DEVELOPING YOUR CHILD’S HABITS OF SUCCESS
IN SCHOOL, LIFE, AND WORK
Arthur L. Costa, Ed. D.
California State University
As a parent of 3 daughters and a grandparent of 6 granddaughters, I reflect with great
satisfaction on their being successful in school, in their work, and in their life as marriage
partners and parents. With hindsight, I know I made many mistakes along the way, but I’ve
learned from the process. The purpose of this article is to help parents understand and foster
positive learning habits in their children--habits that will produce success in school, work and
life. 1. They are patterns of thinking and behaving in intelligent ways and are displayed when confronted with life’s Considerable research demonstrates that successful people in most any walk of life dilemmas and problems. We want our children to develop those habits that lead them to become display certain characteristics or dispositions. I call them Habits of Mindlifelong learners, effective problem solvers and decision makers, able to communicate with a
diverse population and to understand how to live successfully in a rapidly changing, high tech
In this article 12 of those habits will be described. Strategies for how you, as parents, can
help your child develop these habits, and ways to observe whether your child is getting better at
them will be suggested. This list is not meant to be complete. As we learn more about success
habits, we will discover additional indicators of growth in children’s thinking abilities.
"Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people
who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all."
Efficient problem solvers persevere even when the solution to a problem is not readily
apparent. They have a wide range of problem-solving strategies. Children often give up in
despair when the answer to a problem is not immediately known. You might hear them say, "I
can't do this," "It's too hard," or, they just want to get the task over with as quickly as possible.
They lack the ability to analyze a problem, to develop a system or strategy to approach the
Children develop persistence by increasing their use of alternative strategies of problem
solving. They collect evidence to indicate that their problem-solving strategy is working, and if
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one strategy doesn't work, they know how to back up and try another. They realize that their
strategy must be rejected and another employed. They have systematic methods of analyzing a
problem, knowing ways to begin, and knowing what steps must be performed and what data
need to be generated or collected.
Help your child by reminding him or her of previous successes with similar problems,
that there are many strategies to try, and that they are effective problem solvers. It is more
helpful to learn three ways to solve one problem rather than learn one way to solve three
When you see examples of persistence by the characters in TV programs, motion picture
or stories, call it to your child’s attention and use the word, ―persisting‖ as you discuss the
behavior. Share with your child examples of how you persist to be successful in your work.
2. Managing Impulsivity
"The sign of intelligent people is their ability to control emotions
by the application of reason."
Successful people have a sense of deliberativeness. They know how to monitor their own
impulses and resist jumping to conclusions. Often children blurt the first idea that comes to
mind, shout out an answer, start to work without fully understanding directions or make
immediate value judgments about an idea—criticizing or praising it before considering it’s pros
and cons. They may take the first suggestion given or accept the first idea that comes to mind
rather than considering alternatives and consequences of several possible directions.
Help your child learn to manage his or her impulses, by asking them to explain rules
before beginning a task or game, talking over a plan for solving a problem, exploring alternative
problem solving strategies, and considering consequences of actions before beginning.
3. Listening To Others—With Understanding And Empathy
―If there is any secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and
see things from his angle as well as from your own.‖
Successful people spend an inordinate amount of time and energy listening. They
empathize with, and strive to understand other people’s points of view. Being able to paraphrase
another person's ideas, detecting indicators of their feelings or emotions, accurately expressing
another person's concepts, emotions and problems—all are indications of listening behavior.
Some children ridicule, laugh at, or put down each other ideas. They are unable to build
upon, consider the merits of, or operate on another person's ideas. You will know if your child is
getting better at listening when they can attend to another person, demonstrate an understanding
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of and empathize with another person’s idea or feeling by paraphrasing it accurately, building
upon it, clarifying it, or giving an example of it. When your child can say, "Peter's idea is... but
Sarah's idea is...." or "Let's try Shelley's idea and see if it works," or "Let me show you how Gina
solved the problem, then I'll show you how I solved it," then you know they are listening to and
understanding others' ideas and feelings.
You can help by asking, ―What did your friend think (feel) when…..? ―I wonder why
(s)he would say something like that?‖ ―If you were Bobby, how do you think he would feel?‖
4. Thinking Flexibly
"Soften the rigidities within yourself and the universe will give you strength and
Successful people consider alternative points of view. Sometimes children think that
THEIR way to solve a problem seems to be the ONLY way. They may decide that THEIR
answer is the only correct answer. They are more interested in knowing whether their answer is
correct, rather than being challenged to find other answers. They avoid ambiguous situations and
have a need for certainty rather than tolerating doubt. Their minds are made up and they resist
being influenced by reasoning that contradicts their beliefs.
As children become more flexible in their thinking they consider another person's point
of view or rationale. They can state several ways of solving the same problem and can evaluate
the merits and consequences of two or more courses of action. When making decisions they will
often use such words as "however," "on the other hand," or, "If you look at it another way....".
They change their mind in light of convincing data, argument or rationale.
Discuss with your child how thinking flexibly aids your success in your profession or
career and describe how you handle situations when working with others who are not flexible.
5. Thinking About Their Thinking (Metacognition)
"I cannot always control what goes on outside. But I can always control what goes on
Successful people are aware of themselves—their own thoughts, actions, values and their
effects on others. Often children are unaware of their own thinking while they are thinking.
Lacking a plan of action to solve a problem before they begin, they are unable to determine if
that plan is working or if it should be discarded and another plan employed. They seldom plan
for, reflect on, or evaluate the quality of their on thinking. When asked, "How did you solve that
problem?" they may reply "I don't know, I just did it." They are unable to describe the steps and
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sequences they are using before, during, and after the act of problem solving. They cannot
transform into words the visual images held in their mind.
You can determine if your children are becoming more aware of their own thinking if
they are able to describe what goes on in their head when they think. When asked, they can
describe what they know and what they need to know, what information is lacking and their
plans for producing those data. They can describe their plan of action before they begin to solve
a problem. They can list the steps and tell where they are in the sequence of a problem solving
strategy; they can trace the pathways and blind alleys they took on the road to a problem solution.
You can help your child by using ―thinking words‖ such as ―compare”, ―analyze”,
“predict”,” classify,” and “conclude”. Invite him/her to describe the thinking skills and
strategies they plan to use before performing a task. As they are solving a problem, ask them
―Where are you now in your strategy?‖ ―What do you still need to do?‖ ―What information are
you seeking? ― When the task is completed, ask them to reflect on their thought processes:
―What worked for you?‖ ―What would you do differently next time?‖
6. Striving For Accuracy And Precision
"You go back to the gym and you just do it again and again until you get it right.
Successful people appreciate and strive for correctness, elegance, and fidelity. Children,
however, are often careless when completing work. Being anxious to finish so they may go on
to other things, they seem to feel little inclination to reflect upon the accuracy of their work, to
contemplate their precision or to take pride in their accomplishments. Speed of completion
surpasses their desire for quality.
You may observe your children’s growing desire for accuracy as they take time to check
over their tests and homework assignments, as they grow more conscientious about precision,
clarity and perfection. They go back over the rules by which they were to abide, the models and
visions they were to follow, and the criteria they were to employ to confirm that their finished
product matches exactly. Help them by setting standards: ―If you were to do a really excellent
job cleaning up your room, what will it look like?‖ Don’t be too quick to correct your children’s
papers or homework for them. You might simply say, ―You have three errors on this page. You
7. Questioning And Problem Posing
"You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.
You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions."
(Nobel Prize Winner)
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One of the distinguishing characteristics between humans and other forms of life is our inclination and ability to FIND problems to solve. Children often depend on others to solve problems, to find answers, and to ask questions for them. They sometimes are reluctant to ask questions for fear of displaying ignorance.
Over time, we want to observe a shift from parents asking questions and posing problems toward the child asking questions and finding problems for themselves. Furthermore, the types of questions children ask should change and become more complex and profound. A child may request data to support another person’s conclusions and assumptions: "What evidence do you
have.....?" or "How do you know that's true?" will increasingly be heard. You will hear him or her pose more hypothetical problems characterized by ―what-if‖ questions: "What do you think
would happen IF.....?" or "IF that is true, then what might happen if....?"
We want children to be alert to and recognize discrepancies and phenomena in their environment and to inquire into their causes: "Why do cats purr?" "How high can birds fly?" "Why does the hair on my head grow so fast, but the hair on my arms and legs grows so slowly?‖ "What are some alternative solutions to international conflicts other than wars?"
Before a trip to the market, reading a story, taking a family vacation or working on a homework assignment ask your child, ―What questions will you be asking yourself?‖ ― What is it you want to know? ― What questions does this raise for you?
8. Applying Past Knowledge To New Situations
"I've never made a mistake. I've only learned from experience."
Thomas A. Edison
The ultimate purpose of learning is to learn from experience. When successful people encounter problems, one of the first things they ask themselves is ―What do I already know about this?‖ ―Where have I encountered a problem h before? ― What strategies helped me in the past that I can apply to this new problem? Yet we find that while children can pass tests in school mathematics, for example, they often have difficulty deciding whether to buy six items for $2.39 or seven for $2.86 at the supermarket.
Too often children begin each new task as if it were being approached for the very first time. Parents are often dismayed when they invite their child to recall how they solved a similar problem previously and the child doesn't remember. It's like they never heard of it before, even though they had the same type of problem recently. It is as if each experience is a separate event that has no relationship to anything that came before or that comes afterward.
Children can be observed growing in this ability as they are heard to say, "This reminds me of...." or "This is just like the time when I..." They explain what they are doing now in making references to previous experiences. They call upon their store of knowledge and experience as sources of data to support theories to explain, or processes to solve each new challenge.
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When you observe your child using learnings from school to solve home problems, you
know your child is transferring. For example, you may see increased interest in school, more
planning in their use of time and finances, better organization of their room and their belongings.
When a task has been completed, ask your child to apply their knowledge to the future:
"If you were to design a new............?" "What would it be like if...........?" "Where else would
you use this information..........?" In what other situations could you apply this............?"
9. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision
"True eloquence consists of saying all that should be said, and that only."
Francois de La Rochefoucald
Language and thinking are closely entwined. Successful people use specific terminology,
refrain from over-generalizing, and support their assumptions with valid data. When you hear
vague, fuzzy language, you detect vague, fuzzy thinking. Some children’s language is confused
and imprecise. They describe objects or events with such non-specific words as "weird," "nice,"
or "O.K." Names of objects are such as "stuff," "junk," and "things." Their sentences are
punctuated with "ya' know," "er," and "uh."
As a parent you will need to be alert to vagueness in language and help your child
become more specific by clarifying:
When you hear your child say: Help your child become more specific by
saying: "You NEVER listen to me." "Never?" "Never ever?" "Everybody has one." "Everybody?" "Who, exactly?" "THINGS go better with…" "Which things specifically?" "Things GO better with…" "Go? Go – how specifically?" "Things go BETTER with…" "Better than what?" "The teachers…" "Which teachers?" "I want them to UNDERSTAND…" "What exactly will they be doing if they
understand…" "This cereal is better" "More better than what?" "THEY won't let me…" "Who is 'they'?" "The other kids…" ―Which other kids?" "I want him to be nice" "Nice? How specifically should he be
As children’s’ language becomes more precise, you will hear them using more
descriptive words to distinguish attributes. They will use more correct names and labels. They
will spontaneously provide criteria for their value judgments describing why they think one
product is BETTER than another. They will speak in complete sentences, voluntarily provide
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supportive evidence for their ideas, elaborate, clarify, and define their terms. Their oral and
language will become more concise, descriptive, and coherent.
10. Gathering Data Through All Senses
―Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll
Native American Proverb
All information gets into the brain through the sensory pathways: Ears, eyes, skin, nose,
and tongue. Successful people realize that to learn something, it must be experienced. To know
a wine it must be drunk; to know a role it must be acted; to know a game it must be played; to
know a dance it must be moved; to know a goal it must be envisioned. Those sensory pathways
are open, alert, and acute absorb more information from the environment than those whose
pathways are withered, immune, and oblivious to sensory stimuli.
You will observe your children using all their senses as they touch, feel, and rub various objects in their environment. (Young children may put things in their mouths). They will
request a story or rhyme be read again and again. They will act out roles and "be" the thing: a
father, a flatbed or a fish. "Let me see, let me see." "I want to feel it." "Let me try it." "Let me
hold it...," they will plead.
As they mature, you may observe them express many ways of solving problems by use of
the senses: making observations, gathering data, experimenting, manipulating, scrutinizing,
identifying variables, interviewing, visualizing, role playing, illustrating, or model building.
Their expressions will use a range and variety of sensory words: "I FEEL like....." "It
TOUCHES me." "I HEAR your idea." "It leaves a bad TASTE in my mouth." "Got the
Help your children hone their powers of perception by engaging in such exercises as:
• Sight: Ninety percent of our sensory input comes through our eyes. To improve
peripheral vision, have them shift their eyes from right to left several times as fast as they can
without moving their head. Have them try to focus on ten different objects in ten seconds by
scanning around the room. Name the objects in order in which they saw them.
• Touch: Our largest sense organ is our skin. With their eyes closed, have your child feel various textured objects--sandpaper, cotton, silk, steel--and describe what they are feeling.
• Sound: While we can't improve our hearing, we can improve our listening. Have your
child close his or her eyes and listen to a single sound. This will require them to shut out
extraneous noise. Listen to music, for example and single out one instrument to follow--the bass
guitar or the violin.
• Smell: Provide various fragrances: perfume, cinnamon, cloves, wintergreen, eucalyptus, etc. Have them describe what they smell.
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• Taste: Humans taste four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. With the eyes
closed, place a sample of each taste on the tongue: sugar, salt, lemon juice, and vinegar. Have
them describe what they taste.
11. Ingenuity, Originality, Insightfulness: Creativity
―We need people who can read and write. But what we really need is people who can not
only read the instructions, but also change them.
They need to be able to think outside the lines.‖
Richard Gurin, CEO and President,
Binney & Smith, Croyola Products
"I can't draw," "I was never very good at art," "I can't sing a note." Some people think
creative humans are just born that way; that creativity is in their genes and chromosomes.
Increasingly we are coming to realize that all human beings have the capacity to generate novel,
original, clever or ingenious products, solutions, and techniques—if that capacity is developed.
Successful people are creative. They try to examine problem solutions differently,
examining alternative possibilities from many angles. They tend to project themselves into
different roles using analogies, starting with a vision and working backward, imagining that they
are the objects being considered. Creative people take risks—they "live on the edge of their competence," testing their limits. Creative people are open to criticism and hold up their products
for others to judge and seek feedback in an ever-increasing effort to refine their technique. They
constantly strive for greater fluency, elaboration, novelty, perfection, beauty, harmony, and
Children often need help to know how to tap their creative potentials.
Techniques such as brainstorming, mind-mapping, and metaphorical thinking help to
loosen the thinking. Some examples: ask your child to find connections and hidden
relationships among two or more unlike objects: ―In what way is gravity is like a feather?‖ Create your own plant and an environment in which it can live: "How does it
feel to be flat tire?" "How do you think a zero feels?" "Which is crisper, celery or
yellow?" "Which is the happiest room in our house? Why? ―
12. Responding with Wonderment and Awe
―The most beautiful experience in the world is the experience of the mysterious."
Recently, a Dutch psychologist tried to figure out what separated chess masters and chess
grand masters. He subjected groups of each to a battery of tests but found the only difference
was that Grand masters simply loved chess more. They had more passion and commitment to it.
Passion may be the key to creativity.
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Enrapture your child with awesome phenomena, intriguing situations and jaw-dropping experiences. Surround them with beautiful scenes, technological marvels and science fiction; let their imaginations take flight. Successful people find enjoyment, enthusiasm and fascination in their work and world. Allow your child free range to explore whatever they are intrigued with—as long as they are experiencing the passion.
Invite your children to share their interests—what electrifies and mystifies them. Create
a safe home environment, where feel free to share their fascination, their emotions and their exhilaration. Make it cool to be passionate about something! Share with your child your own fascinations. Allow them to see you enthralled and excited about a problem or discovery and compelled with your own work.
Some children and adults avoid problems. They may say, "These types of thinking games turn me off," "I was never good at these brain teasers," or "Go ask your father, he's the brain in this family."
You will want to see your children move not only from an "I CAN" attitude, but also towards an "I ENJOY" feeling. You will want them to request problems to solve and to make up problems own their own. Furthermore, you want them to solve problems with increasing independence—without your help or intervention. Such statements as, "Don't tell me the answer,
I can figure it out by myself," will indicate growing autonomy. We will see them voluntarily continuing to learn throughout a lifetime.
You may observe them communing with the world around them, reflecting on the
changing formations of a cloud; being charmed by the opening of a bud; sensing the logical simplicity of mathematical order. They will find beauty in a sunset, intrigue in the geometrics of a spider web and exhilaration in the iridescence of a hummingbird's wings.
Their curiosity will become stronger as the problems they encounter become more
complex. Their environment will attract their inquiry as their senses capture the rhythm, patterns, shapes, colors, and harmonies of the universe. They will display compassion toward other life forms as they are able to understand the need for protecting their environment; respecting the roles and values of other human beings; and perceiving the delicate worth, uniqueness, and relationships of everything and everyone they encounter. Wonderment, awesomeness, and passion: these are prerequisite success.
―Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.‖
Imitation and emulation are the most basic forms of learning, and therefore parents
realize the importance of their own display of these desirable dispositions in the presence of their children. Thus, in day-to-day family events when problems arise, your children must see you employing the same types of success behaviors.
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This list of Habits of Success and the conditions that promote them are not meant to be
complete. There are many other habits such as displaying a sense of humor and thinking
interdependently, and learning continuously.
As parents, we have great responsibility for instilling these dispositions in our children.
We must teach them to value intelligent, creative, and rational action. To do so, however, we
must provide the conditions that will nurture these habits. We must believe that ALL children
can continue to grow in their ability to behave more intelligently. We must have faith that all
humans can become increasingly more gifted than they are presently capable of demonstrating.
Finally, we must set an example by becoming models of these habits of success ourselves.
―We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.‖
1 This article is drawn from the four book series, Habits of Mind. By Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick, References published in 2000 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, VA
2 Thornton, J. (1999) Getting Inside Your Head. Honolulu Advertiser U.S.A. Weekend Magazine. January 1-3, 1999.
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