Habit stacking could be the game-changing strategy for your teen, educational psychologist Dr Britto shares 4 tips to try today

It's all about linking new habits to existing routines, here's how...

Teen on laptop with headphones on
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Habit stacking is not the collecting of spur-of-the-moment habits to be left in a corner of your mind, that you never see through, it's more about working new habits in with routines that you already have in place.

Over the last 12 years, I have worked with young people while in my role as a teacher and now as an educational psychologist, I have noticed great study habits or any type of habit can be formed through 'synaptic pruning', commonly referred to as habit stacking.

To form a new habit, the brain builds up a strong network of neurons that make connections to strengthen a particular behaviour. The more a person carries out an act, the stronger and more efficient the connections become to form a habit which can be helpful when learning a new skill or studying for an exam. For example, brushing your teeth is a pretty well-established habit, if you want to start a new habit in the morning, set it up so that the 'trigger' is brushing your teeth; after I brush my teeth I do 10 minutes of yoga.

Family editor at GoodtoKnow, Stephanie Lowe has tried this approach and recommends it as a great way to effect change in a routine day. "I work from home and wanted to get out of the house daily and to move more. So, when my husband and son leave for the school run I do a 10-minute lap of our local park - no more, no less. The minute the car has left, I leave the house. Having that start point of 'when they leave I do X' has proven easy to keep the habit up."

Habit stacking - here's the lowdown

Habit stacking is exactly how it sounds. Building habits on top of routines that are already present in your life. Done properly, habit stacking involves taking advantage of connected behaviours by choosing an existing current habit and 'stacking' a new behaviour on top of it.

For example, if you would like your children to add deep breathing as a regular go-to to help decrease anxiety over exams, they can pair this behaviour with another one such as drinking a sip of water while studying. For every sip of water follow it with four deep breaths.

Children and young people can build new habits by using the connectedness of behaviours to their advantage. Habit stacking can be helpful as current patterns of behaviours are already built in the brain. By building new habits (e.g., doing homework as soon as it has been set), particularly during the exam periods, children and young people can form new neural networks and change their thinking and behaviour.

A 2020 study reported that forming habits is critical for setting and achieving goals, including outcomes related to academic success and well-being. While it's important to build habits, it is important not to lose sight of the role of children and young people in building self-regulation skills that are likely to help them sustain any positive habit that is formed.

For example, children and young people can be taught to ask themselves questions to identify habits they will succeed at. Questions such as;

  • What type of person do you want to become?
  • Will forming this habit be beneficial for you now or in the future?
  • Does this habit fit my long-term goals?
  • Who can help me stick to this habit and be resilient when it becomes challenging?

The more children and young people exercise the parts of their brain that help them self-regulate the fear of starting a task, the easier it will become to get started and reduce the feelings of procrastination. Children and young people can be explicitly taught workable habits that bring them feelings of internal value rather than external validation as they are more likely to find purpose in engaging in such behaviours.

How can parents teach habit stacking to their children?

  1. Set small achievable goals
  2. Understanding environments impact success
  3. Importance of reframing language
  4. Consolidate learnings

Set small achievable goals - Parents can teach children and young people that success begins with making small steps by highlighting the need to set small, achievable, realistic and timely goals. For example, parents can encourage their children and young people to read a few pages of a book in a day rather than attempting to finish reading all the pages in the whole day. It is important for parents to emphasise that setting small goals is likely to result in achieving a complete task.

Understanding environments impact success - Parents need to encourage children and young people to create an environment that support the opportunity to foster good habits. For example, parents can encourage young people to create an organised space that is free from distractions while making a healthy snack and creating an atmosphere for success.

Importance of reframing language - Parents can support children and young people to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset by reminding children to use positive rather than negative language to describe their abilities. For example, when children are faced with feelings of frustration and have limited self-confidence, parents can create a reframe of their language by encouraging their children to add the word ‘yet’ at the end of their sentence by saying “I don’t understand how to solve this problem yet” as this fosters a positive mindset related to learning and growth.

Consolidate learnings - It is crucial to understand that to sustain any form of positive choices or habit, consistency is key to consolidating all that has been learned. Also, when parents model how to form and stick to a positive habit (e.g., reading daily), children and young people engagement in such behaviours are likely to increase. Consolidation of learning at home might look like: testing and applying knowledge in new situations, discussing it with others, or expressing it in new forms all consolidate learning by storing it in different ways—making it easier to recall and apply it. For example ask your child to tell another family member what happened in school that day.

For more articles from Dr Patricia Britto, take a look at her author page. Dr Britto's most recent 7 ways to make sure your child is school ready, is so helpful on what's really important for your little ones to know about and her article on body autonomy - the 5 things kids never have to do is so insightful - with useful tips.

Dr Patricia Britto
Educational Psychologist (HCPC Registered)

Dr Britto's qualifications include a Doctorate in Professional Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychology, an MSc in Mental Health in Learning Disabilities and a BSc in Psychology.