Why don’t kids take our good advice? Why don’t they do the things we suggest, things that would obviously help them?

Why don’t they listen to us?

Along with academic tutoring and test preparation, I teach study skills: how to study for a biology test, how to write a term paper, how to learn vocabulary words.

Parents are eager for these lessons, and also jaded.

  • He knows this stuff already.
  • Her teachers repeated this over and over all last year.
  • I’ve already told him a thousand times!!!

Any kind of personal change is difficult. Old habits are hard to break and new habits take, on average, a month or more of consistent practice before they stick.

It’s especially hard to change behaviors which were learned as protections against ¬†emotional discomfort. Kids (and all of us!) develop reflexive habits of “carelessness” or “forgetting.” We all tend to “forget” about doing activities that are bound to showcase our weak spots and tweak our pride.

And so much of schoolwork is like this! It seems a cruel irony, that the very subjects a student “is bad at,” are the subjects she most needs to focus on and practice more diligently.

When teaching study skills, I don’t just explain the skills, because the student will tend to listen but then not change his behaviors. So, I also look for ways to make sure the student uses and practices new skills and creates new habits.

When forming habits, it’s very helpful to incorporate¬†Visible Results and Accountability. Here are some of the strategies I use with my students:

  • Keeping an assignment calendar posted in a highly visible place (bedroom door, refrigerator, bathroom mirror, etc), and using brightly colored markers to check off finished assignments.
  • Finding a responsible friend and report to one another every day.
  • Being accountable to a parent.
  • Being accountable to me, by requiring the student to e-mail me every evening after she’s done her homework.

I always offer lots of encouragement and support, and I avoid dishing out criticism (I do correct errors, but always in a gentle and positive way).

Often it seems as if kids “should be more independent,” “should be able to figure these things out on their own.” Parents wonder at how the very same kid who can strategise and master a complex video game can’t seem to get organized to do his research paper or plan ahead to get math help before the big test.

Dr. John Gottman tells us that when anxiety rises, higher level thinking skills shut down. People become less capable of planning, organizing, and processing what they hear, especially if what is said is delivered in a harsh, insulting, or impatient manner.

And Dr. Brene Brown reminds us that shaming another person does not produce lasting change in their behavior; it merely makes that person recoil in self-protective pain and tune out even more completely.

This means that when kids (and all people!) are trying to accomplish difficult, ego-threatening change, they need a LOT of hand-holding and patient repetition.

Telling a kid a thousand times won’t change his behavior.

Assisting him to do the behavior over and over, even if it’s a thousand times!…while offering consistent, patient support and encouragement…is what will eventually turn the behavior into a permanent habit.

[One Step at a Time; photos from our summer hike in geothermal Iceland]