9 Keys to Getting Your Kids to Practice on Their Own: How to Create a Habit of Self-Initiated Practice

What if we could set up a practice system that ran on auto-pilot? What if your kids took responsibility for their own practice, doing it on their own each day?

Can you imagine the beautiful sounds of music filling the house each day, delighting your ears not only with bits of Beethoven and morsels of Mozart they're learning to play, but also delighting your heart with knowing that your kid's knowledge and skills and even emotions are growing?

The good habit of practice shouldn't be a fight. Not if you know how to do it right!

The best benefits of learning music don't actually come from the half-hour class once or twice a week. Rather, musicians gain from the literal transformation that happens in the brain, mostly during practice, practice, practice.

In this article, I'll show you step-by-step how to get your kids to practice, automatically, with only the possibility of a few seconds of management each day.

 Because when students get into a habit of daily practice, what they are really practicing is self-discipline, similar to what you'd expect from a martial arts class.

And if it's a habit of self-initiated daily practice, what they are really really practicing now is personal responsibility

And when you start putting things like self-discipline together with personal responsibility, we're not talking about just music practice anymore. We're talking about character development. 

I think the opportunity to cultivate "self-discipline, personal responsibility, and character development" are rarely spoken - but often hoped for - by the families I teach. It's almost like it's a secret hope... 

Well, it's time to let the secret out. As parents, we have the right, the responsibility, and the resources to not only hope for these things for our kids, but to speak them into existence.

Let's get started.

Step 1: Make it a Right of Passage

At the time I'm writing this, it's near the beginning of a new school year, but whatever time of year you're reading this, I'd like to encourage you to look at your kids - and their routines - with fresh eyes. 

Since last year, your kids are a year older. Whatever age that is, use it as an opportunity to pull out the most powerful tools you as a parent have in your kit of inspirational resources: Your love, your pride in them, and your belief in them.

That is, tell your kids how much you love them, how proud you are of their specific achievements - whether it's using the potty by themselves, or doing better on their Calculus tests - and that now you believe they’re ready to start doing one of the most important things they could ever learn to do to improve their own education: Self-initiated practice.

See how this is really an exercise in initiative?

Music is as good as any topic to practice initiative.

I personally think initiative is among the golden character attributes. Who doesn’t love to work with someone with a lot of initiative? Employers love to hire and promote workers with initiative. Entrepreneurs must have loads of initiative. Inventors? Initiative. Do parents love having kids help out around the house who have lots of initiative? You bet. Do teachers love classrooms full of students with initiative? Absolutely! Is the world a better place with a human race full of initiative? I think so. 

So let’s learn how to encourage, nurture, and support initiative in our kids.

 Step 2: Choose a Specific, Daily, Cutoff Deadline

It starts with setting a timer. It just so happens that my son and I have a timer set on my phone for 8:30pm each day he’s with me. (He’s at his mom’s house several nights each week, so we had to find solutions for self-initiated practice here AND there. So, multi-home families, this works for you, too.)

8:30pm is also close to the end of our day, but not so late that if he hasn’t remembered to practice yet, he’s not too tired to still do it. It also maximizes his opportunity to remember on his own. If he hasn’t practiced by then, that’s when he gets his reminder from me.

If steps 1-2 were all you did, you'd be off to a good start... but you'd have to manage it. One of the keys I learned from an excellent management podcast called Manager Tools is "to make reporting part of the task." So, when good managers give an assignment, they don't have to ask if it's done because if it hasn't been reported, it isn't done. Reporting is part of every assignment. Let's "check out" step 3 for an easy, kid-friendly reporting system.

Step 3: Check Off Each Day of Practice on a Daily Chart

We made a chart on a regular sheet of printer paper and stuck it on the fridge. Here it is!

It’s a 7-day-per-week chart, not 5, because starting a new habit is easier for everyone if it happens every day. Here is a very basic practice chart you can print off right now if you like. (Or just get a paper and make your own!)

I don't know what to call it, but if practice doesn't happen on the weekends because we need to "take a break," it puts "playing music" in some category of tedium or work, when instead it's supposed to be something fun that both the student and the listeners get to enjoy. (If that's not happening, there's some opportunity to explore common things that go wrong in piano practice in another blog post.)

I think when parents have to decide how many days of the week practice should happen, what they're really deciding is something more like "how many days per week do I want to manage/argue about/enforce practice?"

Let me help decide BOTH of those things for you: Number of days of practice per week = 7. Number of days of managing/arguing/enforcing = 0. Keep reading.

We also put a magnet ON the current day of the week so it’s clear to see if today’s box has or hasn’t been checked. (You can see today it’s on “Thursday”). At first, I was the one who would put the magnet on the current day of the week, but now he does that, too. 

You can’t see it from the picture, but the chart is also on the fridge at HIS eye-level, not mine, so it’s easy for HIM to see and write on. It’s a somewhat obvious detail to not overlook. Pencils are also always on the counter just across from the fridge. My first idea was to use something more bold and colorful, but that required an extra step and another new habit, so to reduce potential friction, we just use a regular pencil. I think it probably works better than anything else because it’s easy and common.

Step 4: Give Specific Recognition for Self-Initiated Practice vs. Reminded Practice

We use a simple “Check mark” to describe practice that happened, whether self-initiated or by reminder.

If you look at my chart, you’ll notice the first several days all needed reminding… so I could see we needed to add something. That’s when I realized that we needed to differentiate the mode of recognition.

Recognition is another one of those huge human behavior things. Doesn't it feel awful when we aspire to achieve something, work extra hard, achieve our goal, and then get little or no recognition?

So, in true teacher style, I decided a “check” meant that practice happened, but self-initiated practice would be marked with a special “check +.”

And that was all it took to get his practice from starting with a reminder from me at 8:30pm, to starting on his own at about 8:20pm… A good start!

When I proposed the "Check-Plus" system to him, and reminded him of the real goal being to practice being a self-initiating type of person, I found the ensuing conversations that day so fascinating. He was watching the clock all day. (We homeschool, so there were clock-checks probably 10-12 times, multiple times an hour some hours.)

I found it fascinating to hear his internal monologue become voiced. He’d ask questions about technicalities, almost like a lawyer. Like “If I start my practice at 8:30, but you didn’t have to remind me, do I still get the check plus?” Or “If the timer reminds me, but you don’t, does that still count as a check plus?” It was clear that he was interested in earning that “check plus.”

It also really helped me see how aware he WAS of the time of day.

It was also clear he was happy to procrastinate...

Reflecting back on it, I’m not so surprised because this is, after all, just the beginning of learning self-initiative. This is exactly the sort of procrastination tendency that was innate all along, but before, was invisible. Now, it’s been made visible.

As Bill Gates says about measuring the engineer’s productivity at Microsoft, “What gets measured, gets done.” Now we had a way to measure not just practice, but self-initiated practice, and it was getting done.

Step 5: Set Short-term Goals and Mid-Term Goals

When setting out, my son and I discussed the short-term goal of a 7-day practice streak. Specifically, the goal was to fill up a whole row across the chart. So instead of thinking of “7 days,” we’re visualizing “a whole row of check marks.”

To me, this seemed more concrete and less abstract than “7 days” or “a whole week.” Numbers like “7” and concepts like “weeks” just aren’t tangible anchors in my mind, and I doubted they would be in his, either. What is a "week?" Is it Sunday to Sunday, or Monday to Friday? You see the potential problems. I just wanted check boxes filling up a row. Visual. Concrete.

For our mid-term goal, I wanted to see that whole chart filled up. The best way to get there seemed to be to get each day of each week filled up.

I also kind of wanted to tie the charts to the months, so we’d have one new chart each month. That’s why the boxes are 5 rows down, not 4. (A total of 35 days, not 28.) I didn’t want to have to make a new chart any more often than necessary, and longer seems better for habit formation anyway. Bigger goals, bigger sense of achievement. That sort of thing.

Step 6: Long-Term Goals and Goal-Stacking with Practice Streaks

So hopefully now you can see how to get your first few days and weeks set up for success. We set a daily deadline. We have a timer. We have a chart. We're using checks and check-pluses. And we're filling up week after week with successes.

But let’s project into the future a little bit: month after month, chart after chart, won’t it lose some of its charm? Maybe lose some of its potency? Once we know we can do it, and once we've done it, what’s the point in continuing to do it?

That’s where long-term goals come in, and goal-stacking with practice streaks.

I’ve taught for a LOT of families over the years. I’ve seen a LOT of practice charts, and the effects those practice systems had on students. I’m not talking about my own method, but students from other methods learning other instruments or siblings working with other teachers. 

And by far, what I've seen is that the most successful students were ones with clear, measurable, LOOOONG-term goals. Specifically, students who set the goal of a 1,000 day practice streak. 

Now, it doesn’t START with a 1,000 day practice streak, but rather, a 10 day streak that builds up to a 20 or 25 day streak, then 30, 40, 50, 75, 100, 150, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, 900, and 1000 day streak. 

If you take the time to read each of those numbers (I had to to type them…), it gives a strange sense of some kind of rare achievement. It’s a rare achievement to practice something for 1,000 days in a row!

Lots of programs use this sort of progress tracking as a central motivator. Think of sobriety tokens from Alcoholics Anonymous, wedding anniversaries, diet programs, "100 books in 100 days" summer reading programs, runners training for a marathon, musicians tracking our top tempo with the metronome, the list goes on...

The point is, people like tracking data, and tracking numbers like this can be very powerful. The bigger the number gets, the greater the fear of loss becomes to miss a day and break the streak. That's when the tides of habit formation have really turned, from the initial resistance of getting something going, to a new kind of resistance to letting it stop. It's Newtonian mechanics: An object in motion stays in motion. It's good old-fashioned Momentum.

I, personally, never did this, and most of you probably haven’t either. So this is an example of an opportunity we have to give to our kids that we ourselves didn’t have. But to find it worthwhile, we have to first try to imagine the sense of personal identity attached to achieving something like that. It’s huge!

1,000 days is enough time for the wood of a tree to grow around a chain-link fence. Imagine what it does to your child’s brain, self-esteem, and self-concept. It’s a build-up of emotional and intellectual armor that really can’t be taken away.

And if it’s 1,000 days of self-initiated practice, I imagine it’s also a buildup of self-confidence that makes a young person believe they can achieve whatever they are willing to dedicate themselves to. And they’ll know what it means when they set out to do it.

That’s what I love about the arts. The arts are one of the safest and most practical contexts to stretch ourselves from the inside out - even for very young kids. Done well, the arts offer the opportunity for identity formation.

Step 7: Reframe the Blame

But what if we do miss some days? If this chart becomes a record of failures, your child will want to quit more than develop their character. The chart needs to feel safe, like a trophy on the fridge!

It’s human nature to feel the pain of loss more than the joy of success. And people of all ages, not just kids, don't like to do things where they see themselves as a failure.

That’s why at my house, my phone reminder goes off at 8:30pm and if practice hasn't already happened, he gets a reminder to practice from me. In that way, practice definitely happens each day. And if it doesn’t happen and it breaks the practice streak, we can reframe the blame as MY fault - not his. 

Step 8: Collaborate

This is, after all, a collaborative effort. I see myself as working WITH him to HELP him become a better, more independent, more self-capable person who is learning to achieve HIS goals so he can live the life of HIS dreams. We openly discuss this. I suggest you do, too.

Step 9: Special Circumstances

Keeping Practice Consistent While Switching Between Multiple Households:

When my son is at his mom’s house, he needs a keyboard to practice on. So we got an instrument for him to use while he’s there, and we decided to put a separate practice chart on the fridge at his mom’s house, too. That keeps him in the same habit of marking his work, but we then compile the info from that chart onto our chart at my house. 

What About Vacations? What do you do if you’re on vacation and can’t (or don’t want to) bring the instrument with you?

In order to maintain the habit, and keep up the skills, as well as maintain the integrity of the practice streak, here’s what you do: bring along the sheet music, and spend time imagining playing it. Move your fingers in the same way as if you were playing the instrument, and spend a fair amount of time doing it.

This kind of mental rehearsal does much of the same work as playing the actual instrument. In fact, many top performers, from olympic athletes to musicians to actors, etc., describe mental rehearsal as a regular part of their practice. (Not to say that the goal is becoming a top-performer. That’s a whole other topic.)

The point is, if you’re traveling or otherwise unable to maintain the practice streak in the traditional way, you can get a little creative about what counts as practice.

Your Turn!

These are just some ideas, and the more ideas, the better, so please share what you're trying or what's working for you!

Playful wishes to you and your family,
Mr. Zach

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