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Academic Habits and a Student’s Developing Will

Any genuine growth towards virtue comes from within, as grace builds on our nature we must respond with our free will. Our boys are made this way. An education that cares about the formation of virtue in students should encourage elements of habits, personal judgment, and common sense. Offering the kind of guidance that helps a boy develop virtue, the strength of his will, and good habits is a tall order for any school community but it becomes attainable only when a school is properly recognized as an extension of the family. The family is the starting point for growth in virtue and for a school to be effective there must be a genuine partnership with parents and this partnership must include regular conversations. You may have heard the phrase “parents are the primary educators of their sons”. This does not mean your job is to regulate your son’s academic life.   What this means is that parents need to be the most important leaders of their sons on the path of growth in virtue. What is often misunderstood in modern parenting is how we best lead our children. By example? Yes. With affection and patience? Yes. With constant direction to guarantee success? No. Through encouragement? Yes. Through worry and ordering? No. With optimism, trust, and high hopes? Yes.

At the end of this article, I am going to offer a list of effective academic habits. Please do not make the mistake of thinking “this is the list I am going to make my son accomplish”.  If you find yourself always telling your son what to do and how to do it, you must remember one simple fact: there is no substitute for a boy developing the strength of his own will. For him to succeed at anything (e.g. school work or a life of virtue) he simply must care more than you do about his success. We have to give our sons the opportunity to care more than we do and this is often the hardest fact about parenting. There is another will involved and it is a free will by design. It takes genuine patience and optimism to encourage and not always demand, to see what is going well instead of only what needs doing. As parents, we must remember that our children need our love and affection even more than they need constant ordering. They need to hear and see our confidence in them and how we look at them with optimism, and not only a critical eye for improvement. What is more, most parents I speak to realize their sons are growing up so fast and that we do not have the rest of our lives to give this to our children. As parents, we need to look just as closely at the habits we ourselves have developed as we relate to our children.

I often encounter parents whose devotion and love for their children drives them to be in a constant search of the good that they can give their children. This makes sense. The happiest families are families that are allowing virtues to develop within their children through grace, not only through constant demands. We cannot force goodness, virtue, or habits. We can only demonstrate virtue by example and allowing our boys to see the utility of good habits. Freedom is the only eventual environment for growth in virtue. It allows an individual to make his own choices, and encouragement from a parent or faculty member when a good choice is made can cement a behavior and eventually lead to a habit that is freely chosen. Freedom at a boys’ school is not a license to do anything at all, it is an opportunity to regularly choose what is good and natural; in doing so, a boy can become fully alive, develop judgment from experience, and discover his personal abilities and confidence more readily. Ultimately, the reason we as a school value freedom so much is because it recognizes a truth about human nature and something that has been written into our hearts. As a school, we are simply realistic and choose to make the proper use of freedom a goal as opposed to merely endorsing some empty illusion of control. We know with great confidence that human beings grow and develop only when they themselves choose to do so. We all are capable of this growth when we choose to develop good intellectual, spiritual, and relational habits that must be freely internalized at each step of our lives.

Just how are virtues and habits developed in boys in particular? Boys grow most from an experience and in relation to some challenge. Boys do not have their habits shaped by what is simply told to them in the abstract. Boys need experiences followed by either encouragement and naturally good (or even bad) results. Boys need to actively choose habits and to do this they need the maturity to recognize how strong academic habits make their academic lives more complete as students. Precisely for this reason, creating an environment of incremental self-starting that develops the strength of a boy’s will is the best stage upon which growth in virtue and habits can take place.
There are many ways to measure the progress a boy is making in his growth in academic virtue as it relates to his work as a student. Intellectual virtues come into play as a direct result of, first, a willful choice to study well and, second, the right approach to studying something worth learning. So, how is your son doing? Measure his success by looking at his habits and his will. Do not expect to answer all of the questions below affirmatively. Remember, he is a work in progress! Optimism, patience, affection, and encouragement will always help the most!

Some Signs of Successful Academic Habits:

  1. Does your son have a distraction free, well-lit desk for study with a clock nearby to help him stay on task? Does he sit in a swinging chair?
  2. Does your son allow the following to distract him during his homework: television, music, phone, computer, a family pet, etc? What has been done to help avoid these distractions?
  3. Does he do his homework in bed, a place where he will be most inattentive? When he reads a book, a boy should be “on top” of the book at his desk.
  4. Has your son designated a specific block of time for homework every day, e.g. 4:30-6:30pm?
  5. Does your son try to finish homework before dinner and before he is tired at the end of the day, whenever this is possible?
  6. Does your son take the shortest and easiest path through his work, instead of being more thorough about preparing for the next school day’s assignments and tests?
  7. Does he keep an assignment notebook with timing expectations of how long each homework task should take in order to do a task well?
  8. Does your son make lists of all upcoming assignments and tests due for the week?
  9. Does your son do any additional reading outside of just his required homework?
  10. Has your son been creating flashcards for memorization, especially of new vocabulary terms?
  11. Is your son accustomed to roughly outlining his ideas for essays before actually writing?
  12. Does your son wait until the last minute to do a long term assignment or study for a test?
  13. How does your son do with a life of order? Is he making his bed? Does he keep his notes and notebooks organized and easy to locate?
  14. Does your son actively take notes in class, knowing he can learn a topic first from the teacher, or does he have to learn it first on his own?
  15. Does your son ever meet with a teacher outside of class for help?
  16. Is your son inclined to always finish a task well once it is started?

About the Author

Andrew Reed

Director of Leaders Initiative

Andrew Reed began his career at The Heights School in 1998 and assumed his current role as Head of the Middle School in 2000.

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