How to Make a Difference (Part 3): Disciplined Practice

Every athlete and musician knows that practice makes perfect (almost!). They spend time repeating their movements until they perform it without consciously thinking about the motion. Typists, bicyclists and knitters are more common examples of movements that become ingrained with practice. This is the goal with the discipline of changing behavior: repetition until the activity is ingrained and part of the routine, part of the fabric of a child’s life. Just like brushing your teeth, what starts as a chore that needs to be encouraged but eventually becomes a routine you can’t stand to skip.
I have discussed the need to make children aware of the need to change, the need to make a commitment to make that change, and now we will look at the discipline of repetition that is required to make a change stick.
Take a brief look behind the curtain of the brain and what do we see? First, there is a sequence of nerve impulses that occurs when we think, when we move, or when we act. Each thought or action follows a particular pathway that will be travelled by nerve impulses. The next thing to consider is that nerve impulses can either be inhibited (other parts of the brain try to block the impulses) or facilitated (parts of the brain helping impulses go down that pathway). When we make a memory or when we reach a certain number of hours of repetition of an activity we have caused Long Term Potentiation along that pathway. The nerve junctions (called synapses) have more messenger chemicals ready to cross the gap, the inhibitory inputs are limited, the facilitating inputs are maximized, and it becomes very easy to take that path.
A good analogy is making a new path through a forest. The first time you go it is full of undergrowth and branches. After days, months, and years of travelling the same path it is visible to all, hardpacked and easy to follow. This is our goal: to reach the point where the most desirable path to take is the healthiest one. This is true for exercise, nutrition, reading, character, or any other choice that we can make that result in a better, healthier life.
As a leader of youth, you are positioned to provide a structure which allows the child to maintain discipline with minimal investment of willpower. Regular exercise during physical education class or a walking club at recess makes children accountable to you. Almost all of them will participate in structured activities because it is what the group is doing. With this in mind, we arrive at the question of the day: how long or often must they participate to achieve a habit, a long term potentiation? There are other factors beyond time (like intensity—ever get sick after eating something and never eat it again?), but time is the variable to change here. If you can provide a program that covers a 6 to 8 week period, with regular participation during that time interval (3 times per week appears to be pretty ideal) then most people will have accomplished that goal.
The final phase of making a change is perseverance. This question, How do we keep at it over a lifetime, will be the topic of next week’s blog.

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