Building Back-to-School Habits With Ease

By: Edvardo Archer, LMFT
Turn the hard work of reintegrating your child(ren) into a new school year into something easier! Edvardo Archer, a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, shares how building an environment that prompts positive, automatic responses can set your child(ren) up for a successful school year and life ahead.

School is back in session!

Starting a new school year is a significant transition for most students, as it involves adjusting to new teachers, classes, environments, and social circles. These adjustments come with any typical school year, however, having to still navigate education during a pandemic is an atypical adjustment both students and parents are still walking through.

As Christians, we know that God holds the future and we don’t need to be anxious. So how do we remind our children of these truths and create stability for them during the planned and unplanned transitions that they will face this school year and beyond?
The tools we give our children now will serve them toward discovering the path and calling God has planned for them.
As a leader in your household, you have the opportunity to ease your child(ren) into future seasons of transition by helping them form the right habits now.

Discipline > Willpower

The first couple of weeks of a new school year can feel overwhelming. For children, it can involve a range of emotions — from excitement to anxiety.

This transition can be challenging for children because they often try to power through it using their sheer will and determination — a response that is often modeled by us adults, unbeknownst to us. Here are some examples of how this can manifest:

  • Problem: Academics

    Willpower: Just struggle through the first semester, you’ll catch up and remember the things you need to remember at some point.

  • Problem: Schedule

    Willpower: Be sleep deprived, undernourished, and stressed for a couple of weeks; at some point, your body will figure out a new rhythm.

  • Problem: Social

    Willpower: Just show up and see who is there; maybe you’ll find a good friend, but hopefully you won't feel too lonely in the process.

Logically, it makes sense to just go through the motions and try to adjust, BUT perhaps easing our kids into the new school year doesn’t have to be this stressful? Perhaps a more disciplined approach is easier to accomplish than the “close your eyes and jump” approach?
the self-disciplined amongst us are not more talented in controlling their self-will. They are just better at building environments that automatically invoke the right practices.
One of my favorite books on habit formation is called Atomic Habits by James Clear. In it, Clear offers insight into the habit forming process that we can use to modify our children’s behaviors (and even our own as parents!).

Research shows that the self-disciplined amongst us are not more talented in controlling their self-will. They are just better at building environments that automatically invoke the right practices. They spend less energy on making the right choices and instead, they adjust their environment so the right choice is the only choice. They turn something hard into something easy and automatic.

So, let’s turn the hard work of reintegrating our kids into a new school year into something easier by building an environment that prompts positive, automatic responses!

How Habits Are Formed

“But test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
-1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

I appreciate the clarity of this passage: Test everything. Keep what is good. Let go of what is not working.

In the context of how habits are formed, this is exactly what happens:

  1. First, we get hit with a CUE.
  2. The cue triggers a CRAVING.
  3. The craving motivates a RESPONSE that is meant to obtain the reward
  4. The REWARD satisfies the craving and becomes associated with the cue.

Forming habits are the fundamental building blocks for establishing automatic responses.

Let’s break it down a little more and use ice cream as an example:

  1. First, we get hit with a CUE.

    A cue is simply a prediction for a desired change of state. For habits that are set in stone, the cue is subconscious. It is automatic.

    Example: You feel sad and want to feel happy.

    To create a healthy habit, your cue should be obvious.

  2. The cue triggers a CRAVING, which then motivates the response.

    The craving is the motivating force behind behavior.

    Example: You remember you brought some ice cream and that made you feel better last time.

    To create a healthy habit, your craving should be attractive.

  3. The craving motivates a RESPONSE that is meant to obtain the reward.

    This is the action involved in a habit.

    Example: You eat the entire quart of ice cream.

    To create a healthy habit, the response should be easy and frictionless.

  4. The REWARD satisfies the craving and becomes associated with the cue.

    This is the desired change of state predicted by the cue.

    Example: The sweet treat makes you feel pretty good while eating it. You are no longer sad.

    To create a healthy habit, the reward should be satisfying.
habit formation can be used to create those automatic environments that draw out the right responses in your child(ren).
Once the cue is validated by obtaining the reward, the brain memorizes the pattern. With enough repetition, it becomes automated, and at this point, it becomes a habit (i.e. you always reach for ice cream when feeling sad).

The good news is that habit formation can be used to create those automatic environments that draw out the right responses in your child(ren).

Practical Application

Here are examples of how we can build an environment that eases our children back into school using the process discussed above:

Academics (Child completing homework right when they get home)
  • CUE — Asking your child to change out of their uniform right when they get home into loungewear.

  • CRAVING — Remind them that after they complete their homework, they get free time (for TV, tablet, games, etc.)

  • RESPONSE — Child sits down at dining room table after changing clothes to complete homework.

  • REWARD — Recreation/unwinding time once homework is completed.

Health (Teen going to bed at a reasonable time to get ample sleep)
  • CUE — Setting an alarm for 9:00 PM

  • CRAVING — Remembering how nice it felt to wake up in the morning not groggy.

  • RESPONSE — Child puts phone on charger in family room/other room (not their own bedroom) and begins nighttime routine.

  • REWARD — Waking up feeling rested and refreshed from getting at least 8 hours of sleep.

In the Way They Should Go

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
-Proverbs 22:6

The tools we give our children now will serve them toward discovering the path and calling God has planned for them. The point here isn’t simply getting the right actions; it is to create the right journey, and you get the holy privilege to guide your child(ren) through every step of this journey.

By helping your child(ren) form healthy habits and build discipline in every aspect of their lives, you are ultimately giving them building blocks that will allow them to face whatever the future holds with resilience.

 
Edvardo Archer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist that practices out of Fort Lauderdale and has supported both CCA students and parents on their mental health journey. He is passionate about building bridges that allow families and individuals to thrive and not be bullied by their circumstances. You can learn more about him and the work he does in the community both in person and virtually at www.apfamilycounseling.com.

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