Habits Q & A: Habit Training with Young Children

Today we’re answering another question in our series about habit training.

Here’s the question for today:

Question: My question is how early can you start habit training in children? I have a two year old, and I’m homeschooling my seven-year-old son. And it’s actually a bit hard to do lessons with a seven-year-old and having to also manage my time with my two-year-old. Is it possible to start habit training as early as her age and if you could maybe share some tips on how to maybe start instilling these habits at that very young age?

Absolutely, yes, it is possible, and it is recommended, to start instilling habits at that age. First, keep in mind that many habits, especially at that young age, are going to be picked up from the atmosphere of your home. So for example, the habit of kindness. Your two-year-old can quickly pick up on the tone of voice that you use and that other family members use—how you talk to each other—as well as how you treat each other. 

For another example, think about the habit of cleanliness. You let your little one get dirty, but then you clean her up. She takes regular baths. So keep that big picture in mind, that the atmosphere of your home is having an effect on your preschooler. She’s going to pick up habits that way.

But she is also going to pick up habits by direct teaching. I think as soon as a child can understand the word No, you can start instilling habits, and usually that’s around nine months old or 12 months old. The child might not be able to say anything yet, but she can understand it. So you can start to work on the habit of obedience at that very young age. And I think that’s going to be one of your first habits to work on. 

You can also work on another habit that Charlotte specifically mentioned for two-year-olds. She said,

The child of two should be taught to get and to replace his playthings. Begin early. Let it be a pleasure to him, part of his play, to open his cupboard, and put back the doll or the horse each in its own place. Let him always put away his things as a matter of course, and it is surprising how soon a habit of order is formed, which will make it pleasant to the child to put away his toys, and irritating to him to see things in the wrong place.

Home Education, p. 130

As far as homeschooling goes, one thing that I would encourage you to do, especially with a preschooler in the mix, is to try to be proactive rather than reactive. So think ahead to “This is what I want to include in our school day. And I know that my two-year-old should take a nap at this time and usually has a snack. If she doesn’t have a snack, she gets cranky. And that’s about this time.” So think through your day and plug in those little anchors, such as nap time and snack time, that will make your day as smooth as possible.

It’s not going to make it perfect, but you know as well as I do, it’s much harder for a two-year-old to obey with a good attitude when she’s hungry or when she’s tired. So thinking through what those anchors are, and adjusting your seven-year-old’s schedule to accommodate that, will go a long way toward peaceful homeschooling. I think a two-year-old especially needs that regular rhythm in her day. Your seven-year-old may have more flexibility by now, but your two-year-old needs that predictable rhythm to feel secure and to stay in a good frame of mind.

Then also think through which school subjects you can do pretty easily, even with the two-year-old. Does she want to look at the picture when you do picture study? Does she want to listen to the music and draw when you do music study? Does she want to go outside with you when you do nature study? So think through which subjects can include her pretty easily and which ones are going to be more of a challenge? For example, reading history. That’s probably going to be more of a challenge with her. Doing math—you probably don’t want your little one interrupting the math lesson, because you need your seven-year-old to give full attention for those 20 minutes.

So think through which subjects she might join in on and which ones would work better with her doing something else. You might even jot down how long each of them is going to take and think through which ones might fit in different slots during the regular daily rhythm. Once you have your list of her anchors, her activities and your list of school subjects, you can compare the two and think, “Okay, giving her a snack might take five minutes. But during that five minutes, could I read a poem? Yeah, I could read the poem while she’s eating her snack, and I could even give a snack to my seven-year-old and he could eat it while I’m reading the poem.” 

During nap time, even if she doesn’t want to go to sleep, you could have her do 15 or 20 minutes of quiet time in her crib with some toys and some soft music playing. You can’t force a child to go to sleep, but you can say, “This is going to be our quiet time.” So if that’s 15 or 20 minutes, you can read and narrate history then. I think you get the idea. 

Then the other thing I would encourage you to do, something you can start now, is what I call blanket training. I understand that has different connotations to different people, but let me explain what I mean by that phrase. The idea is to gently and incrementally help your child learn how to play quietly by herself on a special blanket for a short amount of time.

I would say, try to work up to 10 or 15 minutes. You’re not going to start there. You’re going to start by playing with her on the blanket with some special toys for just a couple of minutes. And then you put the toys and blanket away and go do something else fun. The next day get out the blanket and some special toys and play with them for a couple of minutes with her on the blanket. Once she’s used to that, you might start nudging out the time to another minute longer, and then another minute. Every day you practice this.

Once she’s used to four or five minutes, you might start by playing together for the first few minutes, then you sit off the blanket, just a couple of steps away, and encourage her to play on her own on the blanket for the last minute or two. Then you come back onto the blanket and say, ’’Good job, you stayed on the blanket and you played with your toys,” and then finish by playing a little bit more together. 

As you proceed, at some point you will move to sit farther away, and farther away, and eventually, on the couch across the room. Then, incrementally, you keep working on increasing the time that she’s playing by herself until you get to the point where she can play by herself on the special blanket with the special toys for 10 minutes. That gives you 10 minutes to now sit on the couch or sit at the table and do one of the other school subjects with your son. Then you come back and play with her. 

So it’s going to be a long process, but the beauty of it is that now you can take that blanket anywhere you need to go. For example, if there’s no nursery at church, you can take your blanket, spread it on the floor, and let her play on the blanket during the time that you need her to be quiet during church.

One last tip I want to give you is, as you plan out your day, try to give your preschooler one-on-one mommy time first, before you start school work, so she doesn’t feel like she’s always getting pushed to the side. Fill up her little “mommy cup,” her “love cup” first. And I don’t mean doing school with her. No. I mean just playing with her, loving on her, having fun together. Once she’s had some enjoyable, full attention from Mom, then explain that it’s time for you to spend a little time with big brother. But give her that attention first in the day. 

I think all of those habits will help her grow and help smooth out your days. As with any habit, it’s going to take practice, but be consistent. And I think you’ll be able to put together a good schedule that will fit your family well for right now and as she grows.

One comment

  1. Thank you for these very practical and relevant tips! I am in this season right now where I have exactly what you gave as an example: a seven year old boy, and a preschooler. Our preschooler is a very spirited child- always shouting, whether happy or angry. He somewhat disrupts our rhythm more especially when I was still clueless on how to include him to our homeschooling This post did remind me, among so many things, to impart the habit of kindness to all of them, even if the days are hectic and many things are needed to be done.

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