, we’re influenced by other people’s habits. So if you want your children to adopt a habit, adopt that habit yourself. If you want them to be organized in the morning, be organized yourself. If you want them to go to sleep on time, go to sleep on time yourself. If you want them to put down their devices and read a book, put down your device.

Strategy of Foundation — It’s easier to stick to our good habits when we have a strong foundation. That means getting enough sleep; not letting yourself get too hungry; getting some exercise; and (for most people) keeping our physical space reasonably orderly. So to help your child manage habits well, make sure to emphasize things like bedtime, not skipping meals, physical activity, and clutter.

Strategy of the Four Tendencies — In this personality framework, I divide all of humanity into four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell a child’s Tendency until young adulthood — but some Tendencies are obvious from a very young age.

To figure out your Tendency, here’s a Quiz (more than 500,000 people have taken it). You could ask your child to take the Quiz, or read the short description of the Tendencies here — in many cases, you will very easily identify your child’s Tendency.

Or here’s a extremely over-simplified version, but to give you an idea:

If your child seems to need little support during the school year, that child is probably an Upholder.

If your child asks a lot of questions, and says things like, “But what’s the point of memorizing the state capitols?” “I didn’t do that homework because it’s a waste of my time, and the teacher is an idiot,” your child is probably a Questioner.

If your child is able to do tasks when given reminders, deadlines, supervision, but struggles to do things on his or her own, that child may be an Obliger.

If, to a very noticeable degree, your child wants to do things in his or her own way and own time, that child is probably a Rebel. If you ask or tell a Rebel to do something, that Rebel is very likely to resist. It’s very helpful to identify a Rebel early, because the strategies that work for the other Tendencies often backfire with Rebels! It’s not the case that “all toddlers are Rebels” or “All teens are Rebels.”

In just about every situation, it’s extremely helpful to know a person’s Tendency, because it makes a big difference in what works. For instance, the Strategy of Accountability is crucial for Obligers; often helpful but perhaps not necessary for Upholders and Questioners, but counter-productive for Rebels! Supervision, nagging, and reminders will make a Rebel child less likely to keep a habit.

The Four Tendencies framework is a huge subject. In fact, right now I’m finishing up an entire book about the Four Tendencies, and how to use them in different situations. (To be notified when that book hits the shelves, sign up here.)

If you want to hear more, you can also listen to discussions on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. Elizabeth and I have talked about it several times, for instance, here.

How about you — have you found any strategies or tips for helping a child to form good habits? The pressures of  school make it very clear that for children as well as for adults, having helpful habits makes life a lot easier.

  • Suzanne

    This was one on my favorite posts of yours. Wow, so informative and helpful. Thanks, Gretchen.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! Great to hear that it struck a chord with you.

  • D Gold

    I have been working with the joy of positive reinforcement of behavior. My daughter loves the praise when she is doing the right things. She knows that she needs to get straight As or she is not allowed to do sports. Her cell phone is also taken away when issues get complicated, but I have found that positive, true and encouraging statements continue to build strong habits.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific that this works for you and your daughter!

      I would note that if a person ha a Rebel child, this approach would likely BACKFIRE! Also possibly a Questioner child.
      Or you may be dealing with an Upholder, who probably doesn’t even need the reinforcement, but drinks it in.

    • Gillian

      Positive reinforcement is always the first choice. However, I was concerned by your statement: “She knows that she needs to get straight As or she is not allowed to do sports.” Firstly that seems like an awful lot of pressure to put on a young person. But, perhaps more importantly, physical activity is extremely important – a healthy brain needs a healthy body. If she gets enough physical activity without formal sports, that’s great. Sports build body-awareness and capability that can last a lifetime. I certainly agree that sports should not interfere with the academics but a moderate amount is healthy, especially if she is drawn to them. I never did sports as a child or as an adult and I often wish I had done a little bit in order to build some physical ability and courage – I’m very timid physically because I don’t have confidence in my body’s ability. When I say sports, I include both team sports and individual physical activity such as hiking.

      And congratulations on your straight A student! I’m not suggesting that you diminish this, only that you don’t eventually make your daughter resentful about the pressure. How badly should she feel if she gets one B among the As?

      • D Gold

        She gets straight As easily. She just needs to stay on top of homework if she wants to participate in competitive soccer and volleyball. She gets a lot more exercise than most of her contemporaries. She’s very good. This was a general statement and she knows if she gets a B or even a C and it is because of hard work, we would not take her away from these, but giving her this goal works for her. She has learned to get ahead on homework instead of waiting until the day before it is due. It took me years to learn this.

        Positive, verbal encouragement for good behavior is a lost art. I watch her bloom with this. I teach Sunday School – and have for 19 years. Positive and joyful reinforcement improves the situation for everyone. When all you do is pipe up with negative comments, all children get defensive, aggressive and it ends up with an environment of shouting.

  • Devidasan Chathanadath

    Yeah, I found it interesting. I would also like to add, “Strategy of Affection.” Affection is the love without having any element of selfishness in it and when affection is applied on the children, it begins to impact them. Man making is a lifetime job and many have actually spent a lifetime on it.


  • Froukje

    Today was our first day at school after our summer holidays and I have really been looking for ways to make our everyday life more easygoing through habtis (therefore I´ve read your book this summer) especcialy during the schoolyear. This post is a real good summary and addition for me, while it broadened my view to look at my kids as well and not just focussing on my habits and my way of doing things. Thank you!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific. Good luck with the school year!

  • Anne

    I love this post! As a fourth grade teacher, I feel like I hear some version of your complaint from parents frequently. They don’t only want their child to read… they want him to read at a certain time, in a certain place, from a certain kind of book, etc. It is hard to imagine that work habits that make them successful might not work for everybody. But believe me, I have seen children do their work in strange places – I had one student who loved to press his stomach against a cold tile floor! I am always trying to remember that my goal is not to teach kids what works for me – but rather help them to discover what it is that works for them so that they can use that information to build successful habits for themselves going forward.

    Your Four Tendencies framework has definitely changed the way I think about motivating kids. Of course, Upholders need very little motivating – and Obligers also need little motivating to do what I want them to do, though understanding getting them to act on and pursue what they are actually curious about rather than trying to please me can be a challenge. The takeaway for working with Questioners is just to explain, explain, explain. I have found that some kids will even accept an unsatisfactory answer if you yourself admit that it’s unsatisfactory (“I agree that this particular way of writing seems less useful than the last one we studied, but the state test is important, and you have to write this way on the test. So you have to practice it.”) Rebels are probably the hardest… and I would love to hear what parents and teachers of rebels find effective! I think that offering choice when possible is important to all students, but especially to Rebels. Also providing opportunities to explore their true interests within the context of a class if possible. But it’s not always easy!

    Thanks for your blog post – I love reading about how the Tendencies play out in interactions between people!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! – great to hear how it resonates with you.

  • Becky

    I want to share my gold star! Getting my 6 year old and 2 year old off YouTube! It has been present in our household for way too long. My kids get hooked on it and I am not comfortable with them watching it alone, so would always be supervising when they were watching it (everyday), contradicting the freedom that the iPad could possible me. We tried moderation and it failed so abstaining was our ultimate intervention. I deleted the app from every device we own and my happiness has grown by leaps and bounds!

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s the Strategy of Abstaining – sometimes NONE is much EASIER to manage than SOME.

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