Friday, March 8, 2013

At Kid's Birthday Party - The Truth About Learning New Behaviors

I recently went to a child’s fifth birthday party. It was an elaborate event with a backyard scaled-down carnival for preschoolers. The kids could throw darts at balloons, shoot a kid-sized basketball into a kid-sized hoop, and cast rings onto glass bottles—along with half a dozen other games. Cute kids scooted from booth to booth, trying to win tickets with their skills.

I was recruited to operate the game where they attempted to throw golf balls into buckets of different sizes. I noticed that most of them used an overhand throwing technique that sent the balls rocketing in a straight line towards the buckets, causing them to ricochet off the rim.

I gave the kids extra tries and coached them to loft the ball using an underhand toss to produce a gentle arc, which would increase the chance that the ball would fall into a bucket. They received this encouragement with a smile and tried again; but nearly always they used the same overhand technique as before, which made it all but impossible to land the ball in a bucket. Further coaching produced the same result. It was as if they had one way of throwing a ball and couldn't make themselves do it any other way.

The difficulty these kids had while trying a new way of throwing reminded me of some basic facts about how behavior patterns are formed in the brain.

1. Knowing isn't the same as doing. A child can learn about a better way, agree to do it and get excited about doing it, but unless he tries it repeatedly until he wires his brain for the habit, it won't be easy for him to do it.

2. Most of what kids do, they do from HABIT. They don't consciously think about how to do something, then decide to do it that way.

3. Habits and skills are – by definition - WIRED IN THE BRAIN. Brain cells are stimulated by action to grow together until they connect in a circuit. After many repetitions, the circuits finally form. Then the behavior pattern becomes easy and automatic, meaning there's no need to think about what to do. To change an ingrained way of behaving, a kid has to rewire her brain.

4. Wiring the brain takes a lot of effort and time. It takes a lot of REPETITION – practice – to stimulate the brain cells involved in an activity to wire together. Initial attempts are discouraging. Even after a child knows what to do, it’s awkward at first. He might forget to try the new skill, and the old habit kicks in. At this point, most kids get frustrated and give up. To rewire his brain for a new behavior pattern, he needs to persist past this early discouragement. With repeated attempts, the new pattern will begin to establish itself as a circuit and the success rate will improve. If he doesn't give up, the brain cells will connect and the new way will become a comfortable, automatic habit.

So this how little kids learn new skills, habits, and behavior patterns.

By the way, this is how adolescents do it, too.

And all adults. Even old people, like me.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2013. Building Personal Strength .

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