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If you’ve been around Charlotte Mason, or Simply Charlotte Mason, very long, you probably know that habit-training is an important element of a Charlotte Mason education. And most likely, you love the idea of instilling good habits in your children that will set them up for success in life (and give you smooth and easy days in the meantime).
But sometimes habit-training can feel a little hazy. It’s this thing you’re supposed to do, but how do you get started? And can you actually make plans to work on habits? Is it something that you can include in your homeschool planning and schedule?
The answer is absolutely yes. I’ll show you how.
Though we do work on habits as the opportunity arises each day, and not all of those opportunities can be scheduled, we can still include habit-training in our homeschool plans. Let me walk you through it step by step and give you some very practical tips.
Step 1: Choose the habit category that you want to focus on.
The habits that Charlotte Mason recommended we work on are very much what we could call character traits: diligence, orderliness, courtesy, kindness, for example. Each of those terms is a broad category that can have multiple ways to apply it. So start with the habit category that you want to focus on.
Our free e-book, Smooth and Easy Days, will give you the list of 60 habits that Charlotte wrote about and recommended. Just choose one; one at a time. It will take about six to eight weeks of focused attention to get that habit up and running. An easy way to integrate that time frame into your homeschool planning is to choose two habits per term. A term is 12 weeks long, so you can work on 1 habit for the first six weeks and a second habit for the last six weeks of the term. If you are using our Enrichment Studies guide, you will see that’s how the habits are scheduled in those plans: one habit for six weeks; two per term.
Step 2: Determine what you want that habit to look like for each child.
Once you have a broad category in mind, you need to get specific. There are many ways you can apply a habit of cleanliness or respect for others. Some children may be able to generalize that habit and apply it in all applicable situations during those six weeks; but others may need to specialize and focus on a specific application.
A lot of that decision depends on your child’s age and skill level and natural weaknesses and strengths. So customize the habit category for each child. Think through: What do I want this habit to look like for this child at the end of these six weeks?
Now, we can do a deep dive into this step of customizing habits, and we’re going to do that in upcoming posts, but start thinking in those terms now as you plan: How do I want this child to apply that broad habit category during these six weeks?
Step 3: Check for specific tips from Charlotte Mason related to your chosen habit.
Any habit can be cultivated through repetition: repeating the desired action or attitude as often as possible. Charlotte explained that universal principle in her writings, but she also gave some specific tips for many of the habits—practical ideas that relate specifically to that one habit.
You can find everything she said about each habit in the book Laying Down the Rails. This is your reference book. Choose your habit from the list, then look up that habit in the book and see what ideas Charlotte gave for cultivating it in your child. Consider how her tips might apply in your situation with your particular child; make note of that. Then put the book back on the shelf, and go work on implementing her ideas and repeating that habit as often as possible for the next six weeks.
Step 4: Select some motivating ideas to reinforce your chosen habit and remind the children of what habit they’re working on.
For your school-age children, you will find a vast treasury of motivating ideas in Laying Down the Rails for Children. This is a collection of stories and poems and Scripture passages and family activities all centered around each of the 60 habits Charlotte mentioned. So you can find your selected habit and look through all of the wonderful ideas collected there. Choose the ones that will best fit your children during this season. Add any other stories you think of, including stories from your own life and childhood.
Then during those six weeks, just once or twice a week, gather the family together and do one of those activities or share one of those stories just to keep you all focused on the habit you’re working on.
By the way, at some point you need to help your teenagers understand how to cultivate their own habits. You’re not always going to be around to guide them in this lifelong endeavor. All of us are constantly working on our habits; it’s one way we keep growing as adults. So sometime before your older children leave the nest, I recommend that you read and discuss together the book Laying Down the Rails for Yourself. You may want to add it to your high schooler’s schedule for this upcoming term.
Step 5: Set up reminders for yourself.
It’s easy to choose the habit and determine what you want it to look like for each child. But actually remembering to work on it is the hard part! It’s easy for habit training to get pushed to the background when all of the school lessons and assignments crowd in. So this is where some structure is going to help you.
Try to include the habit training as part of your schedule. Think about what habits a particular lesson might cultivate or require, then write that habit into your lesson plan guide. Just jot it in the margin to remind yourself that this lesson is doing more than offering knowledge about so-and-so; it is also offering an opportunity to practice this particular habit. Those little reminders will help you stay focused throughout the six weeks and beyond. Remember, Charlotte said that we should work on one habit at a time, always keeping an eye on the habits already formed. This little note in the margin is a simple way to help us keep an eye on certain habits.
Another way to remind yourself is to schedule those times for sharing the stories and poems in Laying Down the Rails for Children. Write it into your schedule for once or twice a week and make it a definite part of your school day.
You could also use technology to help you remember. Set a reminder on your phone for each child: Joey is working on saying Thank You when someone gives him something. Later in the day, have it remind you that Suzy is working on putting her school books on the shelf when she is done using them. Just think through how you might simply help yourself remember amidst all of the other things that you have to think about. Don’t let habit-training get lost in the shuffle. Be intentional about setting reminders for yourself.
Step 6: Let your child know what you expect.
If you are expecting Suzy to put her school books on the shelf when she is done using them, you need to let her know that. Walk her through it; tell and show her exactly what you expect. Help her practice it, if needed. Sometimes our children don’t do what we want them to because of childishness or forgetfulness, yes; but sometimes it’s because we haven’t made our expectations crystal clear to them. Make sure they know exactly what they should work on over the next six weeks and what success looks like in that area.
If you have a teenager, take a neutral time (not in the heat of battle) to have a short chat. Tell him the one habit that you have in mind for him and, this is very important, how that habit will benefit him. Present what you’re thinking, but be open to his ideas too. This joint effort is an important part of helping him to make the transition to cultivating his own habits as an adult. So work together if possible. Some habits may be non-negotiable in your household; that’s fine. But try to alternate those types of habits with some of his own ideas too. Perhaps you each get to choose one per term: yours for six weeks and his for six weeks. You get the idea.
Step 7: Determine how best to help the child remember.
A habit is not a habit until it is done without supervision. You will know that your child has grasped that habit when he does it without your prompting or nagging. So figure out ways that your child can remind himself of what he is to do, rather than depending on you to remind him.
Perhaps a visual cue will be helpful. You might help your child post a picture in a conspicuous place that will remind him of what he is working on and what is expected during these weeks.
Maybe you need to start with a verbal cue. For example, if a child is working on giving his best effort during a copywork lesson or maybe working on sitting properly on his chair during a meal, you might give a verbal cue before that lesson or meal begins. But be careful not to allow your child to depend on your reminder long-term. As soon as possible (and this depends on the child’s age and abilities), phase out your reminder and transfer to your child that responsibility to remember.
With a teenager, work together to brainstorm possible ideas to help him remember. The key is to do all you can to help your child be successful in taking responsibility for his own habit. A habit is not a habit until it is done without your supervision. It may take some baby steps to get there, but that is your goal as soon as possible over the six weeks.
So do you see how you can make habit training a part of your planning and scheduling? Just as you choose an artist and specific pictures to study, choose a habit category and specific applications of it. Choose one every six weeks, or two per term. Then do your research: check Laying Down the Rails for ideas to help you as the parent, and look through and select which stories and activities you want to use from Laying Down the Rails for Children to help everybody stay focused and motivated. Set up reminders for yourself, just as you would for other studies during the term. Schedule Rails for Children once or twice a week; write it in your school plans. Then show and tell your children what you expect and help them set their own reminders. That’s how to plan for habit training.
Now all that is left is to work the plan, just as with all your other schoolwork. But if you have walked through these tangible steps in planning, you will find yourself well prepared for that work, and you will see growth in good habits.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to unpack Step 2 in more detail and discuss how to customize a habit category and determine what you want it to look like for each child. We’ll zero in on some of the top habits that Charlotte recommended—ones that play a big role in schoolwork—and give you some practical ideas for leveling them up and down.