I love the Fall, the start of the school year. I always have, and I think it is because I love the new beginning it represents, plus the opportunity the school year brings for a new routine. But in life, I am more of a hare than a turtle, so once I have a goal in mind, it is hard for me not to just want it all, right now, rather than accept that change happens in the stages that I outlined Wednesday. I want my kids to get totally ready for school without any nagging on my part, so thinking about breaking that goal up into turtle-steps can bum me out.

But breaking a larger goal into small, totally doable steps is the key to making a lasting change. For that, we have a handy Happiness Habit Tracker sheet (improved over the one we posted last year). Last night after dinner the kids and I talked about what we need to change about our mornings so that we could establish our school routines again, and filled out our trackers. I asked each kid what their first turtle step would be, and following Martha Beck, I insisted that it be ridiculously easy. Both decided that getting out of bed at 7:00 am would be a good first step, but since this would not be ridiculously easy for either of them—they've been sleeping well past 8:00 most mornings—we started playing halvsies until the turtle-step was teeny-tiny, and agreed that simply setting their alarms for 7:00 am would be their turtle step.

tools-icon-tv.gifMy first turtle-step was simply to remember to look at the Happiness Habits Tracker sheets (one for each of us) that we had posted on our fridge, with our main goal written out at the top, and the turtle steps listed below. The key for me is just the discipline of sticking to it, which is especially hard on the mornings when I'm needing to get out the door earlier than usual or when I'm not ready for work by the time the kids get up. On those mornings, I'll say something like "Who's going to get the cereal out? Molly, can you get the bowls?" and then I'll get distracted by my iPhone. Or I'll make a request and then maybe cajol them a little with a vague "if you do it faster, maybe we'll have time to read a story," kind of a bribe. (Neither of which I'm recommending!)

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The Plan, one week at a time

Once you have sprung into action (see this earlier post for the stages of change) in establishing a new habit or routine with kids, it is important to both recognize and clearly keeping track of successes. Each little positive change, or each turtle-step taken, wins the kids a dose of growth-mindset praise. These posts go into what exactly growth-mindset praise is, and why it is so motivating for kids.

tools-icon-fridge.gifTo keep track of successes, I created a handy worksheet that you can print out and hang on your fridge. (See the Happiness Habit Tracker here). Put your big over-all goal at the top, and then choose one ridiculously easy turtle-step per week. If you take your turtle-step, you get to color in an X. If you get X's everyday (or every week-day, or each day the habit is relevant) you get to choose a new turtle step. If you or the kids don't take your turtle-step each day, play halvsies again for the following week: try making the turtle-step even easier.

I know, this seems slow and rather painstaking. It would be easier if the kids would just do what we ask them to do the first time they ask, if they were in good habits in the first place. But remember, we are teaching our kids skills—breaking and forming habits—that will serve them for a lifetime. When they need to get in the habit of exercising, or stop biting their fingernails: they'll have the tools and know how it is done. And even though the turtle-steps are absurdly small, they are the beginning of big change.

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Selected References:

Martha Beck (2007) The Four Day Win, Rodale.

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Can you give us an example of Turtle steps?  So the first week you set the alarm for 7am, but that could be achieved by actually remembering to put the alarm on each evening (okay, that would actually be an achievement).  But what in week two?  Up by 7:30am?  Some examples would be most helpful.

Jason Harrison | 5:02 pm, March 21, 2010 | Link

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