Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Importance of Setting Expectations with Children about Study Habits

Setting expectations about children's study habits

Setting mutual expectations with your children about their intentions regarding study habits and academic effort before they go back to school can eliminate hours of arguing and complaining later in the school year. More importantly, it will help them take responsibility for their own education and academic performance.

Parents are usually so busy preparing everything their children need for the start of the school year (or college semester) they neglect to have a crucially important discussion about setting expectations. Doing so involves they and their children reflecting back on the previous school year and assessing which aspects of the child's study habits worked well and which need changing.

Having such discussions with children in middle school, high school as well as many college students can be a vital ingredient in their education. Giving your child basic tools to assess whether their academic efforts are sufficient and to correct them if they are not, helps them take responsibility for their academic performance and the education as a whole.

How Children Typically Deal with Academic Challenges

When children don't perform up to their potential academically they typically promise their parents at the end of the school year to "try harder next year" (and at the time, they might even mean it...) Parents are usually relieved their child is willing to invest more efforts in school and that is where the conversation usually ends. Unfortunately, most such promises amount to little if any change by the time the next school year rolls around.

The problem is many children and college students might intend to 'try harder' but then fail to take the necessary step of figuring out what exactly the extra 'trying' means in a practical sense. They neglect to consider the fact that putting more effort into studying means having less time to devote to something else they would rather be doing instead, such as television, computer-games, social-media, cell-phones, etc... In other words, they don't think through which activities they might need to cut down or eliminate when the need arises to do so. Consequently, once they start doing poorly, little changes, including their grades.

Guidelines for Setting Mutual Academic Expectations

The best way to approach children and college students about setting expectations for the school year is to be as non-judgmental as possible. The discussion is best done in two parts over two consecutive nights and should be scheduled as such with the child or teenager's consent and understanding.

The idea is for parents to coach their children to take responsibility for their efforts and academic performance and teach them how to make tough decisions about which activities they need to reduce or let go. Parents should follow these guidelines:

1. Since it is far more important to reward effort than results, congratulate your child when they express determination to make greater efforts (e.g., "I'm glad to hear you plan to try harder").

2. Explain that changing habits is especially difficult when it comes to our study habits. In other words, acknowledge you're asking them to do a very difficult thing.

3. Express your understanding and sympathy for the fact that they face many temptations and distractions, for example, that 'breaking news' in their social life can make it easy to lose track of time when they should be studying.

4. Explain to your child that for all these reasons, you realize, as should they, that it's going to be hard to merely "try harder". Therefore, to help them figure out how to "try harder" successfully, you've prepared some questions you would like them to consider. Tell them to think about their answers carefully and that you will talk again tomorrow once they've come up with their best responses. Suggest they write down their answers so they remember them for you discussion. Reassure them you will help them figure out the best answer for them if they find it difficult.

5. Give them a written copy of the questions at the end of the talk. Seeing that you put effort into writing the questions out will make them take the discussion more seriously.

6. Do not expect your children to have good answers to these questions on the spot, or even by the next day. The goal is to help them think these questions through so they come up with an adequate plan themselves by the end.

Questions to Present to Children in Writing

1. What grades are you hoping to get this year in each of your classes?

2. How much work do you think you'll have to put into each subject to reach those goals? (i.e., how much time specifically will the subject require per weeknight and weekend).

3. You were hoping to get better grades than you did last year-what could you have done differently that would have helped? What specifically should you do differently this year so you don't make the same mistakes? (Convey that "I'll try harder" is a good but not specific enough answer).

4. If you need to put more time into certain subjects, where will that time come from? In other words, what are some of the things you could spend less time doing if you needed more time to devote to schoolwork?

5. How do you plan to avoid temptations such as video games, instant messages, texts, phone calls and social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc...)?

6. How soon will you be able to tell if the time you're putting into studying is enough to get you the grades you want?

7. What's the first thing you'll change if you find out you need to put more time into studying a given subject?

Your child will probably struggle to answer some of these questions. If so, help them think through the options when you meet for the second discussion. Reassure them that you're asking them to make tough choices and be patient till they come up with solutions. The idea is to let your child feel the decisions were theirs.

Have a similar conversation with your children every year. It will help minimize complaints and arguments later on and it is the most educational back-to-school activity you can do.

You can learn more about Complaining Psychology here or on my website

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

More from Psychology Today

More from Guy Winch Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today