As parents and grandparents, we reflect with great satisfaction on their being successful in school, in their work, and in their life as marriage partners and parents. With hindsight, we know we made many mistakes along the way and have learned from the process. The purpose of this article is to help parents understand and foster positive learning habits in their children—habits that will produce success in school, work and life.
Considerable research demonstrates that successful people in most any walk of life display certain characteristics or dispositions. We call them Habits of Mind. They are patterns of thinking and behaving in intelligent ways and are displayed when confronted with life’s dilemmas and problems. We want our children to develop those habits that lead them to become lifelong learners, effective problem solvers and decision makers, able to live successfully in a rapidly changing, complex, high tech world.
In this article 16 habits will be described. Strategies for how you, as parents, can help your child develop these habits, and ways to observe whether your child is getting better at them will be suggested. This list is not meant to be complete. As we learn more about success habits, we will discover additional indicators of growth in children’s thinking abilities.
“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”
Efficient problem solvers persevere even when the solution to a problem is not readily apparent. They have a wide range of problem-solving strategies. Children often give up in despair when the answer to a problem is not immediately known. You might hear them say, “I can’t do this,” “It’s too hard,” or, they just want to get the task over with as quickly as possible. They lack the ability to analyze a problem, to develop a system or strategy to approach the problem.
Children develop persistence by increasing their use of alternative strategies of problem solving. They collect evidence to indicate that their problem-solving strategy is working, and if one strategy doesn’t work, they know how to back up and try another. They realize that their strategy must be rejected and another employed. They have systematic methods of analyzing a problem, knowing ways to begin, and knowing what steps must be performed and what data need to be generated or collected.
Help your child by reminding him or her of previous successes with similar problems, that there are many strategies to try, and that they are effective problem solvers. It is more helpful to learn three ways to solve one problem rather than learn one way to solve three problems!
When you see examples of persistence by the characters in TV programs, motion pictures or stories, call it to your child’s attention and use the word, “persisting” as you discuss the behavior. Share with your child examples of how you persist to be successful in your work.
2. Managing Impulsivity
“The sign of intelligent people is their ability to control emotions by the application of reason.”
Successful people have a sense of deliberativeness. They know how to monitor their own impulses and resist jumping to conclusions. Often children blurt the first idea that comes to mind, shout out an answer, start to work without fully understanding directions or make immediate value judgments about an idea—criticizing or praising it before considering its pros and cons. They may take the first suggestion given or accept the first idea that comes to mind rather than considering alternatives and consequences of several possible directions.
Help your child learn to manage his or her impulses, by asking them to explain rules before beginning a task or game, talking over a plan for solving a problem, exploring alternative problem-solving strategies, and considering consequences of actions before beginning.
3. Listening to Others—With Understanding and Empathy
“If there is any secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as from your own.”
Successful people spend an inordinate amount of time and energy listening. They empathize with, and strive to understand other people’s points of view. Being able to paraphrase another person’s ideas, detecting indicators of their feelings or emotions, accurately expressing another person’s concepts, emotions and problems—all are indications of listening behavior.
Some children ridicule, laugh at, or put down each other’s ideas. They are unable to build upon, consider the merits of, or operate on another person’s ideas. You will know if your child is getting better at listening when they can attend to another person, demonstrate an understanding of and empathize with another person’s idea or feeling by paraphrasing it accurately, building upon it, clarifying it, or giving an example of it. When your child can say, “Peter’s idea is… but Sarah’s idea is….” or “Let’s try Shelley’s idea and see if it works,” or “Let me show you how Gina solved the problem, then I’ll show you how I solved it,” then you know they are listening to and understanding others’ ideas and feelings.
You can help by asking, “What did your friend think (feel) when…..?” “I wonder why (s)he would say something like that?” “If you were Bobby, how do you think he would feel?”
4. Thinking Flexibly
“Soften the rigidities within yourself and the universe will give you strength and vigor.”
Successful people consider alternative points of view. Sometimes children think that THEIR way to solve a problem seems to be the ONLY way. They may decide that THEIR answer is the only correct answer. They are more interested in knowing whether their answer is correct, rather than being challenged to find other answers. They avoid ambiguous situations and have a need for certainty rather than tolerating doubt. Their minds are made up and they resist being influenced by reasoning that contradicts their beliefs.
As children become more flexible in their thinking they consider another person’s point of view or rationale. They can state several ways of solving the same problem and can evaluate the merits and consequences of two or more courses of action. When making decisions they will often use such words as “however,” “on the other hand,” or, “If you look at it another way….” They change their mind in light of convincing data, argument or rationale.
Discuss with your child how thinking flexibly aids your success in your profession or career and describe how you handle situations when working with others who are not flexible.
5. Thinking About Their Thinking (Metacognition)
“I cannot always control what goes on outside. But I can always control what goes on inside.”
Successful people are aware of themselves—their own thoughts, actions, values and their effects on others. Often children are unaware of their own thinking while they are thinking. Lacking a plan of action to solve a problem before they begin, they are unable to determine if that plan is working or if it should be discarded and another plan employed. They seldom plan for, reflect on, or evaluate the quality of their own thinking. When asked, “How did you solve that problem?” they may reply, “I don’t know, I just did it.” They are unable to describe the steps and sequences they are using before, during, and after the act of problem solving. They cannot transform into words the visual images held in their mind.
You can determine if your children are becoming more aware of their own thinking if they are able to describe what goes on in their head when they think. When asked, they can describe what they know and what they need to know, what information is lacking and their plans for producing those data. They can describe their plan of action before they begin to solve a problem. They can list the steps and tell where they are in the sequence of a problem solving strategy; they can trace the pathways and blind alleys they took on the road to a problem solution.
You can help your child by using “thinking words” such as “compare,” “analyze,” “predict,” “classify,” and “conclude.” Invite him/her to describe the thinking skills and strategies they plan to use before performing a task. As they are solving a problem, ask them “Where are you now in your strategy?” “What do you still need to do?” “What information are you seeking?” When the task is completed, ask them to reflect on their thought processes: “What worked for you?” “What would you do differently next time?”
6. Striving For Accuracy And Precision
“You go back to the gym and you just do it again and again until you get it right.”
Successful people appreciate and strive for correctness, elegance, and fidelity. Children, however, are often careless when completing work. Being anxious to finish so they may go on to other things, they seem to feel little inclination to reflect upon the accuracy of their work, to contemplate their precision or to take pride in their accomplishments. Speed of completion surpasses their desire for quality.
You may observe your children’s growing desire for accuracy as they take time to check over their tests and homework assignments, as they grow more conscientious about precision, clarity and perfection. They go back over the rules by which they were to abide, the models and visions they were to follow, and the criteria they were to employ to confirm that their finished product matches exactly. Help them by setting standards: “If you were to do a really excellent job cleaning up your room, what will it look like?” Don’t be too quick to correct your children’s papers or homework for them. You might simply say, “You have three errors on this page. You find them!”
7. Questioning and Problem Posing
“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.
You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”
Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)
One of the distinguishing characteristics between humans and other forms of life is our inclination and ability to FIND problems to solve. Children often depend on others to solve problems, to find answers, and to ask questions for them. They sometimes are reluctant to ask questions for fear of displaying ignorance.
Over time, we want to observe a shift from parents asking questions and posing problems toward the child asking questions and finding problems for themselves. Furthermore, the types of questions children ask should change and become more complex and profound. A child may request data to support another person’s conclusions and assumptions: “What evidence do you have…..?” or “How do you know that’s true?” will increasingly be heard. You will hear him or her pose more hypothetical problems characterized by “what-if” questions: “What do you think would happen IF…..?” or “IF that is true, then what might happen if….?”
We want children to be alert to and recognize discrepancies and phenomena in their environment and to inquire into their causes: “Why do cats purr?” “How high can birds fly?” “Why does the hair on my head grow so fast, but the hair on my arms and legs grows so slowly?” “What are some alternative solutions to international conflicts other than wars?”
Before a trip to the market, reading a story, taking a family vacation or working on a homework assignment ask your child, “What questions will you be asking yourself?” “What is it you want to know?” “What questions does this raise for you?”
8. Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations
“I’ve never made a mistake. I’ve only learned from experience.”
Thomas A. Edison
The ultimate purpose of learning is to learn from experience. When successful people encounter problems, one of the first things they ask themselves is “What do I already know about this?” “Where have I encountered a problem like this before?” “What strategies helped me in the past that I can apply to this new problem?” Yet we find that while children can pass tests in school mathematics, for example, they often have difficulty deciding whether to buy six items for $2.39 or seven for $2.86 at the supermarket.
Too often children begin each new task as if it were being approached for the very first time. Parents are often dismayed when they invite their child to recall how they solved a similar problem previously and the child doesn’t remember. It’s like they never heard of it before, even though they had the same type of problem recently. It is as if each experience is a separate event that has no relationship to anything that came before or that comes afterward.
Children can be observed growing in this ability as they are heard to say, “This reminds me of….” or “This is just like the time when I…” They explain what they are doing now in making references to previous experiences. They call upon their store of knowledge and experience as sources of data to support theories to explain, or processes to solve each new challenge.
When you observe your child using learnings from school to solve home problems, you know your child is transferring. For example, you may see increased interest in school, more planning in their use of time and finances, better organization of their room and their belongings.
When a task has been completed, ask your child to apply their knowledge to the future: “If you were to design a new…………?” “What would it be like if………..?” “Where else would you use this information……….?” “In what other situations could you apply this…………?”
9. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision
“True eloquence consists of saying all that should be said, and that only.”
Francois de La Rochefoucald
Language and thinking are closely entwined. Successful people use specific terminology, refrain from over-generalizing, and support their assumptions with valid data. When you hear vague, fuzzy language, you detect vague, fuzzy thinking. Some children’s language is confused and imprecise. They describe objects or events with such non-specific words as “weird,” “nice,” or “O.K.” Names of objects are such as “stuff,” “junk,” and “things.” Their sentences are punctuated with “ya’ know,” “er,” and “uh.”
As a parent you will need to be alert to vagueness in language and help your child become more specific by clarifying:
|When you hear your child say:||Help your child become more specific by saying:|
|“You NEVER listen to me.”||“Never?” “Never ever?”|
|“Everybody has one.”||“Everybody?” “Who, exactly?”|
|“THINGS go better with…”||“Which things specifically?”|
|“Things GO better with…”||“Go? Go – how specifically?”|
|“Things go BETTER with…”||“Better than what?”|
|“The teachers…”||“Which teachers?”|
|“I want them to UNDERSTAND…”||“What exactly will they be doing if they understand…”|
|“This cereal is better”||“Better than what?”|
|“THEY won’t let me…”||“Who is ‘they’?”|
|“The other kids…”||“Which other kids?”|
|“I want him to be nice.”||“Nice? How specifically should he be nice?”|
As children’s language becomes more precise, you will hear them using more descriptive words to distinguish attributes. They will use more correct names and labels. They will spontaneously provide criteria for their value judgments describing why they think one product is BETTER than another. They will speak in complete sentences, voluntarily provide supportive evidence for their ideas, elaborate, clarify, and define their terms. Their oral and language will become more concise, descriptive, and coherent.
10. Gathering Data Through All Senses
“Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.”
Native American Proverb
All information gets into the brain through the sensory pathways: Ears, eyes, skin, nose, and tongue. Successful people realize that to learn something, it must be experienced. To know a wine it must be drunk; to know a role it must be acted; to know a game it must be played; to know a dance it must be moved; to know a goal it must be envisioned. Those sensory pathways are open, alert, and acute absorb more information from the environment than those whose pathways are withered, immune, and oblivious to sensory stimuli.
You will observe your children using all their senses as they touch, feel, and rub various objects in their environment. (Young children may put things in their mouths). They will request a story or rhyme be read again and again. They will act out roles and “be” the thing: a father, a flatbed or a fish. “Let me see, let me see.” “I want to feel it.” “Let me try it.” “Let me hold it…” they will plead.
As they mature, you may observe them express many ways of solving problems by use of the senses: making observations, gathering data, experimenting, manipulating, scrutinizing, identifying variables, interviewing, visualizing, role playing, illustrating, or model building. Their expressions will use a range and variety of sensory words: “I FEEL like…..” “It TOUCHES me.” “I HEAR your idea.” “It leaves a bad TASTE in my mouth.” “Got the PICTURE?”
Help your children hone their powers of perception by engaging in such exercises as:
- Sight: Ninety percent of our sensory input comes through our eyes. To improve peripheral vision, have them shift their eyes from right to left several times as fast as they can without moving their head. Have them try to focus on ten different objects in ten seconds by scanning around the room. Name the objects in order in which they saw them.
- Touch: Our largest sense organ is our skin. With their eyes closed, have your child feel various textured objects—sandpaper, cotton, silk, steel—and describe what they are feeling.
- Sound: While we can’t improve our hearing, we can improve our listening. Have your child close his or her eyes and listen to a single sound. This will require them to shut out extraneous noise. Listen to music, for example and single out one instrument to follow—the bass guitar or the violin.
- Smell: Provide various fragrances: perfume, cinnamon, cloves, wintergreen, eucalyptus, etc. Have them describe what they smell.
- Taste: Humans taste four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. With the eyes closed, place a sample of each taste on the tongue: sugar, salt, lemon juice, and vinegar. Have them describe what they taste.
11. Ingenuity, Originality, Insightfulness: Creativity
“We need people who can read and write. But what we really need is people who can not only read the instructions, but also change them.
“They need to be able to think outside the lines.”
Richard Gurin, CEO and President, Binney & Smith, Crayola Products
“I can’t draw,” “I was never very good at art,” “I can’t sing a note.” Some people think creative humans are just born that way; that creativity is in their genes and chromosomes. Increasingly we are coming to realize that all human beings have the capacity to generate novel, original, clever or ingenious products, solutions, and techniques—if that capacity is developed.
Successful people are creative. They try to examine problem solutions differently, examining alternative possibilities from many angles. They tend to project themselves into different roles using analogies, starting with a vision and working backward, imagining that they are the objects being considered. Creative people take risks—they “live on the edge of their competence,” testing their limits. Creative people are open to criticism and hold up their products for others to judge and seek feedback in an ever-increasing effort to refine their technique. They constantly strive for greater fluency, elaboration, novelty, perfection, beauty, harmony, and balance.
Children often need help to know how to tap their creative potentials. Techniques such as brainstorming, mind-mapping, and metaphorical thinking help to loosen the thinking. Some examples: ask your child to find connections and hidden relationships among two or more unlike objects: “In what way is gravity like a feather?” “Create your own plant and an environment in which it can live.” “How does it feel to be a flat tire?” “How do you think a zero feels?” “Which is crisper, celery or yellow?” “Which is the happiest room in our house? Why?”
12. Responding with Wonderment and Awe
“The most beautiful experience in the world is the experience of the mysterious.”
Recently, a Dutch psychologist tried to figure out what separated chess masters and chess Grandmasters. He subjected groups of each to a battery of tests but found the only difference was that Grandmasters simply loved chess more. They had more passion and commitment to it. Passion may be the key to creativity.
Enrapture your child with awesome phenomena, intriguing situations and jaw-dropping experiences. Surround them with beautiful scenes, technological marvels and science fiction; let their imaginations take flight. Successful people find enjoyment, enthusiasm and fascination in their work and world. Allow your child free range to explore whatever they are intrigued with—as long as they are experiencing the passion.
Invite your children to share their interests—what electrifies and mystifies them. Create a safe home environment, where they feel free to share their fascination, their emotions and their exhilaration. Make it cool to be passionate about something! Share with your child your own fascinations. Allow them to see you enthralled and excited about a problem or discovery and compelled with your own work.
Some children and adults avoid problems. They may say, “These types of thinking games turn me off,” “I was never good at these brain teasers,” or “Go ask your father, he’s the brain in this family.”
You will want to see your children move not only from an “I CAN” attitude, but also towards an “I ENJOY” feeling. You will want them to request problems to solve and to make up problems on their own. Furthermore, you want them to solve problems with increasing independence—without your help or intervention. Such statements as, “Don’t tell me the answer, I can figure it out by myself,” will indicate growing autonomy. We will see them voluntarily continuing to learn throughout a lifetime.
You may observe them communing with the world around them, reflecting on the changing formations of a cloud; being charmed by the opening of a bud; sensing the logical simplicity of mathematical order. They will find beauty in a sunset, intrigue in the geometrics of a spider web and exhilaration in the iridescence of a hummingbird’s wings.
Their curiosity will become stronger as the problems they encounter become more complex. Their environment will attract their inquiry as their senses capture the rhythm, patterns, shapes, colors, and harmonies of the universe. They will display compassion toward other life forms as they are able to understand the need for protecting their environment; respecting the roles and values of other human beings; and perceiving the delicate worth, uniqueness, and relationships of everything and everyone they encounter. Wonderment, awesomeness, and passion: these are prerequisites for success.
13. Taking Responsible Risks
“There has been a calculated risk in every stage of American development—the pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, businessmen who were not afraid of failure, dreamers who were not afraid of action.”
Highly successful people have an almost uncontrollable urge to go beyond established limits. They are uneasy about comfort; they “live on the edge of their competence”. They seem compelled to place themselves in situations where they do not know what the outcome will be. They accept confusion, uncertainty, and the higher risks of failure as part of the normal process and they learn to view setbacks as interesting, challenging and growth producing. However, they are not behaving impulsively.
Their risks, however, are educated. They draw on past knowledge, are thoughtful about consequences and have a well-trained sense of what is appropriate. They know that all risks are not worth taking!
Risk taking can be considered in two categories: those who see it as a venture and those who see it as adventure. The venture part of risk taking might be described by the venture capitalist. When a person is approached to take the risk of investing in a new business, she will look at the markets, see how well organized the ideas are, and study the economic projections. If she finally decides to take the risk, it is a well-considered one.
The adventure part of risk taking requires a willingness to take a chance in the moment. Review with your child any past history that suggests that what they are doing is not going to be life threatening or if they believe that there is enough support in the group to protect them from harm. Ultimately, your child learns from such high-risk experiences that they are far more able to take actions than they previously believed.
If your child holds back from taking risks, he is confronted constantly with missed opportunities. Some children seem reluctant to take risks. They hold back games, new learning, and new friendships because their fear of failure is far greater than their experience of venture or adventure. They may hear their “inner voice” saying, “If you don’t try it, you won’t be wrong” or “if you try it and you are wrong, you will look stupid.” The other voice that might say, “if you don’t try it, you will never know” is trapped in fear and mistrust. We hope children will learn how to take intellectual as well as physical risks. Children who are capable of being different, going against the grain of the common, thinking of new ideas and testing them with peers as well as teachers, are more likely to be successful in an era of innovation and uncertainty. As a parent you must create a safe home environment where your children are listened to rather than judged.
14. Finding Humor
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.”
Another unique attribute of successful human beings is our sense of humor. Laughter transcends all human beings. Its positive effects on psychological functions include a drop in the pulse rate, the secretion of endorphins, and increased oxygen in the blood. It has been found to liberate creativity and provoke such higher-level thinking skills as anticipation, finding novel relationships, visual imagery, and making analogies. People who engage in the mystery of humor have the ability to perceive situations from original and often interesting vantage points. They tend to initiate humor more often, to place greater value on having a sense of humor, to appreciate and understand others’ humor and to be verbally playful when interacting with others. Having a whimsical frame of mind, they thrive on finding incongruity and perceiving absurdities, ironies and satire; finding discontinuities and being able to laugh at situations and themselves. Some children find humor in all the “wrong places”—human differences, ineptitude, injurious behavior, vulgarity, violence and profanity. They laugh at others yet are unable to laugh at themselves.
Help your child distinguish between situations of human frailty and fallibility which are in need of compassion and those which are truly funny.
15. Thinking Interdependently
“Take care of each other. Share your energies with the group. No one must feel alone, cut off, for that is when you do not make it.”
Willie Unsoeld, renowned mountain climber
Human beings are social beings. We congregate in groups, find it therapeutic to be listened to, draw energy from one another, and seek reciprocity. In groups we contribute our time and energy to tasks that we would quickly tire of when working alone. In fact, we have learned that one of the cruelest forms of punishment that can be inflicted on an individual is solitary confinement.
Successful people realize that all of us together are more powerful, intellectually and/or physically, than any one individual. Probably the foremost disposition in the 21st and 22nd centuries will be the heightened ability to think in concert with others; to find ourselves increasingly more interdependent and sensitive to the needs of others. Problem solving has become so complex that no one person can go it alone. No one has access to all the data needed to make critical decisions; no one person can consider as many alternatives as several people can.
Some children may not have learned to work in groups; they have underdeveloped social skills. They feel isolated; they prefer their solitude. “Leave me alone–I’ll do it by myself.” “They just don’t like me.” “I want to be alone.” Some students seem unable to contribute to group work either by being a “job hog” or conversely, letting others do all the work.
Help your child develop a willingness and openness to accept the feedback from others. Through this interaction the group and your child will continue to grow. Listening, consensus seeking, giving up an idea to work with someone else’s, empathy, compassion, group leadership, knowing how to support group efforts, altruism—all are behaviors indicative of cooperative human beings.
16. Remaining Open to Continuous Learning
“All of the top achievers I know are lifelong learners… looking for new skills, insights and ideas. If they’re not learning, they’re not growing…not moving toward excellence.”
Successful people are in a continuous learning mode. Their confidence, in combination with their inquisitiveness, allows them to constantly search for new and better ways. Successful people are always striving for improvement, always growing, always learning, always modifying and improving themselves. They seize problems, situations, tensions, conflicts and circumstances as valuable opportunities to learn.
A great mystery about humans is that we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than mystery and wonder. We seem to feel better when we know rather than when we learn. We defend our biases, beliefs, and storehouses of knowledge rather than inviting the unknown, the creative and the inspirational. Being certain and closed gives us comfort while being doubtful and open gives us fear.
From an early age, children are trained to believe that learning means figuring out the “right answer” rather than developing capabilities for effective and thoughtful action. They have been taught to value certainty rather than doubt, to give answers rather than to inquire, to know which choice is correct rather than to explore alternatives.
Our wish is for children who are eager to learn. That includes the humility of knowing that we don’t know, which is the highest form of thinking we will ever learn. So, the first step to take with your child, which will eventually be the crowning glory of all learning: the humility to know—and admit—that you don’t know and not be afraid to find out.
“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”
Imitation and emulation are the most basic forms of learning, and therefore parents realize the importance of their own display of these desirable dispositions in the presence of their children. Thus, in day-to-day family events when problems arise, your children must see you employing the same types of success behaviors.
This list of Habits of Success and the conditions that promote them is not meant to be complete.
As parents, we have great responsibility for instilling these dispositions in our children. We must teach them to value intelligent, creative, and rational action. To do so, however, we must provide the conditions that will nurture these habits. We must believe that ALL children can continue to grow in their ability to behave more intelligently. We must have faith that all humans can become increasingly more gifted than they are presently capable of demonstrating. Finally, we must set an example by becoming models of these habits of success ourselves.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Costa; A. & Kallick, B. (2008). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 characteristics for success. Alexandria VA: ASCD