Teaching Children to Stick to their Goals ‘til they Stick: Creating Healthy Habits

According to the CDC, from 1999-2000 through 2017-2018 obesity rates increased from 30.5% to 42.4%. This means 13.7 million of our children and adolescents are currently obese. With the obesity rate increasing throughout the U.S, you might stop and wonder why? One theory is that current programs and initiatives are not successful long-term because most focus only on weight loss instead of promoting small habit changes that prevent further weight gain. According to psychology, a habit is where context prompts automatic action. In other words, a habit is any regularly repeated behavior that is learned and requires little or no thought. A habit—which can be part of any activity, ranging from eating and sleeping to thinking and reacting — is developed through reinforcement and repetition.

If habits are automatic, then why do we struggle so much to make small changes and teach our children to develop them? The short answer is it’s a process. A habit is formed in 3 phases: initiation, where a new behavior is selected, learning, where it is repeated, and finally stability, at which time the habit is fully formed.

Here are some tips for creating and maintaining a new healthy habit:

  1. Decide on one health goal you would like to teach your child.
  2. Identify a simple action that occurs daily that will move your child towards that goal.
  3. Plan when and where your child will complete the action each day. Be specific and consistent. (For example, each day after dinner the family will go for a 10-minute walk or every morning, there will be a serving of fruit included with breakfast).
  4. Ensure the action is completed every time your child encounters that scenario.
  5. Remember it is a process and will take time. Generally, in 10 weeks your child should start to do the action automatically.
  6. Congratulations – your child has a new healthy habit!

In conclusion, healthy habits are created and maintained by what your child does daily. So, breaking the complex goal of improving overall health weight into small, manageable changes is a recipe for success and a higher quality of life. As they say, motivation is what gets you started, but habits are what keep you going!

Written by Angelika Keene, Community Development Extension Agent

Edited by Andrea Lazzari, 4-H Youth Development Extension Agent




Gardner B., et.al. 2012. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice 62(605) 664-666. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/





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Posted: March 24, 2021

Category: 4-H & Youth, Health & Nutrition

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