‘Have you done your homework yet?’ It’s a question parents don’t like asking just as much as children don’t like answering. Whether it is maths, English or music, learning at home often loses out to after school activities and countless household distractions.
But there are more long-lasting and effective strategies that can help make learning at home a positive experience for both you and your children. One such strategy is by creating a learning ‘habit’.
What is a habit?
Habits are behaviours that happen automatically, and get created through repetition. They also tend to be subconscious.
Basically if a behaviour is repeated over and over again, for a long enough period of time, it begins to become habitual and automatic. If you throw a bit of reward into the mix, this helps to reinforce the behaviour and create an even stronger mind association. Over time, the behaviour beds in and becomes routine and normal. Once a habit has formed you can even drop the reward part, and just the habit cue will set off the automatic response.
A good example of this is associating milk with bedtime in toddlers. The milk is the reward, asking ‘would you like some milk’, or even just beginning to fill up the milk bottle, is the cue. The habit you’re trying to form is to head off to the bedroom for milk and a story without a fuss. Over time this habit is formed, and eventually you can drop the milk and the behaviour (hopefully!) will continue.
Studies have shown that to get to the ‘automatic’, or subconscious form of a habit can take 66 days. If you’ve ever tried to go to the gym, you will have seen this effect. For the first 6 weeks you go religiously 3 days a week, like clockwork. Then you ‘reward’ yourself by skipping a day here or there over the next fortnight. Then you realise you’ve actually missed a whole week. Why does this happen? Well, you didn’t ever get to the automatic response stage required to make something a habit.
The best way to form a learning habit is by creating a routine. It’s the repetition that will help to make the behaviour automatic over time. The great thing about this is we can create good habits in our children by using consistent routines.
How to create a learning habit
In our experience, the best way to start and maintain a long-term learning habit for children of all ages is to create a routine. This routine sets a clear expectation of when quiet learning time is, which also helps your children develop time management skills. Children respond really well to consistency, as it creates structure to their day, and within a few short months they’ll be reminding you that it’s learning time when you forget!
Here are 8 simple tips to start a home-learning routine:
1. Set your expectations
Explain to your child why you’re creating a family routine. This helps set your expectation but also gives the child a chance to discuss it, ask questions and become part of the decision-making process.
You’ll want to explain there’s a set time each day to complete school homework or other learning activities. You also want to create a ‘cue’ for the behaviour at this point. It might be straight away after afternoon tea, or perhaps after an hour’s screen time in the evening.
2. Set your schedule
As a family, look at your weekly schedule to see what time you have available. Determine whether your children are better able to concentrate in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Then select a start time, and also a length of time that learning time will last for. For preschool children, this may only be 15 minutes and for older children, this could be up to 30 minutes.
3. Keep it consistent
For children not yet at school, or during holidays and weekends, you may want to schedule their learning time around an everyday activity. This helps to create that habit cue.
Some days will be busier than others and unexpected events will always arise, but try to make the time of day, and days of the week, as consistent as possible. Remember, consistency is the key to success here.
4. Remove distractions
Create an easy-to-see timetable and have the rest of the family respect the learning time by turning off the television and computers. This all helps to create a routine, and also gets the whole family involved, which reinforces the other routines happening around learning time.
5. Give them space
Find a quiet place for your child to learn that is free from distractions. For younger kids you’ll want to join them in their learning time, to help guide them, but also to provide them with the reward of spending some quality time with you.
For older children regularly check on them to make sure they feel supported, and that their homework is being completed satisfactorily.
6. Have activities on hand
If your children have only a few minutes of school homework or none at all, have activities on hand they can do on their own or with you; this could simply be reading a book, or you might print out worksheets your kids can work on.
The idea is that you want learning time to last the full length of time that you’ve set. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon!
7. Reward with encouragement
Encourage and support your children through their learning time. Praise them for their efforts, not only for their achievements, and show real interest in their independent learning. This provides another set of intrinsic rewards that help to create a learning habit in your children.
8. Reward with incentives
Consider creating an actual incentive to reward the routine behaviour. This might just be milk and a cookie after learning time. Or you could create a star chart to record learning time sessions, and have an end-of-week reward, like your child gets to choose a family-time activity at the weekend.
Remember, one day you won’t be there to provide these rewards, but if a learning habit has been created, the reward can be dropped and the behaviour should continue.
Learning begins at home and helping your children to create a habit of learning will serve them through their whole lives. For more expert advice on learning at home check out our School Age Education section.