Building New Habits with Pre-teaching

We are well into the new year. Do you know where your New Year’s resolutions are? For many people, setting and sticking to the goals we make at the beginning of the year starts to fall off as early as February. (Eeek!) If you are one of the lucky few who have stuck to your goals well into the second quarter, congratulations, we are so impressed by you!

For the rest of us, we may be hitting a slump in sticking to our goals and resolutions. And for still more of us, “what goals and resolutions?” Change is hard for everyone! This month we’re revisiting our theme from January, motivation: how we can make changes and move forward.

Building new behaviors: Habits

One of the most effective and efficient ways we can help ourselves and our children develop new skills and behaviors is to create new habits. This is particularly the case when we think about how we can possibly keep up the motivation to stick to a new behavior. If you are trying to motivate yourself to work out more, to eat better, to reach out to your friends more, or any other resolution, if you can turn it into a habit, it greatly reduces the amount of motivation you need to exert to keep going. This is especially the case at times when you are tired or don’t feel like following through. If working out after work or meeting up with friends more often is just what you do (because it has become a habit), it takes the power struggle out of choosing to or not: you just do it. We will go into more detail about how we can use habits to bolster our motivation as adults later this month, but for today we will talk about how you can help your child build new habits using pre-teaching.

A habit is something that we repeat so frequently that it becomes something we do without too much thinking. A great deal of what children learn to do is done through turning a new behavior into a habit. Look both ways before you cross the street, buckle up as soon as you get in a car, brush your teeth before you go to bed, use your words to share that toy rather than just grabbing it, put your underwear on before your pants, and many more. And how do we learn these habits? When caregivers tell us, or show us what to do, and remind us every time we are in that situation until we no longer need reminding because it has become a habit.

Building new behaviors: Pre-teaching

Pre-teaching is when we let kids know what is coming up ahead of time, what to expect, and how to behave accordingly. Pre-teaching is most often used to help children transition from one activity to the next, especially when this behavior is not easy to do. For example, leaving the park (fun!) to go home (less fun). Pre-teaching is a great strategy to help kids do something that is often quite difficult: prepare to stop doing what they’re doing, and start doing something else. Not only does it support children to make difficult changes in activities successfully, but it also builds their self-regulation so they will eventually be able to make these tough transitions on their own, and with little effort. When we use pre-teaching, we are helping them build the habit of making good transitions.

We can also use pre-teaching to help children develop a new behavior, or change an old habit. Imagine if you had a personal trainer follow you around all day and every time you were about to eat, they would remind you of your goal and encourage you to continue making healthy choices. “You’re about to walk into the restaurant. Remember, you are making healthy choices. When you order, you’re going to order the half sandwich and salad. I know you can do it! You are going to feel so good when you make that smart choice!” How much easier would it be to stick to your new behavior until it became a habit with reminders and encouragement like that? When I use pre-teaching to help a kid build new behaviors, I like to think of myself as being their own personal kid coach; I help them remember what they are going to do, and encourage them to make good choices even when it’s hard.

Using pre-teaching

  • Know what you want your child TO DO. Let’s say you want to use pre-teaching to help your child learn to stop exploding out of the car and running full speed across the parking lot into the store. The first step is to think about what you want him or her TO DO. If I tell you, “don’t think of the purple elephant…” my guess is you probably did just that, thought of a purple elephant. Instead of telling kids what you don’t want them to do, it’s important to remind them what you want to see. So in this example it might be: you want your child to wait for you to come around to open their door, then walk calmly with you (perhaps even holding your hand), into the store.
  • Timing. Pre-teaching is most effective when it is used just before the new behavior (to catch them before they start something else), but not so far in advance that they forget what you told them hours before. For some kids they may benefit from discussing the new behavior well in advance, and then using pre-teaching as a reminder. In our example, I might try pre-teaching the new parking lot behavior on the drive to the store, before I pull into the parking lot.
  • Pre-teach the new behavior. Tell your child what is coming up, and how to behave.
  1. We’re about to get to the store.
  2. When we park, I want you to wait for me to come around to open your door. When I open your door, we are going to walk together safely across the parking lot with walking feet.
  3. You are such a big kid, I know you are going to make a good choice!

First I let my child know what is coming up, then I clearly tell her what TO DO, and in this case, I added an extra pep talk that makes my child even more likely to follow through. If this is a particularly difficult behavior, I might even end by setting my child up to earn something small when they walk safely across the parking lot. Now every time we go to the store, I pre-teach what is coming up, and what to do until it becomes the new parking lot habit.

When you use pre-teaching to help your child successfully practice new behaviors, eventually this pre-teaching will become a pre-emptive reminder, and eventually it will become a habit they will do on their own without reminders. Well done you! Look at you parenting like a pro. Stay tuned for more tips and tricks to increase motivation and build better habits.


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