As parents we know the evening homework and study drill. Whether we sit with our young students to help them complete their assignments, or monitor our teen’s progress in their studies, we want to help them cultivate the kind of willpower and self-discipline that’s required to build healthy study habits.
But we don’t always know how to do it.
Malcolm Gladwell tells a fascinating story in his book, “David and Goliath.” The story goes that one researcher looks over a crowd of entrepreneurs and asks how many of them had been diagnosed with a learning disorder as students.
Surprisingly, over half of the audience raised their hands—that’s a room full of successful entrepreneurs who had been diagnosed with learning disorders in their youth.
How could this happen?
Gladwell concludes that the obstacles they faced created their incentive to develop skills and strategies to overcome their weaknesses—ultimately launching them ahead of their classmates. They became more successful than their peers, who had no need for self-discipline; they could skate through school with ease.
One of the most fascinating studies I’ve read in the last decade was conducted by University of Pennsylvania researchers, Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman. Ten years ago they performed a longitudinal study on two groups of adolescents to measure how self-discipline affects student performance.
They discovered that self-discipline accounted for more than twice as much impact as their IQ—in grades, test scores, school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely) and the time of day students began doing homework.
These findings illustrate a major reason why students fall short of their intellectual potential: failure to exercise self-discipline. Nowhere is the need for self-discipline more apparent than in study habits.
It’s typical to find students who are loaded with potential, intellectually or athletically, who end up severely under-performing because they lack self-discipline.
So how can you instill great study habits for your kids?
I know of no “magic wand” to build willpower. However, as I’ve worked with many teachers over the decades, I’ve seen positive outcomes through “gamifying” good study habits.
Here are three tips:
1. Create a competition
Years ago, I was teaching college students and we decided to build self-discipline into our routines.
We named one competition: “Do it if you hate it.” We all chose one activity that we absolutely loathed (cleaning our room, taking out the trash, etc.). Then we purposefully did that act daily.
The result? It not only was amusing, but we harnessed our lazy dispositions. The competition becomes even greater if you add incentives for those who improve the most.
Mark my words, if your child is actively practicing self-discipline in one area, it will be easier to practice it in others—like studying—as well.
2. Find a peer to keep you accountable
There is power in emotional support from peers, so we paired up with a “buddy” for accountability.
Every pair was aware of each other’s responsibilities. While the accountability was friendly, knowing we’d be asked about our habits enabled us to better stick to our standards.
We picked a friend who knew us well—one that could read whether their friend was lying or exaggerating. Accountability produced results.
I have said it before: we all do better when we are watched, and we all do better when we are encouraged. Have you considered how you could set up a buddy system?
3. Stretch your study time
Many people make studying far too labor intensive. Try having your child visualize what they want and then allow their brain to rest.
Remember, our brains work much like a muscle. If you work out consistently, you will build muscle mass. But if you work out too many times a day, you will damage your muscles. We call this practice “reps and rest.”
We must work our willpower, and then rest it with another act. Have your child or teen choose just one study question as they relax with an activity like reading, playing outside or taking a nap. Have them avoid activities that rob the brain of effort like video games, television, or surfing the internet.
Teach your child to recognize they must cultivate the willpower to study—one step at a time. What’s the phrase? “You eat an elephant one bite at a time.”
And help them to celebrate minor victories as they build their discipline of studying. Then . . . watch their grades improve.
Tim Elmore is the founder and president of Growing Leaders, an organization equipping today’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow.