October 15, 2014

Why Changing Habits Takes Time

If commitment to change were enough to kick bad habits, we’d all be able to keep our New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, through our own experiences, we’ve learned that habits aren’t easy to change or develop. Take, for example, that exercise routine you committed to, your pledge to eat healthier foods, or your goal of reading 30 minutes every night. See? It’s not easy! Even though we’d love to exchange bad habits for better habits overnight, developing new habits takes significant time and energy. Accordingly, the science behind habit-formation is clear: changing habits takes time because the brain has to adjust.

HabitsEveryone’s brain adjusts at different rates for different reasons. The age of your brain and your intellectual IQ have some impact on your ability to adjust to new habits. But, more than anything, self-discipline has the greatest influence over habit formation and academic performance: it takes will-power and the belief that you can change to actually change a habit. In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg explains that new habits can certainly be changed or developed over time. Still—he warns that there are no quick fixes for habits, good or bad. The brain cannot create new pathways or eliminate old pathways overnight. Instead, it requires practice, reinforcement, will-power, and—above all—self-discipline.

The ability to change or develop a new habit: Adults vs. Children

In adults, changing brain structure is especially difficult, hence the well-known phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The use of this phrase has become popular because adult brain structures are not as “plastic,” or as flexible, as a child’s developing brain. By age 45, the adult brain has isolated its most important neural connections and “myelinated” them, making signals travel faster along those synapses. Myelination keeps your “most-used” pathways working smoothly, so it favors habit-based, automatic behavior. The development of these accelerated, long-term pathways reinforces old habits and makes adjusting or creating new pathways even harder. However, while learning new habits, adults have one major advantage over children: the developed brain is capable of increasedself-control, which makes adhering to new regimens more achievable. Duhigg explains that adults can break and make new habits by the force of their willpower, their highly developed executive functions, and their ability to consciously choose a new routine.

In adolescents and children, brain structure is still developing, which means the brain is malleable. In fact, the prefrontal cortex, where executive function skills are based, doesn’t fully develop until our late 20’s or early 30’s. A child’s brain has not yet settled into “optimal” adult structure, so it has room to grow and change. This flexibility makes assimilating new experiences easier for children. However, maintaining the self-control needed to practice new habits is significantly more difficult for children than it is for adults. While adults’ brains are finely tuned for efficient performance, children’s brains have many extraneous pathways, and lack a sophisticated system of myelination. And, without a highly developed prefrontal cortex,executive function skills like self-control and discipline, are harder to master.

Provide support and encouragement

Every person, adult or child, develops habits at their own rate. Therefore, it is important to remain patient with your brain, your child, and yourself. While new skills develop, Duhigg contends that proper support systems are of utmost importance. There will be difficulties and setbacks along the path to new habits. But, encouragement from parents and tutors can create an appropriate environment for change.

At Engaging Minds, when a child learns alongside a tutor, the tutor employs a “gradual release of responsibility” (GRR) model with the student. To create an atmosphere for change, tutors guide students through phases of learning: “Show me, Help me, Let me.” First, tutors take the lead and bear responsibility. Then, responsibility is shared. Finally, students claim responsibility of their new routine or skill. GRR is essential for a child to feel supported by his or her teacher at each unique stage of habit development. And—GRR fosters your child’s belief in her own will-power and ability to change.

So—wait for your child’s brain to catch up with her focused effort. Wait for your child’s tutor to guide him through a release of responsibility. Let your child continue on her journey towards changing a habit. Encourage new routines and reaffirm your child’s abilities, even when bad habits resurface. There is no quick fix, but the results are worth waiting for. With this focused effort and a strong support system, you’ll begin to see bad habits melt away and new habits begin to form.