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The Secret to Self-Disciplined Students

So, how do you cultivate self-discipline in kids?


First, we need to realize some things about self-discipline. Most of us tend to think that self-discipline is just a trait people have: some people have very little, some have a lot, and most of us are in between. This is partially true, but it obfuscates the truth that self-discipline covers a number of different domains.


For example, you could show significant discipline with your finances. Or with nutrition and exercise. Or with behaviors at your place of employment. But it is entirely possible and indeed normal for someone to have great self-discipline in one of these areas, but not in the others.


This makes sense, because self-discipline is not a trait like height or eye color: it is a skill rooted in habits.


This brings us to my second point, which is that learning any new skill (even self-discipline) requires the same conditions for success. First, the skill needs to be targeted at the appropriate challenge level. If something is too easy, you don’t learn anything, and become disengaged because simple work is unsatisfying and frequently boring. If it is too hard, it becomes uncomfortable and overwhelming. In the goldilocks zone of challenges, a task should be hard enough to require effort so it is satisfying to achieve success. Second, the skill must be modeled or demonstrated to clarify what success looks like, practiced under supervision with feedback to correct errors and reward success, and then practiced independently until the skill is fully established as a habit.


What this looks like in practice is that kids need to start small, with short amounts of study time and limited goals. That can then gradually be built up over months and years, so that by the time they are challenged in high school and college, sitting down to work and study for hours is a habit they do not need to struggle with.


Here are some guidelines:


  1. Start young, while they are in grade school. Begin with just 5 or 10 minutes. (I’ve started my daughter with 10 minutes in first grade.)

  2. Create a study space. Our brains respond to our environment. Trying to study in a space that is used for relaxation or socialization is counterproductive, so it is extremely important to set aside an area that is just used for study and academics. Eliminate distractions like screens and music. White noise or low level instrumental music can sometimes be worthwhile.

  3. Use the time for academic practice. If there is no homework (and there won’t be), use the time to practice basic skills: math, grammar, vocabulary, etc. What is studied doesn’t matter as much as the time investment on task. We are practicing setting time aside, and focus.

  4. Gradually increase the amount of study/academic time. Even if you increase it by a minute per month, if you start early, by the time they reach high school, they should be comfortable setting aside significant blocks of time for academics.

  5. Use effective study strategies. Avoid reading through material in favor of repeated quizzing (flashcards are very effective) and practice problems.

  6. Once they are at a level where they can work for 25 minutes productively, start taking breaks. Most people cannot focus for more than 25 minutes at a stretch, but a short 5 or 10 minute break is usually sufficient, after which they can work productively for another 25 minute interval.

  7. Keep it up through the summer. Skills and habits decay if not consistently reinforced.


Keep in mind, this outlines how to build academic study habits and self-discipline incrementally, with plenty of practice over time. It is limited to study habits: they won’t suddenly start cleaning their room without prompting, because that is a separate (if related) domain of self-discipline.


Thanks for reading, and let us know if you have any specific tips or tricks that would help kids build their self-discipline for school!

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