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Help Kids Create New Habits

As we approach the school year, now feels like the perfect time to try to get the kids into a better bedtime schedule, work habit, or general routine. But what’s the best way to make sure it’s a habit that sticks?

How do we form habits?

Before we can try to create new ones, we first need to understand how habits form. For that, we look at Charles Duhigg’s “habit loop”, a process that focuses on 3 key steps: the cue, routine, and reward. More than just these three steps, the most important part is the “loop” or repetition of these three components:

1. Cue

The cue is the trigger that kicks off the habit. For example, having a sweet craving after dinner is the cue that makes us reach for a cookie (or two). An alarm clock wakes us up and pushes us into our morning routine. It is through this “starting point” that we associate this trigger with the habit we follow.

2. Routine

The second step in the habit loop is the routine itself - it’s considered to be the series of steps taken to achieve the reward. From receiving the cue of a sweet craving, we start to make a routine out of going to the pantry and getting a cookie. The routine itself can become quite automatic, to the point where we head to the pantry after dinner every night without pause.

3. Reward

So why do we keep continuing this routine without thinking? That’s where the reward comes into play - when we eat that cookie, we get the reward of taste and satisfying our craving. We have now developed a habit out of association; when we eat a cookie after dinner, we feel full and satisfied. As a result, regardless of hunger, we will continue to reach for the cookie after dinner because it now feels “automatic”!

Deciding on the new habit

Now that we know how habits are formed, we can see how easy it is for our kids to adapt to certain routines. So how do we help our kids form good habits?

When thinking about this new habit, we have to first make sure it works for our kids. Like anything new, we need to make sure it’s well-defined! There are a few things to keep in mind when we’re thinking about making a change:

1. Involve your kids

Often we assume that it’s our job as parents to make all the rules and changes, but we often forget how much kids can benefit from being involved in the process. When you’re deciding what this new habit will be, ask them for their input. What do they think is a reasonable expectation? Do they feel they can do what you’re asking of them? By including them, you and your child work as a team to make a change that they agree to. It also becomes an “investment” for them, as they are deciding with you to take this habit on.

2. Keep it simple

Don’t overcomplicate or add too many aspects to your routine at once. While it would be great to get the kids to eat their veggies, make their bed, go to bed by 8 PM, AND do their homework right after dinner, make sure your plan focuses on one thing at a time. It can be difficult to adjust to a new way of doing things, so it is best to make sure to introduce one new routine at a time!

Keeping things simple is also relevant to how we create this new habit. We talked previously about the internal cues we experience, such as hunger, but there are also external cues that you create. To establish a new, positive habit, you may need to establish a situation that will kick off the routine - for example, finishing dinner can be a cue to start their homework. The most important part about creating a cue is that it’s a clearly defined event understood by both you and your child. If the child doesn’t fully understand the cue or it changes without warning, it can lead to frustration and tears. When in doubt, keep it simple!

The Routine

Now that we’ve decided on this new habit, we shift our focus to the routine itself. There are two key things to remember about this routine:

1. Consistency is key

As we mentioned before, habits form through the cycle of cue → routine → reward (and repeat). Because of that, it helps to create a routine that you can achieve frequently the same way. Be sure to keep this up, even if it is not very convenient for you, at least a few times. When looking at our dinner/”homework time” example, when possible try having dinner at around the same time every night. Consistency with something small like that can have a big impact because the goal is to make the routine feel as natural as possible.

2. Expect bumps in the road!

Soccer practice is now until 7 PM. And dance ran late so we can’t have dinner until 8 PM tonight. What about the consistency? This may sound counterintuitive to our last point, but they actually go hand-in-hand. There will be plenty of ups and downs in life that can affect your routine, and that’s okay! You may find that as time goes on, your plan needs adjustments or may not always go perfectly. By managing what you can for this new habit while also preparing to adapt to any needed changes, you can demonstrate to the child how habits can work even with hiccups or occasional issues. The key is to keep working towards consistency for the things you CAN control while allowing for flexibility for the things you can’t.

The Reward

Last but not least: the reward. While each part of the habit loop is important, this is the part that helps the brain decide if the routine is worth committing to and memorizing. Here are the important things to keep in mind:

1. Choose the right reward

While it would be nice if we didn’t need rewards for doing things, let’s be honest - we often need external rewards to get us through! Kids are the same way, so it’s important to choose a reward that you feel would be both a good motivator for your child and that you can be consistent with. For some kids that could be watching their favorite TV show once they finish homework, or getting to pick their dessert. It’s fine if it takes a bit of trial and error to determine this “reward” - just like your kids change over time, so do their motivators! At the end of the day, choose something sustainable for the short-term as you introduce this new habit.

2. Lead with praise and reinforcement

For the reward to be effective, the reward has to be given with lots of verbal praise and reinforcement. Be sure to celebrate the little wins, especially when it starts to get tougher to maintain the routine! This doesn’t have to be any large gestures, either - a simple acknowledgment and a hug/smile at the moment are all a kid needs to know they’re on the right track.

3. Transition from reward

As your child adapts to this habit, you’ll probably find that over time your reward isn’t quite as effective as before. This is because external motivators lose value over time - but don’t think this is a bad thing! This actually means that your child is progressing towards intrinsic motivation instead. Rather than engaging in the habit expecting to get something in return or avoid something unpleasant, your child will engage in the habit because it feels good. Now, doing 30 minutes of physical activity won’t feel like a chore anymore but instead feels “normal” and even rewarding.

To help in this transition, slowly taper off the external reward. Rather than watching a favorite episode every time the routine is completed, try giving the reward every other time. As you do this, maintain verbal praise and reinforcement. But over time, what we’re essentially doing is taking a step back and allowing our child to continue a routine that works well for everyone.

Just like with anything else, this takes practice. But just by taking a few of these factors into consideration, habit-forming can become more intentional and productive for both you and your child.

1. Bhandarkar, Sumitha. “The Ultimate Guide for Helping Your Kids Create a Habit. Any Habit.” A Fine Parent, 28 Mar. 2014,

2. Yeong, Dean. “Habit Formation Visual.” Dean Yeong, Accessed 22 July 2022.

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