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Helping Kids Focus at Homework Time

Part 2 of a series of articles on how to help children focus. This article addresses how to have smoother sailing at homework time.

Following up my last article that addressed the fundamentals parents should first consider when kids are having trouble focusing, this article addresses how to help your child focus when it’s time to get the homework done.

Set the mood

Establish a specific place in your home for homework. A desk, table or even the kitchen island cleared off of everything except for pencils, pens, ruler, and other supplies needed for homework. Make certain there is good lighting. Turn off all televisions and turn the ringer off on the phone. It’s important to try to avoid all visual and auditory distractions. If your kitchen is grand central station, then create a homework space in a quiet dining room or office.

Some children actually do better at homework time with some soothing music playing in the background. You can experiment and see if playing some soft classical music or relaxation soundtrack in the background helps or distracts your child.

Keep younger siblings (especially babies) out of the homework area during homework time. This might be an ideal time for the younger children to learn to have their own quiet time in their play space or bedroom separate from the homework area.

It’s homework time!

Choose a particular time of day for homework and be consistent in adhering to it in order to create routine. Consistent routine is critical not to be confused with rigidity. Don't be militant but at the same time be firm and consistent in a loving and encouraging way establishing this is when we do our homework. It's ideal to give kids at least 30 to 45 minutes after school to have a healthy snack. Avoid sugar and preservative-laden, packaged snacks. Think fresh, whole fruit and peanut butter, celery and ranch dressing, a turkey and cheese rollup. Give them time to play outside, ride a bike, climb a tree, and throw the baseball. Getting outdoors if possible is ideal as they've been indoors the majority of the day at school. If the weather is nasty, find some physical fun that is appropriate indoors. Once they have a chance to move their bodies and play, it’s time to hunker down and focus on homework.  

Establish no more than an hour and a half for homework time for children under the age of 12. I'm a believer that children under the age of 12 should not be doing homework for any longer than this. I prefer to see homework only take 30 minutes to an hour. Kids over 12 should spend no more than 2 hours doing homework.  

Build in two to three mini breaks if kids get agitated during homework time. Set the timer for a two minute break to run around the house, skip rope, dribble the basketball, sing a song, and play the drums. When the timer goes off, time to come back to the studies.

Be a Role Model

Use this time to do your own quiet work. You might organize a photo album, pay bills, write a letter, or write the grocery list. Try to stay away from computer activity during this time, as this may be a distraction to your child who’d rather be playing computer games. It's best if you stay off the phone during this time as well as that is an auditory distraction and reduces your availability in case your child needs your help.

How we learn and process information differs!

We all have our own way of learning and processing information. Some kids need to get up and move or pace as they are memorizing their capital cities. Some kids do better with soft music playing in the background to help them concentrate. Some need complete silence.  Some children are more visual and need some help finding or creating a map or a graph of the information they are learning. Check out The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias to learn more about learning styles theory.

Stay available and keep the lines open.

Practice your active listening skills with your child. Pay attention to how he or she is feeling during homework time. Empathically reflect what you observe they may be feeling especially if they seem frustrated or overwhelmed. Be willing to help. Remain encouraging and curb your own frustration as much as possible. 

When homework time leads to meltdowns...

It may be time to ask for some help from the pros. First, check in with your child’s teachers. Let the teachers know your son or daughter is really struggling at homework time and see if they have suggestions.  Also, you might touch base with the school counselor. You may want to have your child go through some testing to rule out learning disability or processing deficiencies. Private tutoring may be very helpful or it may cause more anxiety and stress. Consulting with a licensed children’s therapist can also be a very good avenue. A skilled play therapist for kids under the age of 11 can do wonders in helping alleviate anxiety and develop new skills kids can use to help themselves find calm and focus.

Don’t rush to the ADHD assumption

While it is very possible your child may have ADHD, I am a strong believer in attending to the fundamentals first (see my previous article on nutrition, sleep, downtime and routine). I also encourage educators and parents to do some in-depth study of learning styles theory and once you identify how your child processes information there are so many tricks and ways to help your child focus without rushing to diagnosis of ADHD.

With some extra work on your end, you can definitely help your child establish strong study habits that will follow them throughout their education. Set them up with routine, healthy foods, plenty of quality sleep and a predictable routine including regular homework time and you will help your child to have experiences that bolster his or her self-esteem and lead to success in school.

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