As many families head back to school, the transition from a leisurely summer without structure to hours seated in the classroom followed by homework can be rough. Even tasks like writing thank you cards or making sense of shoelaces require a protracted focus that may seem impossible to come by. We’ve rounded up 12 strategies that help both you and your kids stay in the moment, pay attention and have fun!
1. Kick it off with something silly or fun. Before you dive head-first into homework or another task requiring concentration, set a positive tone and get your kiddo in a buoyant mood by singing and dancing to a favorite song, reading a favorite book together, or exchanging your corniest knock-knock jokes. Continue that positive tone with encouragement while your child begins her work or project.
2. Be reasonable. Set aside an age-appropriate amount of time for your child to practice focusing on a specific task, remembering that personal interest in a topic or project is usually the most important motivator for paying attention. Working alone, a preschooler may spend two to three minutes on a task chosen by an adult—like getting dressed or picking up toys. By five years old, most children can ignore minor distractions. Alone, they will focus on a single interesting activity for 10 or 15 minutes and on an assigned task for four to six minutes if it’s easy and interesting. Take a deep breath and remember that that little cerebral cortex is still forming!
photo: WBEZ via Flickr
3. Pick your battles. Nothing—least of all your child’s subtraction spreadsheet—needs to be perfect. Give your child the gift of autonomy and let him figure it out as best he can so he can learn for himself what it means to direct effort and attention to a task. Resist asking him to rewrite those spelling words so that they’re 100% legible. Over time, improved focus is one of the many positive by-products of doing something yourself. Try to praise twice as much as you critique!
4. Break big tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Staring down a worksheet swimming with math problems can be overwhelming for any child. Make it more visually manageable by covering the bottom of the page with a blank sheet of paper and working on one row at a time. Try switching o other assignments between rows or problem sets if your child tends to get bogged down doing a bunch of the same kind of problem. Ask your child to help you come up with a pattern (for example, six math problems, two spelling words, six math problems, two spelling words, etc.). When working on long assignments with a future deadline, try completing a little bit each day to make it less overwhelming.
photo: Madhavi Kuram via Flickr
5. Try belly breathing. When we concentrate intently on the present instead of listening to our “mind chatter,” we send signals to our nervous system to relax. We shift focus away from our thoughts and emotions and turn our attention to the here and now—and, over time, those skills can be transferred off the yoga mat (or carpet) and into the classroom chair. This tutorial for belly breathing or “teddy bear breathing” is perfect for kids four and up.
6. Set aside homework time and space. We all do our best work in an environment tailored to our learning styles and individual needs. If your child works best around people, set up a homework nook in the dining room, kitchen, or living room. If he’s easily distracted by clutter and noise, create a quiet, secluded space. Make sure the desk and chair consider your child’s size: her feet shouldn’t dangle off the floor, and elbows should be able to rest on the table without hunching. Get rid of distractions (especially electronics), and keep a stockpile of supplies nearby.
7. Build in planned breaks and allow for movement. Time management is hard, especially if your kids are still learning how to tell time. Using a timer can help, especially the kind that helps your child visualize how much time is left, such as Time Timer. Work in small increments with breaks that encourage physical activity: some jumping jacks, a walk up the street (fresh air is a bonus!), or running up and down the stairs. Just be sure not to drag the break on for too long, reminding your child that she can go back outside after her assignment is complete.
8. Practice observing things in the moment. Little humans can be distracted by “internal stimuli,” like physical sensations or memories. It’s certainly valuable to feed their imagination, but we also need to teach children how to set aside distractions and develop the ability to concentrate. You can make this fun by playing “I Spy” or “Simon Says,” listening closely to the lyrics of a song together, or talking about how your body feels when you try out different yoga poses.
photo: Benny Lin via Flickr
9. Get organized. Your child’s workspace doesn’t need to worthy of a magazine spread, but you can certainly encourage her to put things away after finishing her assignments and keep the area in order. Develop a system with folders, binders, or plastic bins that works for your family—projects will be less likely to get lost in the shuffle, and the area will be a blank canvas the next time she sits down to work.
10. Reward time with time.One of the best incentives for kids? You. Especially with kids who crave parental attention and would almost always rather be with you than tracing the alphabet, reassure them that you can spend time together doing something special (reading a book, going for a walk, sipping chocolate milk together) after they finish the task at hand.
11. Model good focus. If possible, sit next to your child while you do your own “homework.” Whether it’s an assignment from the office, reading a book, or sorting through bills, your child sees you quietly focusing on a task and will be encouraged to follow your example. Make an effort to restrict your own use of computers and phones during this time, showing your child that it helps to minimize distractions.
12. Feed their brains. Whip up a mini-meal with healthy fats and carbohydrate fuel to level your kid’s blood sugar and help her stay alert. We love tasty combos like avocado toast, Greek yogurt with fruit, and crunchy nuts and seeds. Check out these five brain-boosting snacks!
— Katie Brown