The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting that Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life

The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting that Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life

The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting that Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life

The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting that Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life


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A groundbreaking approach to building learning habits for life, based on a major new study revealing what works – and what doesn’t

Life is different for kids today. Between standardized testing, the Common Core Curriculum, copious homework assignments, and seemingly endless amounts of “screen time,” it’s hard for kids – and parents – to know what’s most essential. How can parents help their kids succeed – not just do well “on the test” — but develop the learning habits they’ll need to thrive throughout their lives?

This important and parent-friendly book presents new solutions based on the largest study of family routines ever conducted. The Learning Habit offers a blueprint for navigating the maze of homework, media use, and the everyday stress that families with school-age children face; turning those “stress times” into opportunities to develop the eight critical skills kids will need to succeed in college and in the highly competitive job market of tomorrow – skills including concentration and focus, time management, decision-making, goal-setting, and self-reliance. Along with hands-on advice and compelling real-life case studies, the book includes 21 fun family challenges for parents and kids, bringing together the latest research with simple everyday solutions to help kids thrive, academically and beyond.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399167119
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 412,391
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman is a psychotherapist, consultant, and internationally recognized author in the field of family therapy. She is the author of The Narcissistic Family, and Clinical Director of New England Center for Pediatric Psychology.

Rebecca Jackson is a writer and neuro-psychological educator whose writing is featured on the GoodParentGoodChild website and Huffington Post Screen Sense.

Dr. Robert M. Pressman is a Board Certified Family Psychologist, a practicing pediatric psychologist, and Director of Research at the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology.

Read an Excerpt


This book is written by three researchers who are also parents. The impetus for our work and our research is our unwavering belief that parenting is our most important job. While being parents provided the motivation for this book, our other jobs provided the material. We are all clinicians who work with children and families.

There is something else about this book that makes it unique: It is based on the largest survey of family routines ever conducted. The Learning Habit Studies were a 3-year project, which involved both traditional paper research studies, interviews, and a groundbreaking online research study that surveyed nearly 50,000 parents in all 50 U.S. states. Conducted in the fall of 2013, the findings are both conclusive and provocative. The recommendations we make are rooted in science, clinical experience, and parent and teacher interviews.

Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman is the clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology (NECPP) and a bestselling author;she works with parents and children, both independently and in groups. Rebecca Jackson’s work as a psychometrist involves testing children for learning disabilities, cognitive deficits, and psychological disorders. Because her overstuffed suitcase on wheels is brimming with all kinds of fascinating tests and gadgets, her children refer to her as “the kid detective.” Dr. Robert M. Pressman is the research director of the NECPP. He was the lead researcher for our three collaborative studies, conducted with NECPP, Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, and Children’s National Medical Center; Rhode Island College’s Psychology Department also participated in the first two studies. The findings from these studies provided significant new data about the habits, routines, and challenges of families living in this digital age. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Pressman also works with children and their families.

We are all trained observers, whose jobs and habits are to write about what we see. This book is the result of not only research studies but hundreds of interviews and thousands of hours of clinical observation.


Over the last few years, we have seen dramatic changes in the educational landscape. Homework, once considered an adjunct to classroom teaching, has become a central piece of the educational process—and an important component of students’ grades. The integration of technology and homework, via online teaching tools and textbooks, has further complicated the process, as the line between educational and recreational media consumption becomes increasingly blurred. More and more “nonessential” school programs are being cut. The very activities that enriched our lives and provided us with opportunities in athletics and the arts are being eliminated. Teachers are being forced to teach to the (mandated) tests rather than challenging their students, stimulating their thinking, or creating pride in simply learning something new. Brightly colored textbooks and teaching manuals filled with illustrations have become digitalized; while this sounds exciting in theory, it often translates into nondescript black-and-white photocopies of the material being used in classrooms and sent home in the form of worksheets—so that all students can participate. Despite the focus on mandated tests, we are graduating children who lack the skills to survive, much less thrive, in college. Once first in the world in college-graduated students, the United States is now 10th.1 Almost half of our students who enter college do not graduate.2 They simply do not have the confidence, study skills, or learning habits necessary to handle the work and challenges independent collegiate living entails.

Technology has also become an ever-present influence on our lives. Our children have the benefit of instant communication and easy access to information. That is a wonderful thing—except when it’s not. What we observe are children who can relate to screens with ease, but have few social or communication skills; kids who can play video games for hours, but can’t read a book for longer than 10 minutes; kids who can text and tweet, but can’t focus on a challenging math problem or make sense of a few paragraphs in a history book. “It’s boring!” they cry. And compared to the instant gratification of video games, texting, and social media, it probably is.

Homework used to take 30 minutes—at most—to create special projects, finish up a few math problems, or prepare for a spelling test. Kids would simply scan the chapters and answer the assigned questions during study hall or before class—fiendishly scribbling before the teacher walked in! Not anymore. Today, homework can take several (stressful) hours a day.3 Digital homework assignments and online research and tutorials are now the norm; yet parents are given little to no guidance on how to help their children integrate these tools into their homework routines for maximum benefit. Love it or hate it, technology-based homework is here to stay.

The focus on test scores has also made achievement the most important thing. As a result, we are producing a nation of kids who are afraid to make mistakes, try new things, and even ask questions in class—because they may be perceived as stupid. If you can’t be an achiever, if you can’t be the best, then it’s better not to try—because you might fail.


We wanted to find out if what we were seeing was universal. We wanted to study families who have met these challenges and produced children who graduated from college in four years—rather than five or six or never. Why were their kids academically successful? What did they do to give their children such terrific social skills, emotional health, and the confidence that allowed them to communicate so clearly and assertively? We joined forces with other scientists, and conducted three separate learning habit research studies to find out.

In one of the most comprehensive psychosocial research studies of all time on this topic, nearly 50,000 parents from 4,600 cities across the nation took time out of their busy lives to offer us a candid look at their daily habits and routines. Since this study was offered online and participants were guaranteed anonymity, something interesting happened: Moms and dads felt comfortable being completely honest about their children’s grades, social interactions with peers, discipline and behavioral issues at home and at school, and, yes, about their media use.

Of course, collaborating, analyzing, and cross-correlating such a massive amount of data was a daunting task. We had to compare a multitude of diverse topics, to see if there were links between factors like sports and communication skills, grades and social involvement, bedtimes and personality traits, and parenting style and independence. Eventually, however, we were able to find the links—connect the dots—and identify habits used by those families whose children were experiencing academic, emotional, and social success. Once identified, these habits were then combined with parenting techniques that can incorporate these best practices.


The goal of this book is to help parents understand and facilitate the habits and routines that help children learn. This can often mean synthesizing seemingly unrelated tasks. For example, you might not think that communication skills are part of the homework process, but you will after reading this book. So are sports and social skills. Sleep is of the highest importance. What about cell phone use, video games, and computers? You guessed it—media use is an important part of homework and building successful learning habits.

Prepare to think of homework from an entirely new perspective. Welcome to homework for Generation M2.

“Generation M2,” that’s how our school-age children were described at a forum attended by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), media executives, and child development experts. In their report, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,”4 the Kaiser Family Foundation presented their findings and concerns relative to entertainment media overuse by 8- to 18-year-olds. Our own findings concur with theirs: This generation’s media use is, indeed, exponential. It has an impact on virtually all aspects of family life and homework.

This book neither promotes nor condemns either media use or academic homework; both are here to stay. However, the parents we interviewed said they were confused, angry, and overwhelmed by the stresses their children have to manage—especially those presented by homework. Karen, one of the parents we interviewed, said it took her eight-year-old, third-grade daughter more than one hour, every night, to do her online math homework—frequently resulting in tears of frustration. Even more upsetting to Karen was her concern that her child wasn’t really learning or understanding the process of doing theoretically based math problems—a concern voiced by numerous parents with children in that class.

“It feels wrong,” Karen declared. “It feels crazy! But where do you draw the line?”

Parents want answers. They want to know where to draw the line to restore sanity to their everyday lives. In this culture of rapid technological advancement, educational changes, and social instability, parents feel a disturbing lack of balance. There’s a little voice in the back of their minds whispering, “Something’s not right.” And it isn’t. That’s why we want to start the conversation about learning habits for Generation M2 and how we, as parents, can reboot our parenting style to help our children succeed.

Our overarching purpose is to provide answers and techniques that parents can use—right now, today—to make their families run more smoothly and increase their children’s chances of success, regardless of the current curriculum used at their children’s school. To do that, we have taken a lot of literary license. For example, we use the words I, we, and the therapist interchangeably, for readability and interest. We also know the rules about pronouns (one of us was an English teacher), and we frequently ignore them, using the plural pronoun they in place of the phrase he or she or the awkward s/he because the latter are annoying to read. We sincerely beg your indulgence and forgiveness—we’d rather be readable than rigidly correct.

We also use many stories. People like stories, they relate to stories, they learn from stories. These are true stories; we have altered names and other identifying information to preserve the confidentiality of our patients and interviewees. You will likely see yourself and your kids within these pages; no worries—we haven’t been secretly spying on you. There is a universality of parental experience that transcends socioeconomic status, gender, educational level, and job description. Some of these stories are our own, from our personal parenting experiences. Whether shared to illustrate a positive or a negative technique or experience, we use them without apology.

Finally, we urge you to take the series of family challenges outlined in Chapter Eleven. These are fun, interesting techniques and games that your family can do, and they take just 24 hours per challenge. Use them to enhance your parenting skills and create some learning habits for your kids—and, perhaps, for you. They’re thought provoking, often highly amusing, and a great way to involve everyone in the family.

Watch other parents; notice if they’re learners or if they’re stuck. The learners will be the (quietly) successful and interesting ones, the ones with nothing to prove, the ones who are excited about what they do; they are the ones who not only listen—but hear. It’s that openness to learning that draws others to them. That’s the best thing you can do for your children: give them enduring learning habits. The ability to learn is what will help them succeed in life.


Lifelong Learning Starts at Home


Connecting the Disconnect:

The Learning Habit Studies

When you know better, you do better.

—Maya Angelou, author, poet, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Growing up, I always enjoyed shopping for back-to-school supplies. Although my mother took us shopping for clothing, the official role of “Trapper Keeper and pencil purchaser” was delegated to my father. I remember sharpening all of my newly purchased pencils before the first day of school, as if at any moment I might suddenly need 24 sharpened pencils. To this day, a row of neatly sharpened pencils evokes nostalgic back-to-school memories; memories my youngest child may not share. Within the next few years, asking a child to sharpen their pencil will be as obsolete as rolling down the car window. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, keyboards will soon replace pencils.1

The fact is, the world in which our children are being educated and socialized and will eventually become employed and self-sufficient is vastly different from our own. We need to understand and appreciate those differences, so we can adapt the way we think about learning. We need to prepare our children for academic and financial success by instilling in our homes a series of habits they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. To accomplish this, we’ll be placing a very different spin on the word homework.

It’s a challenge, as school assignments continue to morph every year. My eleventh grader has a manual textbook that is similar to the ones I had in school. His report card still comes home on a piece of paper in his backpack. My kindergartner has digital homework assignments, and I’m required to have a login and password to check her online report card. Yet they both attend school in the same school district. Many of these homework habits and tools are linked to various forms of media consumption that, if not properly managed, can work against our children. Too much information from too many sources can result in more confusion than clarity. But we can’t ignore it: This is how Generation M2 is being taught—through media and online educational tools. This book will teach you how to successfully synthesize all this wondrous new technology into our children’s lives, so it helps—rather than hinders—learning.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.

—Nina Simone, singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist

Although Nina Simone’s lyrics embody the spirit we hope our children will take with them into adulthood, optimism may not be enough. Our children live in a world of changing educational opportunities, dwindling enrichment programs, world economic volatility, and the specter of unemployment. There is a growing gulf between the life a child has in their parent’s home and the life they can expect as adults. Although few of us would consider ourselves wealthy, most were able to get decent jobs after we graduated from college, some without even going to college. Others went on to graduate school, which further increased their job opportunities and potential income. Our generation was able to achieve a modicum of success through a combination of hard work and a decent economy.

For Generation M2, success is going to be much harder to achieve. Being accepted to, paying for, and graduating from college is a daunting task. According to Zinch, a website designed to help colleges and students connect, financial factors are the primary focus for parents of college-bound teens.2 In a recent survey, the #1 concern of parents was “University Fees/Student Debt,” a true sign of our changing economy.3

These aren’t the only new challenges our children will encounter. When we were teenagers, our parents’ primary concerns were teen pregnancy, smoking, drinking, and recreational drugs. Today’s parents are faced with all of that, plus random acts of violence, media addiction, Internet-enabled sexual contact, and few to no extracurricular activities. If your child has a cell phone, computer, or tablet, their friends (or anyone else) can reach them at any time, day or night. It’s not surprising that since 2012, bullying and sexting have topped the list of parental concerns for school-age children.4

Despite all these new challenges, our goals have remained consistent. We want to raise happy, successful, confident children. We want them to grow up, go to college, and support themselves. We want them to own a home and raise a family. It’s called the American Dream!

Unfortunately, there seems to be little correlation between our goals and what we’re doing to help our children achieve those goals. Parents and educators are in agreement that children need to attend college to compete in the workforce. Parents are also keenly aware of the inflated cost of a higher education. If it’s so expensive to attend college, it makes sense that we, as parents, intensify our efforts to ensure our children graduate from high school with the skills andlearning habits they need to complete college. The problem, we discovered, is that parents aren’t taught what habits and skills to focus on.

In 2013, we surveyed parents of high school seniors and asked this seemingly innocuous question: “What have you done to prepare your child to graduate from college in four years?” Most parents couldn’t come up with a clear answer. A few chuckled and replied, “I told them I’d stop paying for it.” (We laughed, until we imagined adding a fifth year’s tuition to the bill.) Only one in twenty parents connected college completion with ensuring their children had the skills to balance the academic demands and distracting social pressures of collegiate life.

Nearly 60% of Americans have attended some college; they just can’t seem to complete college.5 Yet, there has been a startling lack of information regarding the skills children need to do so. One theory put forward was that students who don’t have the necessary learning habits panic, then quit, because the experience is too threatening.6

These are smart kids we’re talking about. Kids with high IQs. For years, psychologists believed IQ was the ultimate predictor of academic success, so it stands to reason that a child with a higher IQ will be successful in college, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. We now know that goalsetting (motivation) and self-worth (emotional integrity) are far better predictors of success.7 Our children don’t lack intelligence; they simply haven’t acquired the habits they need to successfully deal with the pressures, demands, and relative freedom, of college.


Take, for example, my childhood neighbors, the Hudsons. Susie was one of four Hudson children. We were best friends—and fierce competitors. When we were younger, I would regularly get better grades than she did, a fact that pleased me immensely. Susie was not a gifted child, but she was a damned hard worker. Susie had an older brother, Adam. Even Susie couldn’t deny that Adam wasn’t the brightest bulb in the socket. In case you think I’m being mean, I saw Adam eat a scratch-and-sniff trading card when he was 14 years old, because he thought it would, and I quote, “Taste like it smelled.”

Unlike Susie, Adam was in remedial classes and remained there throughout high school. But both Susie and Adam were accepted to state universities, worked diligently, and graduated in four years. They studied for months to prepare for the MCATs and LSATs, respectively, and scored high enough to get into graduate schools. Where are they now? Susie is Dr. Susan Spargo, a pediatrician, which came as no surprise to me, as she had stated her intention to go to medical school our senior year of high school.

Here’s the shocker: Adam is now a lawyer at one of the top law firms in Boston. Does it get under my skin to think that “scratch-and-sniff” Adam makes a hefty six-figure salary?

You betcha!

The Secret Behind His Success

As researchers and trained observers, we have spent our careers watching children like Adam flourish, while supposedly smarter children failed. Did his parents know something we don’t know? Did his parents do something we’re not doing? In both our clinical practice and research, we have encountered highly motivated parents who genuinely want to dothe right things to help their children; they just aren’t sure what those right things are. Here are some of the concerns expressed by parents in our practice:

I just feel like he could do more. I know parents always say that, but it’s true.

There’s so much competitive pressure—from the school and from other parents. It infuriates me! I wish I didn’t care, but I do.

Math used to take my third grader 10 minutes, and then her school started using an online program for math homework. Now, I have to sit with her at the computer for 70 minutes! Is that normal?

Parents are frustrated by their inability to get clear information about the right things the Hudson family has apparently figured out. What learning habits and behaviors contribute to a child’s educational success or failure? Why do some children succeed, despite enormous obstacles, while others (from seemingly more advantaged backgrounds) quit at the drop of a hat? Was it genes, parenting style, learning habits, or all of the above? These are questions that have baffled educational experts and research psychologists for decades—until now.


The initial purpose of the Learning Habit Studies, which took place over three years, was to clarify which learning habits led to a child’s educational success or failure, and focused primarily on homework routines. It was conducted by the collaborative team of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, Children’s National Medical Center, Rhode Island College’s Psychology Department, and NECPP, for which Dr. Robert M. Pressman was the lead researcher.

The first study was a traditional survey of more than 1,000 participants in 12 pediatric offices. The survey forms were available in both English and Spanish for parents of children in grades K–12. The survey focused on the relationship of homework to family habits and stress. Surprisingly, the data showed most parents didn’t object to homework at all; they accepted it as a necessary part of their children’s education. The results also exposed a strong correlation between a child’s media use and their grades.

The research team then replicated the study to see if the results were consistent. The first study was conducted in the spring of 2011. The same study was repeated in the fall of 2011. The results were practically identical. For the first time, researchers now had proof that media habits in children had a clear impact on their academic success. The importance of homework, and how both parents and children dealt with it, was proven to have a pervasive influence, not only on children’s grades, but also on their achievement in non-academic areas as well.

But the research team needed more information to identify the specific habits that promoted a child’s ability to learn. We didn’t want to focus exclusively on learning as it related to academic success. As clinicians and researchers, we wanted to find out if the learning process affected a child’s emotional development and social adjustment—and vice versa. We wanted to discover how children learn to make friends, communicate clearly, set and achieve goals, and develop emotional and psychological balance. Are the habits that build social adjustment, for instance, the same habits that promote academic success? It seemed obvious that learning habits were affected by a plethora of factors, but which ones in particular? The most significant, we hypothesized, was family environment and parenting style, but we didn’t know for sure.

In the summer of 2012, Dr. Pressman proposed that the research team develop an online study of family habits that would explore these topics. Then on December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Not since the attacks on the Twin Towers had our nation been so traumatized. This mass murder was no terrorist plot; it was the singular act of a young man who lived in that town and had attended those schools. While frightened parents searched for answers, portraits of the brave adults who tried to shield the children from harm began to emerge. We mourned their loss and wept for their families. We wanted answers. How could this happen?

Slowly but surely, a portrait emerged of a loner, an awkward kid who never talked, who wore the same clothes day after day, who was a wiz at computers, and who spent his time in the basement playing single-shooter video games.8Suddenly, an entire nation was focused on media use and mental health. Should certain things have been noticed? Were there actions that could have been taken to prevent this horrific event? The decision to incorporate emotional and social adjustment into the Learning Habit Study was now becoming more important than ever. We needed unimpeachable evidence about the specific habits that parents could incorporate into their daily lives to help their children develop emotionally, socially, and academically.

Thus, the third Learning Habit Studywas conceived. The gestation was, in itself, a learning process.

Developing the online survey, however, was a challenge. We needed a large database of questions if so many variables were to be included, but the survey had to be short enough that people would answer it.

Home schooling needed to be incorporated as well, which necessitated design changes; home schooling vocabulary, the way comprehension and mastery are measured, and even the concept of grade levels are completely different from traditional schools.

Question content was another obstacle. This was not a one-size-fits-all survey. The information relevant to parents of first graders was often irrelevant to parents of middle or high schoolers. Finally, the study needed to cast a pretty wide net to glean the most powerful and useful information.

A study this large could not be accomplished through traditional means. We have all seen online surveys (including those annoying ones that pop-up randomly on our screens), but the efficacy of running a scientific research study online had yet to be tested. The task was simply so complex that no other research team had attempted it. Parents looking to connect the dots and gain answers to questions on media use, for example, have come up empty-handed. The research model needed to cross-correlate data on a significantly wide range of topics and to use unimpeachable statistical analysis was not available. The team forged ahead, anyway.

We needed to be certain of three things:

The development of the research study model and the statistical model was a huge hurdle. The research team was undertaking a unique project and it took not only out-of-the-box thinking but also the involvement of some extremely creative minds to ultimately give birth to this baby.

Some incredible media partners signed on to help promote the survey: the Huffington Post, WebMD, Parents magazine, the National PTA, AOL, and influential bloggers such as Lisa Belkin (Parentry) and 5 Minutes for Mom. These organizations and bloggers reviewed the survey and gave their feedback during its beta testing. They wrote articles to introduce the survey to their audiences, to make it easily available, and then to publish the results. Without them, it simply would not have been possible to attract such an impressive number of respondents.

During the fall of 2013, nearly 50,000 families took part in the groundbreaking online study called the Learning Habit Study. This study has given parents and researchers alike valuable insights into the family routines that help a child learn and grow. When the largest study on family routines in the history of the United States is conducted, you unearth some interesting findings.

The way academic homework is handled, for example, is as essential as the family dinner. In fact, several other evening and after-school activities had the exact same impact on academic grades as schoolwork. These activities—skills—are essential in preparing our students for the rigorous standardized testing they will experience in school, and for helping them achieve a well-balanced life. According to our findings, those children whose parents balanced all of these activities equally scored highest in academic performance and emotional well-being. One discovery of the Learning Habit Study was the development of an unusual personality profile dubbed the Loner Profile. Information about this is included in Chapter Three. Our conclusive findings show a disturbing trend about which parents should be aware.

Other results were equally astounding, yet so fundamentally sensible, that they pointed to the universality of a new habit, the Learning Habit.

The Learning Habit is a combination of parenting style and habit creation. In all of the research, this combination of Empowerment Parenting and Habit Building proved the most effective.


The material we present in this book is the product not only of our own studies, but of several hundred studies dealing with the merits of homework, learning theory, and family dynamics. In general, we’ve learned that parents can influence their children’s learning habits in two ways:

Part III, the final section of the book, includes guidance and games designed for parents ready to take immediate action. The 21 Family Challenges (outlined in Chapter Eleven) break down the eight essential skills into one-day experiments that relate to each of those skills. Each challenge requires only a 24-hour commitment! Families are encouraged to take the challenge and then incorporate incremental lifestyle changes, based on what they learned. Families may choose to tackle any of the 24-hour challenges, in any order, to uncover some intriguing information about their habits and discover which of their family’s routines may need a tune-up.


Learning Habits are the way children master the skills essential for academic, social, and emotional success. Carefully structured changes in family routines, reward systems, and expectations can result in higher grades, increased self-esteem, and organizational skills that enable children to take on new challenges and persevere. These skills are the backbone of a successful life.

While writing and researching this book, I contacted my old neighbor Susie Hudson. I was so excited to tell her all about our research and the importance of “habits” and “parenting styles.” Susie, of course, was nonplussed. “That’s exactly what my parents did,” she replied.

Oh, well. For the rest of us who weren’t so lucky, continue reading. The Learning Habit is the end product of three research studies, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of hours of therapeutic experience. We know that the combination of Empowerment Parenting and the building of Learning Habits works, and we want you to know it, too. So, buckle up—we’re going to take you on an amazing journey.


How Learning Habits Start:

Empowerment Parenting

A Parenting System Allowing Children to Develop Productive Habits That Continue in the Absence of Parental Cuing, Assistance, or Input

Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
—Samuel Smiles, Scottish author and reformer

Keys to Empowerment Parenting

If you’re reading this book, you’re probably a parent. You may also be an educator, pediatrician, or child advocate. You understand how difficult life can be for children who are experiencing school-related challenges. Whether the problems are academic, behavioral, or social, children who are not doing well can feel powerless and alone. A huge component of a child’s self-esteem depends on what happens in school and in school-related matters, such as homework comprehension and completion, peer relations, and the ability to read. Just as adults need to feel some sense of control over their lives, so do children. Yet, the avenues available for children to exercise control are too often limited to refusal, acting out, or other unhappy behavior. Empowerment Parenting does what the name implies—it gives children the power to make choices about their behavior and to gain control over the direction of their lives. This can help them develop learning habits that will last forever.


During the winter of 2013, Boston had one of the most severe flu outbreaks in U.S. history. To complicate matters, several strains of stomach virus and whooping cough were also spreading throughout the school system.

In an effort to curb the epidemic, teachers were constantly reminding students to wash their hands. Parents also received several notices about the importance of hand washing. By January 2013, Mayor Thomas M. Menino had declared a public health emergency.

One of the two kindergarten teachers in a Massachusetts elementary school had the most absences that year. “It was awful,” she told us. “The stomach flu ripped through my classroom like a tidal wave.”

She tried to remind students to wash their hands, and when she did, they would usually comply. However, on the days she didn’t ask, the students didn’t wash their hands. “They’re a group of five- and six-year-olds,” she explained. “Hygiene isn’t exactly their top priority.”

In behavioral terms, the children required their teacher’s reminder to “cue” them to wash their hands; if there was no reminder (“cue”), there was no hand washing (behavior/routine).

Cue Routine

Meanwhile, as pandemonium spread, another kindergarten classroom in the same school maintained nearly perfect attendance. Without realizing it, Mrs. Janet Evans was giving the school administration and scientists around the world valuable information on how to instill lasting habits in children.

Mrs. Evans is a 16-year teaching veteran. Every morning, she begins the day with a classroom meeting. She reviews the day’s calendar of events and revises the classroom rules, when necessary.

“How many of your students were absent during the epidemic?” one researcher inquired.

“I think we only had three flu-related absences,” she replied. “Two children were on family vacations—luckily for them.”

The average classroom absentee total during the 2013 winter was 37 days. Did classroom size have anything to do with it? No. Mrs. Evans had 21 students, the school average. What about length of day? Massachusetts schools have a full day of kindergarten, statewide.


Mrs. Evans described what would later be dubbed the Milk Experiment. Several years ago when schools and pediatricians started stressing the importance of hand washing for germ prevention, Mrs. Evans implemented a classroom rule that she explained to her students on the first day of school. First, she asked her students to hum the tune “Happy Birthday” out loud. Then, she asked them to hum the tune inside their heads. Next, Mrs. Evans took the class over to the classroom sink and showed them how to lather their hands while humming the tune “Happy Birthday” inside their heads. “Each day, when you return from recess, you will wash your hands,” she told them. “Once your hands are washed, you may have your milk. Our classroom rule is ‘We wash our hands after recess and then we get milk.’”

Mrs. Evans then described what happened later that day. Only two of her students came in from recess and went straight to the sink and washed their hands. When those students were at the sink washing, Mrs. Evans placed a carton of milk at their assigned seats. Some of the children rushed in from recess and immediately took a seat. They found no milk waiting for them.

“May I have my milk?” one of the students asked.

Mrs. Evans smiled, pointed at the sink, and in a kind voice asked, “What’s our milk rule?”

“Oh yeah!” the boy replied, and immediately hopped out of his seat, walked over to the sink, and vigorously washed his hands. When he returned to his desk, he found his milk waiting for him.

Notice that Mrs. Evans did not ask the boy to wash his hands. She did not remind him, nag him, or yell at him. In fact, she never even mentioned the words wash your hands. All she did was direct him back to his cue (his empty desk with no milk on it).

Cue Routine Reward

This went on for two days, and then something else happened. The children no longer needed the cue. They would walk immediately to the sink after recess without asking for milk. Undoubtedly, the health of everyone in the class benefited from this one simple instruction.

Routine Reward

Without knowing it, Mrs. Evans’s Milk Experiment was a perfect example of Empowerment Parenting—teaching her students how to make their own choices. The students could choose not to wash their hands; that was the no-milk choice. They weren’t punished if they didn’t wash their hands. If they wanted milk, however, they had to choose to wash their hands. Mrs. Evans’s milk rule and clear, explicit instructions gave her students the freedom to make their own choices.

She empowered her students to create a particular learning habit, by the children’s internalizing her instructions and connecting them to their own wants and needs. Because they wanted milk (the reward), they taught themselves to wash their hands (behavior/routine). That’s a self-reinforcing system—performing the desired behavior first and then getting the reward; no external cuing required!

In the other classroom, students received milk regardless of whether or not they washed their hands. They were never given a choice, with the opportunity to experience both the responsibility and the reward of their choice. So, they never formed a learning habit. It’s that simple.

The researchers also noticed an additional benefit to Mrs. Evans’s Milk Experiment: the length of time the students washed their hands, which further contributed to her students’ health. Although every student in the school was instructed to wash their hands, Mrs. Evans’s students washed their hands 10 seconds longer than the other kindergarten students; an average of 22 seconds—two seconds longer than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) guidelines for killing germs.

Did Mrs. Evans tell her students to wash their hands for 20 seconds? No. But apparently children who make a choice to do something out of intrinsic motivation, as opposed to being reminded, do it with more gusto and genuine enjoyment. As Mrs. Evans’s students hummed while they washed their hands, the other students rushed through the task, if they did it at all. Two students from the other class actually simulated hand washing (turning on the faucet and placing their hands near the water, but never actually washing them).

At the NECPP, clinicians and researchers have spent decades gathering information on habit formation in children. Dr. Pressman explains why the Milk Experiment was so successful in establishing hand-washing habits:

Janet Evans used an important behavioral technique. She created a rule that allowed her students to make choices and kept them motivated. Her rule was simple, clear, and, most important, it was self-reinforceable: “First you wash your hands, and then you have your milk.” The clearer the choice, the more successful the rule will be.


The establishment of sensible household rules is one of the backbones of Empowerment Parenting. It encourages habit formation.

In 2010, researchers at NECPP began studying the impact of household rules on habit formation. They began by examining current patients’ charts and looking for patterns. One researcher noted that 20 of the families had children between the ages of 5 and 10 years, with similar bedtime and sleep issues.

“Bedtime issues were a challenge for many families,” commented Dr. Pressman. “In some households it took parents several hours to get their children to go to sleep. This was a source of nightly stress for parents, who often found themselves sleep deprived. These children were often observed to be hyperactive and have increased irritability during the daytime.”

Upon further review of the patients’ charts, all 20 families appeared to have another common characteristic: Their bedtime rule was vague and inconsistent.

Group A. This group was not given any specific instructions regarding bedtime. Each family in Group A already had a bedtime rule. The rule for the children was, “Bedtime means I go to bed when I am told to.” They were asked to be as consistent as possible with bedtime, and report their results.

It was not surprising that the parents in Group A showed no improvement in getting their children to go to bed. Researchers explained this was because the rule was non-specific, inconsistent, and dependent on the parents’ involvement to instruct/cue their child. The parents in Group A couldn’t resist engaging in conversation and giving directives to their kids. The parents in Group A remained the cue.


Excerpted from "The Learning Habit"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction vii

Part 1 Lifelong Learning Starts at Home 1

Chartper 1 Connecting the Disconnect: The Learning Habit Studies 3

Chapter 2 How Learning Habits Start: Empowerment Parenting 14

Part II The Eight Essential Skill Sets 45

Chapter 3 Media Matters: Managing Our Kids' Media Use 47

Chapter 4 The Homework Habit: Supporting Academic Homework and Reading 96

Chapter 5 Time Flies: Mastering Time Management 131

Chapter 6 Wanting Isn't Enough: Setting Educational Goals 151

Chapter 7 Message Sent = Message Received: Communicating Effectively 165

Chapter 8 Options Versus Consequence: Making Responsible Decision 184

Chapter 9 Ignoring the Marshmallow: Concentrating Focus 205

Chapter 10 True Grit: Developing Self-Reliance 230

Part III Learing Through Play 253

Chapter 11 Strting Now: The 21 Family Challenges 255

Acknowledgments 279

References 281

Notes 290

Index 296

About the Authors 305

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Three authors—a psychotherapist, a pediatric psychologist, and a neuropsychological educator who are all parents—have compiled a guide that bamboozled moms and dads will welcome. This volume, which is based on a three-year study—the largest study of family routines ever conducted—is chock-full of examples from real families sorting through tough parenting decisions and provides valuable counsel.”
—Publishers Weekly

"As kids rely more and more on digital forms of communication, their verbal skills are eroding. If you are raising kids, this book is an essential tool."  
Bill McGowan, author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time

“This book presents one of the most important and innovative approaches to parenting and habit formation I’ve seen in years.  It’s a must-read for parents and educators."
—S. Richard Sauber, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, The American Journal of Family Therapy
“Wonderful book. The synthesis of case studies, interviews and impeccable research makes this a great read and a helpful and user-friendly manual for parents.”
—Joel K Weltman, MD, PhD, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Medicine Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University


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