Your kid says she’s been working on her homework for hours, but what you’ve seen is nothing like focused attention—she’s doodled, eaten, texted, taken selfies, played with the dog and finally, groaned, stomped and cursed her way through a grueling half-hour of math. The saddest part of the spectacle is math is her best subject. On a good day, you open a book and steer clear of argument. On a bad day, you say something like, if you’d just focus, you’d be in honor’s classes like all your friends.
For many kids, sitting still just isn’t easy. Plowing through two hours of homework on a nightly basis feel nightmarish to her, and you get sucked into the bad dream. Increasing efficiency and focus in a student who is struggling may require some professional help. But whether you hire a coach, a subject area tutor, or get your child help at his public school, there are some basics when it comes to increasing focus and stamina in a child who struggles. It is best when a parent understands these approaches:
1) Increase awareness of time on and time off task
Use of a timer. Introduce timer-use initially for short bursts, like sprints. This allows students to see how much they can accomplish in just eight to ten minutes of focused work. Gradually, increase the time to twenty minutes and on from there. Most students can, with the help of a timer, stay focused for short bursts. When working for only ten minutes straight, take very short breaks of only a minute or two. Use the timed-session to build in useful break-periods. Often kids take breaks only once they have exhausted themselves sitting at their desks for long periods of time, without working effectively. Or, when on break, lose track of time completely. A break should never be more than about a quarter of the period worked and need not be introduced until at least twenty minutes is up. (During short, timed bursts, don’t break for cookies or a walk, simply review what has been accomplished, then set the timer again.) Most kids will be shocked by what they can accomplish in ten minutes of straight work. They will be empowered by this. Twenty minutes may be too challenging at first and you may not get the same “wow” reaction from the student if he struggles to get through the full twenty minutes.
2) Mentalizing: Introduce the idea of ‘pre-work’ and try some ‘pre-work’ exercises. Pre-work is any kind of mentalizing about the tasks ahead. Have students rate homework assignments as easy/medium/hard when they record tasks during class. This will help in prioritizing the work later. Older students can classify their homework tasks as “memorizing,” “research/gathering information,” “analyzing information,” “practicing a new skill,” “being creative.” Labeling the type of work necessary helps in prioritizing tasks and in strategizing.
Once a student knows how to classify her work, she can qualify her own reactions/attitudes toward different types of tasks. Memorization tasks are boring to some students, while other students find rote memorization fun, like playing a game, while they avoid analyzing and synthesizing tasks. Thinking about categories of work, rather than just what subject the work is for, helps students accurately estimate the time and energy a particular assignment may require.
Parents can gain insight into which types of tasks their kids find troublesome by looking at the child’s report card. We tend to think of kids who do poorly at foreign language as kids who lack language facility. But foreign language, at the lower levels, involves a great deal of rote memorization. Math and science at the 6-12th grade level, on the other hand, tends to involve more skills-acquisition than history and English, which present the greatest difficulty when receptive and expressive language are a challenge—keep in mind the distinction here, as many kids who have excellent comprehension (receptive) skills struggle with expressive language—producing her own thoughts in writing/answering questions orally when called on. If your child reads well and writes slowly, this means her expressive language skills are not on par with her receptive language skills and she needs support in this area.
Thinking about the types of work involved in each subject area helps students to think differently about their capabilities. Your daughter may say she is “bad at science,” when what is difficult about science for her is how much new information she must consistently absorb. The kids she thinks are “talented” in this area may simply spend more time on it. When students are invited to consider the difficulty level inherent in the tasks they have ahead of them, they are less likely to blame themselves for their struggle and more likely to put more effort into the work.
3) Change the self-talk: Finding something difficult is not the same as being bad at something. Increase awareness of types of struggle and challenge and the language kids use to describe their experience with work. As with physical exercise, not everyone begins at the same level. Discussing work challenges in task-specific/process-specfic ways helps move students away from black and white thinking. “I hate math” can be transformed into insightful thinking like“learning complicated, new skills makes me anxious.”
Struggling to complete an assignment is an aversive experience. Struggling while we say, this kind of thing is hard for me, maybe there are some ways I can get better at it so it won’t be so difficult is very different from struggling and saying to ourselves this is impossible, I hate this, I’m a terrible student. If you have any doubt, try it at the gym. Positive, reality-based self talk keeps the brain engaged and working.
4) Identify and celebrate task-specific strength areas, not just ‘favorite subjects.”
Kids tend to think of themselves as good or bad in certain academic subject areas. While this may be an observable fact, it is also true that many skill sets are important across the subject areas— research, creative thinking and meticulous, detail-oriented planning can be useful in any academic subject. Unfortunately, when kids decide “I’m not good at science, I’m good at English,” they do not fully engage the skills they have the most confidence in when working in the problem subject. So, the good English student reads the science text book poorly. If we say to a student, “Wow, you can really take good notes. You know a lot about reading for information,” we validate their ability to do well in any academic area. Students can compensate for some of their perceived weaknesses by drawing on their perceived academic strengths.
When working with students on the multifaceted skill of mentalizing, we always take things slow. Begin with the concrete. Stay with one area over many weeks. If a student has difficulty with a concept, back off and try a different approach or catch phrase. There are many ways to mentalize on focus, time-management and stamina and no correct terminology. The language should be accessible and meaningful to the student.