For many families, homework time is a struggle. And in an era of digital distraction, it is only getting tougher. Here are some hacks to help your kids concentrate. Zero judgement if you use them on yourself, too.
Set Up "Work Hour" for the Whole Family
During finals week at uni, there was a reason why we dragged ourselves out of our rooms to sit in crowded study halls at 1am. The presence of fellow sufferers was somehow energising, and helped us persevere through that last chapter of Economics. Create a similar atmosphere at home by establishing a dedicated work hour, where everyone in the family sits together and quietly works.
If possible, have it be at the same time every weekday evening (you can set an alarm). While the kids do their homework, do your own work of the non-digital variety — sorting through mail, signing papers, writing thank you notes, journalling, drafting that novel in your head or making your to-do list for the next day.
Give Your Kids "Complaining Minutes"
You know this: If your kids are prone to whining about homework, telling them to stop whining often leads to more whining. Maybe what they need is a release. When they're acting frustrated, announce that they have one "complaining minute." And then start the timer. During that minute, they can vent their exasperation to the world.
They can fall to the ground, pump their fists and exclaim: "THIS IS SO HARD, WHY DOES HOMEWORK EXIST, EVERYTHING IS AWFUL, WHY WHY WHY, AHHHHHHHH!" And that's it. When the time is up, they must go back to work — no more moaning allowed. For longer stretches of study time, you might give your kid two or three "complaining minute" tickets that they can use as needed.
Change Up the Environment
While it's nice to have a dedicated space for homework, your kids may absorb more material if they move around the house while studying. Explains study coach Ana Mascara: "Let's say you study for maths in the kitchen, and then you study for maths in the library, and then you study for maths on the bus, the brain is going to be like, 'Huh. She's using these maths formulas in a lot of different environments. Maybe these maths formulas are crucial to Ana's survival. Let us solidify these maths formulas because hey, she's using them everywhere, so they must be important, right?'"
I know that when I write, being able to meander around the house helps me gain clarity — I often find new perspectives in new environments. If your child is feeling fidgety or stuck, encourage her to try a new location, such as her bean bag chair or the front porch or a rug on the floor.
Let Your Kid Be Batman
As in literally let your child wear a superhero cape. A study found that while performing a repetitive task, four- and six-year-olds who pretended to be a familiar character such as Batman persevered significantly longer than those who remained themselves.
The reason has to do with something called self-distancing. When kids embody a persona that is separate from their own, it helps them "transcend the urgencies of a situation and take on a more distanced perspective," the report says. While Petey may want to crumble under the challenge of three-digit addition, Batman will surely not.
Try the Pencil Game
Here's a good one for kids who are little too old for the Batman thing. In the book The Gift of Failure, author Jessica Lahey discusses the Pencil Game, a refocusing technique that was taught to her by child psychologist William Hudenko.
Give the child a set of two or three pencils and teach him to switch pencils when he feels his brain getting distracted. Now, it's not really about which pencil he uses, but switching pencils gives his brain the prompt, "Oh, I'm distracted, I need to get focused again," and switching pencils becomes the signal for his brain to refocus.
Eventually, he won't need the pencils, because his brain will eventually learn to recognise distraction and he will begin to automatically redirect his focus, but in the beginning, the pencils offer a way to become conscious of subtle signals of distraction.
Put Homework Time Immediately After Vigorous Play Time
Study after study links exercise with academic improvement. Letting your kid run around vigorously for just 30 minutes can pump extra blood to their brains, delivering the oxygen and nutrients it needs to perform at peak efficiency.
(P.S. This is why we cannot cut recess.) Schedule a play break between the last school bell and homework time. Once all those wiggles are out, your kid will be much more ready to tackle the books.